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3 Lessons We Learned From Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents

✎ Written by: Dubravka Rebic ✓ Fact-checked by: Kaija Sander, Ph.D.

On the outside, emotionally immature parents might look and act seemingly normal – they care for their child's physical health, provide meals, education, and a safe home. But, at the same time, they also tend to be uncomfortable with closeness and can fail to give their children the deep emotional connection they require.

For example, they lack empathy when their child is distressed or they act out in emotionally volatile ways if their child doesn't intuit their feelings. Their behavior reflects the signs of emotional immaturity, which is an inability to recognize, express, and control emotions while being able to empathize and respond to the emotions of others.

As a result of not having their emotional needs met, children of emotionally immature parents might grow up feeling angry, frustrated, betrayed, and lonely.

In Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, Or Self-Involved Parents, psychologist Lindsay C. Gibson writes about the ways that emotionally immature parents impact the lives of their children when they become adults. The book also offers practical advice, exercises, and guidelines for interacting with emotionally immature parents in a way that avoids potentially painful and damaging recreations of the past.

The three lessons that we learned from the book are:

  1. The first step toward healing is to see your parents objectively

  2. Identifying your coping style allows you to uncover the role you play

  3. There are two effective ways to handle emotionally immature parents: Detached observation and Maturity awareness.

1. The first step toward healing is to see your parents objectively

According to Gibson, most signs of emotional immaturity are beyond a person's conscious control and most emotionally immature parents have no awareness of how they've affected their children. That's why the goal of identifying your parent's traits and labeling their behavior is not to blame them, but to see them objectively, learn what to expect from them, and be less likely to get caught off guard by their limitations as a result.

The book underlines four main types of emotionally immature parents:

  1. Emotional parents: They have difficulty tolerating stress and emotional arousal, so they often lose their emotional balance and behavioral control in situations mature adults can handle. For example, they would treat small upsets like the end of the world. They are also prone to fluctuating moods and reactivity, which can make them unreliable and intimidating.

  2. Driven parents: They are compulsively goal-oriented and can't stop trying to perfect everything, including their children. Their emotional immaturity shows up in the way they make assumptions about other people, expecting everyone to want and value the same things they do. Rather than accepting their children's unique interests, they selectively praise and push what they want to see.

  3. Passive parents: They avoid dealing with anything upsetting and readily take a backseat to a dominant partner, even allowing abuse and neglect to occur by looking the other way. They cope by minimizing problems and acquiescing. Compared to the other types, these parents seem more emotionally available and can show some empathy for their children as long as the child fills the parent's need for an admiring,