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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

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, attentive companion.

  4. ​​Rejecting parents: They usually don't want to spend time with their children and seem happiest when left alone. They struggle with emotional intimacy, their tolerance for other people's needs is practically nil, and their interactions consist of issuing commands, blowing up, or isolating themselves from family life.

It's important to note that the author states how each type exists along a continuum from mild to severe. Additionally, while most parents tend to fall into one category, many may be prone to behaviors that fit a different type when under certain kinds of stress.

2. By identifying your coping style, you might uncover the role you play


As claimed by Gibson, adult children with emotionally immature parents cope with emotional deprivation either by internalizing their problems or externalizing them. In other words, the first group believes it's up to them to change things, whereas the latter expects others to do it for them.


These coping mechanisms arise from parents inadequately responding to the child's true self. So, in order to connect with their parents, children develop a role-self to replace the spontaneous expression of their true self.


Gibson states that the process of assuming a role is unconscious and that it develops gradually, through trial and error, as children notice the reactions of their parents. As adults, these once-children tend to keep playing their roles in hopes that others will pay attention to them in the way they wished their parents had. This can be extremely tiring because it takes a huge effort to be something you are not, and it can negatively impact your overall wellbeing.


Here are some of the characteristics of the roles that adult children of emotionally immature parents play:

  • Internalizers are self-reflective and often try to solve problems from the inside out and learn from their mistakes. They believe they can make things better by trying harder and instinctively take responsibility for solving problems independently. Their primary sources of anxiety are feeling guilty when they displease others and the fear of being exposed as imposters. They believe that the price of making a connection is to put other people first and treat them as more important, so they often think they can keep relationships by being the giver.

  • Externalizers are reactive and do things impulsively to blow off anxiety quickly. For example, they would take action before they think things through. They are often not self-reflective and tend to assign blame to other people and circumstances rather than their own actions. They're firmly attached to the notion that things need to change in the outside world in order for them to be happy, believing that if only other people gave them what they want, their problems would be solved. Their main source of anxiety is that they will be cut off from the external sources their security depends upon, such as support from other people or financial success.


The author notes that which role is adopted is probably more a matter of personality and constitution than choice. As people move through life, they may go through periods of being more internalizing or externalizing, but their basic nature is likely to lean more one way than the other. In order to take the first move toward stepping away from these roles, Gibson suggests the following exercise:


  1. Fold a piece of paper lengthwise down the middle, so you can only see one half of the page at a time, then write a heading on each half: “My True Self” and “My Role-Self”.

  2. Orient the paper so you only see the half with the heading “My True Self”. Then think back to yourself as a child, before the age of eight, and answer the following questions:

  • What was I interested in?

  • Who were my favorite people, and what did I like about them?

  • If I had free time, what did I like to do?

  • How did I like to play? What was my idea of a perfect day?

  • What really raised my energies?

3. Flip the paper over to the half with the heading “My Role-Self”. Contemplate who you’ve had to become in order to feel admired and loved, and answer the following questions:

  • Am I involved in things that I’m not interested in?

  • What do I make myself do because you think it means I’m a good person?

  • Are there people I’m involved with who deplete my energy and make me feel drained?

  • How do I hope others see me?

  • Which of my personality traits do I try to cover up?

  • What am I glad nobody knows about me?

4. Put the piece of paper away for at least a day. Then open it up, smooth it down the middle, and compare the two sides.


The motive behind this exercise is to help you become more conscious of your true self. Once you decide to stop playing the role and live more from your true self, you might be able to pay attention to your genuine needs and desires.

3. There are two effective ways to handle emotionally immature parents

Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents offers two key approaches that can help you free yourself from getting caught up in your parent's emotional immaturity:

1. Detached observation: When interacting with emotionally immature parents, you'll feel more centered if you operate from a calm perspective rather than emotional reactivity. You can achieve this by:

  • Practicing grounding exercises such as counting your breaths slowly or consciously relaxing one muscle at a time, starting with something simple, like your toes, and moving your way up through your body.

  • Pretending you're conducting an anthropological field study and asking yourself what words you would use to describe your parents' facial expressions, what is their body language communicating, or does their voice sound calm or tense.

  • Silently narrating your own emotional reactions because trying to find the exact words to describe something helps redirect your thoughts and avoid emotional reactivity.

2. Maturity awareness approach: This approach is about taking the emotional maturity of others into account and relating to them without getting upset. In order to achieve this, try:

  • Expressing and then letting go: Try to say what you feel or want calmly and clearly without needing your parent to hear you or change. This way, you'll express your thoughts and have a sense of control without forcing them to empathize or understand.

  • Focusing on the outcome, not the relationship: Try to reach a goal instead of going for empathy or understanding. For example, your clear goal could be something like, "I'll tell my parents I'm not coming home for Christmas," or "I'll ask my father to speak nicely to my children." This is achievable because you can ask others to listen, even though you can't make them understand.

  • Managing, not engaging: Repeatedly redirect the conversation where you want it to go by gently easing their attempts to change the topic. At the same time, try to manage your emotions by observing and internally narrating your feelings rather than becoming reactive.


Healing from emotionally immature parents

After reading Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, you might find relief from recognizing that you're not alone and that you're understood. You also might be able to spot signs of emotional immaturity and understand why you've often felt lonely.


That's a powerful first step toward healing.


However, while the skills from this book can be a valuable tool to sort through conflicting emotions, seeking help from a mental health professional can help you process your feelings of loss, hurt, and anger on a deeper level and help you bring understanding, patience, and compassion when it comes to interactions with your parents.


So don't hesitate to reach out to a professional and take another important step on your healing journey. Just because no one can do your inner work for you doesn't mean you can, should, or need to do it alone.

Myndlift provides professional supervised brain training that can be completed from the comfort of your home. Connect with us to launch your journey for better brain health and wellbeing from here.

 

About the author:

Dubravka Rebic puts a lot of time and energy into researching and writing in order to help create awareness and positive change in the mental health space. From poring over scientific studies to reading entire books in order to write a single content piece, she puts in the hard work to ensure her content is of the highest quality and provides maximum value.


About the reviewer:

Kaija Sander is a cognitive neuroscientist and scientific consultant for Myndlift. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science with a specialization in Neuroscience and Mental Health from Imperial College London and a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. Her doctoral research focused on brain connectivity relating to second language learning success. She is passionate about the broader applications of science to have a positive impact on people’s lives.

 

References:



Vaillant GE. Adaptive mental mechanisms. Their role in a positive psychology. Am Psychol. 2000 Jan;55(1):89-98. doi: 10.1037//0003-066x.55.1.89. PMID: 11392869.



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