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40 Signs Of Emotionally Unavailable Parents And How To Heal

| Causes | Signs in Parents | Signs in Young Children | Effects on Older and Adult Children | How to Heal |

What Is An Emotionally Unavailable Parent?

Emotionally unavailable parents are physically present but emotionally detached. They keep an emotional distance from their children, interacting with them only when necessary, and they remain uninvolved in their lives. These emotionally absent parents do not provide emotional support and guidance that a child needs to develop emotional regulation, healthy relationships, and coping mechanisms. Emotional neglect is a form of child abuse​1​.

Parenting is an emotionally involved experience. There are more joys, affections, anger, and worries involved in raising children than in any other endeavor. 

Parents’ emotions affect the quality of care they provide.

Positive emotions promote patient, sensitive care, and early attachment bonding​2​. Negative emotions promote insensitive, abusive, and coercive parenting​3​

There is a strong correlation between parental warmth and favorable development outcomes for children and between parental hostility and negative developmental outcomes.

Emotionally unavailable parents are disengaged. They are unresponsive and indifferent to most parenting tasks necessary for healthy child development​4​.

mother looks at laptop while daughter writes

Causes

When interacting with their children, emotionally unavailable parents display a pattern of physiological under-arousal​5​.

These detached parents cannot give their children the attention and emotional support they need.

Emotional unavailability in parents could be caused by the following factors.

  • Mental health disorders, such as depression and substance abuse
  • Distracted by work or commitments
  • Preoccupied with their own issues, such as their own childhood psychological trauma
  • Emotionally immature parents lack the ability to support their children emotionally
  • Distressed by marriage discord or other life events​6​
  • Lack of empathy or socialization-related emotions​7​
  • Emotional instability caused by poor emotional regulating skills

18 Signs of emotionally unavailable parents

Here are some of the common signs of emotionally cold parents​8​.

  1. Emotionally cold parents speak to their children with a flat tone of voice
  2. Avoid eye contact with their children
  3. Not interested in their children’s activities
  4. Avoid spending time with their children
  5. Unresponsive to their children in times of distress
  6. Always seem busy or preoccupied with something other than their children
  7. Rarely hug or smile at their children
  8. No expression of love in words or actions
  9. Passively reject their children’s display of affection
  10. Uninvolved in children’s lives
  11. Dismiss or ignore their children when they display emotions
  12. Do not praise or offer positive feedback
  13. No words of encouragement
  14. Depressed parents
  15. Have addiction-based issues
  16. Have a childhood history of emotional or physical abuse
  17. Uncomfortable with emotional connection
  18. Critical of children’s mistakes

22 Common Signs in young children

  1. Develop insecure-anxious attachment during childhood
  2. Attachment disorder (in extreme cases)
  3. Passive and withdrawn behavior patterns
  4. Childhood development delay and failure to thrive
  5. More anger, whining, negative emotions
  6. Feelings of worthlessness, humiliation, shame, and self-blame
  7. Struggle in social interaction
  8. Speech delay
  9. Avoidance of mother and other children
  10. Behavioral issues and symptoms of behavioral disorders
  11. Difficulties in relationships with peers
  12. Disruptive and impulsive behavior
  13. Aggressive and defiant behavior
  14. Rocking and self-soothing motions in severe cases
  15. Cognitive deficits
  16. Low self-esteem and sense of self-worth
  17. Have trouble focusing
  18. Suffer from dissociative symptoms
  19. Less emotional competence
  20. Difficulty interpreting facial expressions
  21. Depressive symptoms
  22. Anxiety disorder symptoms

Effects of Emotionally Unavailable Parents On Older Children

Future Relationships

When there is an emotion deficit in parents, children develop a deep fear of abandonment. 

Children learn that their parents will respond, but only if they work at it. They make the parent pay attention using attention-seeking behaviors such as being overly demanding or babyish.

Others may care for their parents so they will be wanted by them. Boundary issues result when the duties of parents are blurred with those of children​9​.

It is likely that children who show this type of behavior and emotional neediness will end up in lopsided relationships or abusive relationships in adulthood.

Some children are also unable to trust or relate to others as a result of emotional neglect. It may be hard for adult children to form deep relationships​10​

Self-esteem

Children raised by emotionally distant parents may have difficult times developing a sense of self-worth. 

They tend to have low self-esteem​11​.

Emotion dysregulation

Parents who are emotionally unavailable to their children are unable to provide optimal stimulation and regulate their children’s arousal. 

As a result, children lack emotional regulation skills to cope with challenges of life​12​.

Suicidal attempts

Emotionally unavailable parenting can have significant, long-term effects.

Children growing up with an emotionally unavailable parental figure are more susceptible to suicide during adolescence​13​.

Mental Health

Children of emotionally unavailable parents may struggle with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorder, and eating disorder later in life​14​.

How To Heal

Having emotionally detached parents have a profound impact on their children’s development.

Emotion emotional neglect is particularly detrimental in infancy​1​.

As a child’s development progresses, neglect has an increasingly negative impact on their abilities and deficiencies.

Here are some suggestions to start the healing process.

Recognition

Healing begins when you recognize the harm that has been done to you. Issues were rotted in your parents’ own emotional needs, not in your inadequancy.

A major obstacle to healing is the belief that you are responsible for your parent’s emotional inaccessibility-that if you behaved differently, they would have been able to love you more. However, this is not true. You are not responsible for their emotional availability or the lack of. 

Acceptance

Accept that only they themselves can change their behavior. Your parent may never get better or change, but what matters most is that you do.

Build a Support Network

The importance of seeking out and building a network of emotional support is particularly important for people who grew up without proper emotional support.

A good place to start is by seeking out friends who show understanding. 

A support group of people with similar experiences can help you feel understood, validated, and less isolated. Sharing your story allows you to hear what helped others who have been there before.

Plan and Do Positive Activities

Engage in positive activities can increase positive emotions and help you feel more normal. 

Positive activities may include doing fun things, exercising, meditating, and helping others.

Professional help

Seek mental health care whenever possible. In every state, there are public resources available to help those who cannot afford therapy.

An experienced therapist or psychologist can help you make sense of the past. They can also help you develop new ways of looking at yourself and relating to others so you can build meaningful relationships.

References

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    Hildyard KL, Wolfe DA. Child neglect: developmental issues and outcomes☆. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online June 2002:679-695. doi:10.1016/s0145-2134(02)00341-1
  2. 2.
    Belsky J. The Determinants of Parenting: A Process Model. Child Development. Published online February 1984:83. doi:10.2307/1129836
  3. 3.
    Lahey BB, Conger RD, Atkeson BM, Treiber FA. Parenting behavior and emotional status of physically abusive mothers. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Published online 1984:1062-1071. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.52.6.1062
  4. 4.
    Bousha DM, Twentyman CT. Mother–child interactional style in abuse, neglect, and control groups: Naturalistic observations in the home. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Published online February 1984:106-114. doi:10.1037/0021-843x.93.1.106
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    Gottman JM, Katz LF. Effects of marital discord on young children’s peer interaction and health. Developmental Psychology. Published online May 1989:373-381. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.25.3.373
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    Dix T. The affective organization of parenting: Adaptive and maladaptative processes. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 1991:3-25. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.110.1.3
  7. 7.
    Feshbach ND. Empathy: The formative years– Implications for clinical practice. Empathy reconsidered: New directions in psychotherapy. Published online 1997:33-59. doi:10.1037/10226-001
  8. 8.
    Egeland B, Sroufe LA, Erickson M. The developmental consequence of different patterns of maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online January 1983:459-469. doi:10.1016/0145-2134(83)90053-4
  9. 9.
    BYNG-HALL J. Creating a Secure Family Base: Some Implications of Attachment Theory for Family Therapy. Family Process. Published online March 1995:45-58. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.1995.00045.x
  10. 10.
    Hattori Y. Social Withdrawal in Japanese Youth. Journal of Trauma Practice. Published online September 12, 2006:181-201. doi:10.1300/j189v04n03_01
  11. 11.
    Berant E, Mikulincer M, Shaver PR. Mothers’ Attachment Style, Their Mental Health, and Their Children’s Emotional Vulnerabilities: A 7-Year Study of Children With Congenital Heart Disease. Journal of Personality. Published online December 7, 2007:31-66. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2007.00479.x
  12. 12.
    Field T. The Effects of Mother’s Physical and Emotional Unavailability on Emotion Regulation. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Published online 1994:208. doi:10.2307/1166147
  13. 13.
    de Jong ML. Attachment, individuation, and risk of suicide in late adolescence. J Youth Adolescence. Published online June 1992:357-373. doi:10.1007/bf01537023
  14. 14.
    Cole-Detke H, Kobak R. Attachment processes in eating disorder and depression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Published online 1996:282-290. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.64.2.282

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more

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