When you’re young, your parents are meant to be your rock. They’re the ones who you rely on to be supportive and unconditionally loving.
However, if the parents are emotionally unavailable, it can leave their children feeling unsupported, insecure, and alone. If this is your experience, it’s important to know that you’re not alone, and there is help available.
According to experts, here are possible signs of emotionally unavailable parents, as well as effective ways to cope:
When something positive happens in your life, they minimize, ignore, or make it about them
At least one or more of your friends have lived this. Believe them and don’t push them to be kind to family because it’s family.
The sad, unfortunate truth is that, sometimes, family are the ones that wound you the deepest, for the longest, and take no blame, shame, or responsibility for it or change.
Why should someone be exposed to this toxicity just because they share genetics or legal paperwork? In my opinion, you don’t. Emotionally unavailable parents can come in many sizes, shapes, and flavors. Humans aren’t born wanting to live a life void of feelings.
Quite the contrary, babies need more than food and a place to sleep. To thrive, little humans need gentle and kind touch, a responsive parent who comes when they cry, who says “I love you” without conditions, and someone emotionally available and mature.
The trauma they endured was too much for them; they shut off most or all emotions
When a parent is emotionally unavailable, there are reasons why.
Maybe their parents weren’t emotionally available, or the trauma they endured (every human experiences trauma to some degree, and how each person responds and copes is different) was too much for them, and they didn’t have someone to guide them through or talk about it.
I am not giving these parents an out. I’m merely saying there is a reason they are who they are. That being said, we all have the choice to either work through the trauma or avoid it.
One way people avoid dealing with the emotional turmoil trauma leaves in its wake is by shutting off most or all emotions. Another is by trying to make others feel as miserable as they do.
I’d like to offer an example of how this plays out in real life:
You come home from church, and as your mom is parking the car, she runs over your cat. The cat didn’t die; it dragged itself behind one of the shelves filled with ‘garage stuff’ before you could get out of the car to look for it.
Your mom refused to move the stuff off the shelves so you could get to him and see if he was ok. You ‘knew better’ from past experiences to push her to do it, so you went to your room and cried. (Crying in front of anyone in the family means you would either be made fun of or told to go to your room.)
A day later, she knocks on your door and says, “Hey, your cat is sitting at the backdoor looking for you.” You race out to see it and immediately notice how narrow its hips are where the car ran over it. You asked your mom to take it to the vet. She refuses, “It’s just an animal. You can get another cat if this one doesn’t make it.”
The cat did make it by some miracle, and for the rest of your life, as you hear your mother retell the story, she always laughs when she recreates the sound it made when she ran over him.
Below are some signs that your parent(s) might be emotionally unavailable:
- They are unable to process with you any emotion they perceive as negative (or uncomfortable.)
- When they try to express their feelings to you, they may do so in a baby voice or atypical way of speaking (maybe they always say “I love you” just like a line in their favorite movie.)
- They show little to no interest in your life, activities, friends, or things you like and enjoy. They may be able to bond with you on a shared interest, but they won’t make an attempt to try to understand something you like if they don’t care.
- They will blame you for feeling bad, not apologize for what they said or try to rephrase it more kindly.
- They blame the victim.
- “I can’t help it if you’re mad because I told the truth.”
- “You’re fat, and those clothes don’t fit. What do you want me to do about it? Pretend you’re skinny? Tell you you look good when I think you don’t? Not my problem; get over yourself.”
- When you’re upset, they ignore or refuse to comfort you. You may have been sent to your room.
- They tell you, “Be quiet, or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
- When something positive happens in your life, they minimize, ignore, or make it about them.
- “My daughter is a concert pianist because I worked my bones off to pay for all those lessons and took her to all the competitions.”
- Downplaying everything. They tell you to:
- “Stop overreacting.”
- “Get up. You’re fine.”
- “Don’t be a baby.”
- “It’s not that bad.”
- They can’t read your feelings or refuse to acknowledge them and respond in an appropriate manner.
- These are the parents who walk into your dorm room and see you crying on the bed, completely ignore your tears, and ask you if you’d like to go grab dinner as they happen to be in town.
- Publicly humiliate you in front of others.
- Like saying, “Are you sure you need one more serving?” in front of the entire table.
- They don’t meet the basic needs of their children.
- They let their child know through spoken and unspoken ways:
- They don’t enjoy spending time with them.
- Yell at them, or say rude or mean things to them.
- “You’re such a momma’s boy, always running to her when you can’t take it. Baby.”
What to do when you have emotionally unavailable parents
- Go to individual therapy and work on bettering your emotional and overall mental health.
- Go to family therapy.
- If they will, and you want to.
- Some parents act this way because they honestly don’t know any better. However, once you point it out and behaviors don’t change, they’ve told you what they think about their actions.
- Read books about this topic.
- Do some Youtube searches and find channels that talk about this potentially from others who have come out the other side and are living happily with the full spectrum of emotions.
- Learn how to set and enforce boundaries. Again:
- Build your own ‘family.’
- Include a variety of people containing qualities like being emotionally available, respecting boundaries, you enjoy being around, inspire you to be a better version of yourself.
- Write a letter to your parents explaining specific events and times where they hurt you or didn’t show up for you.
- Leave the same amount of space empty in-between events.
- Sleep on it for a few days, then go back to the list and write the ‘parental response’ that you would have loved to hear and reparent your inner child.
- Repair the emotional tear.
- Figure out prosocial and positive ways to self-soothe.
- Take a painting class.
- Pick up that old musical instrument and ’emote’ at whatever level you can.
- Take deep breaths at scheduled times during the day.
- Sleep is vital to being able to cope with anything mental.
- Math problems, following recipes, controlling one’s temper—you gotta do whatever you can to get good sleep because that is essentially your fuel tank to mentally being able to deal with the day-to-day life’s ups and downs.
- Eat a decent diet.
- I’m not talking about a ‘strict this or that.’ I’m saying, eat what you want but make sure it’s a little healthy from time to time.
- Exercise. It’s going to help you feel better, period.
- You don’t have to train for a marathon.
- I’m talking a 20-min walk.
- Maybe a few sit-ups and arm stuff as ‘work breaks’ instead of scrolling social media?
- Just try. Try a little harder today than you did yesterday. Baby steps, and before you know it, you’re farther from your starting line than you believed ever possible.
- Too many research studies have proven time and time again the benefit of a 20-min cardio every day for everything in the body. As Nike says, “Just do it.”
- Put in earphones, play your favorite tunes, and dance.
- Do inner child work.
- Repair the tears still open from your parents and heal them yourself with exactly what you need.
- I can speak from personal and professional experience that this type of self-work is profoundly beneficial and therapeutic.
- You can go about this in all sorts of ways, like meditation retreats, traditional therapy, creative arts therapy, reading on the topic, etc.
Certified Trauma and Relationship Coach for Women
They cannot be empathetic for your grief, sadness, loneliness, pain, and anger
It’s quite possible that you’ve had one or more emotionally unavailable parents if you’ve found yourself in one relationship after another with a partner or friend who doesn’t:
- respect you,
- give you enough attention,
- value your needs and desires,
- seem to really get you, or
- seem to be capable of deep conversations or emotional connection.
- who likes to be the center of attention
- who are dominating or even emotionally or physically abusive.
But the good news is, you can break the cycle and start mattering and feeling held in your relationships, both with others and with yourself.
First, we’ll look at some common signs of emotionally unavailable parents and how that may have affected you, and then we’ll discuss important elements required for change.
Signs of emotionally unavailable parents:
- The parents are preoccupied (probably narcissistic) and don’t know how to really attune to your needs and feelings.
- As a way to stay disconnected, they may discount your feelings for fear of intimacy with you.
- They’re probably uncomfortable with their own emotional needs, so they don’t know how to hold space for yours.
- They may become scared and angry when children/others express emotions instead of tending to them.
- They’re not able to be empathetic for your grief, your sadness, your loneliness, your pain, your anger, etc.
How you may have responded and what you may experience as the child of these parents:
- feeling missed emotionally
- not gotten/understood
- Then you may shut down or think there’s something wrong with you.
- You may have decided that:
- you don’t matter,
- you’re not valued, or
- you can’t do anything right because that’s what was conveyed to you.
- This may lead to anxiety, panic, depression, and disease in later life.
To stay in a relationship with your parents, you may put their needs first and become their caretakers, putting your own needs and desires aside and living your life for them.
You may decide you need to grow up quickly to get your independence from them
- get jobs early,
- leave home early,
- become sexually active early, etc.
You may experience overt anger about what happened but even deeper grief for how you missed experiencing true connection and care.
You may end up in unsatisfying relationships where the cycle repeats:
- not feeling heard,
- not understood,
- not feeling missed,
- not valued,
- disconnected and alone, and
- like there’s something wrong with you.
How to begin healing from this early conditioning
Having emotionally unavailable parents is a type of developmental and complex trauma.
- Get professional support to address the loneliness and unintegrated anger, and grief
One key aspect of the healing journey is addressing the unintegrated anger and grief that may be lurking in your system. If not addressed, they are likely to fester and make you sick.
- Make space for your true feelings and authentic needs and expressions
Emotions and needs are essential to human beings, so making space for your authentic emotions and needs is crucial.
- Seek and create relationships where you’re actually feeling met emotionally
As you work through and process them, you’ll feel more confident in your own value and be able to cultivate healthier relationships with others where your needs and feelings are honored, valued, and held.
It’s also really important that you unwind old beliefs and shame about there being something wrong with you so you can feel confident and worthy of love and support. This is an identity shift, and it happens from the inside out.
I think getting professional support is the most effective approach for this. Otherwise, you’re likely to continue with unhealthy relationship patterns.
The safety and learning under the guidance and support of a mental health professional, especially someone trained in a somatic approach to developmental and complex trauma, can help you shift on a much deeper level than you are likely from other means.
Ileana Arganda-Stevens, LMFT
Program Manager, Thrive Therapy & Counseling
They’re unable to take any responsibility for or apologize for their behavior
One of the most common signs of this is the parent’s inability to take any responsibility for or apologize for their behavior.
Set time limits and practice consistent self-care
When this is the case, it can be helpful to think about how much time and energy you want to put into this relationship and set up some clear boundaries with your parent, especially if they expect you to be there for them emotionally but can’t reciprocate.
Set time limits for how long and how often you can speak with them and practice consistent self-care.
They don’t see your need for empathy and validation; they are dismissive
Another sign of emotionally unavailable parents is that they can be quite dismissive.
They might say things like:
- “Just think of it this way,” or
- “You’ll get over it,” or
- “It’s not that bad.”
You can certainly try to tell your parent that their comments aren’t helpful and that what you really need is their empathy and validation. But if they don’t have it within them to give, it might be time to find alternative sources of support.
They can become withdrawn or defensive
The realization that we have an emotionally unavailable parent can happen quite slowly.
Some may experience a sense of closeness with their parent, but in more of a friendly way, where the parent seems to enjoy their company and may even confide in their child.
But if the child needs their parent to be more emotionally supportive or if the parent has been hurtful toward the child, their friendly attitude may disappear, and they can become withdrawn or defensive.
Their dismissiveness and lack of accountability cause you to blame and shame yourself
Realizing you have an emotionally unavailable parent can also be a slow process because their dismissiveness and lack of accountability cause you to blame and shame yourself. You may even believe there’s something wrong with you.
A perpetual feeling of not being good enough (which can be part of depression, anxiety, or relationship problems) often brings adult children of emotionally unavailable parents in for therapy.
Related: How to Feel Good Enough
Regardless of your parent’s response, your emotional needs are important, and you are deserving of care and compassion — especially from yourself.
Reach out to a therapist with experience treating childhood emotional neglect
If this is a struggle for you (which is very common in people with emotionally unavailable parents), don’t hesitate to reach out to a therapist with experience treating CEN (childhood emotional neglect) and someone who can help you with boundaries and self-compassion.
Child-Parent Psychotherapy | Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Thriveworks in Wilmington
Emotional availability is, at its heart, feeling felt. Over the last 20 years, it has been particularly more researched and discussed.
Researchers have developed a more concrete understanding that emotional availability involves two individuals exchanging varying forms of communication, be it verbal or non-verbal, to express and understand more than just the thoughts shared in the conversation (Saunders et al., 2015).
Emotional availability is the ability to empathetically relate to:
- how someone is feeling,
- why they are feeling what they are feeling, and
- in what ways this emotion drive an individual’s actions as they move about the world.
A key part of emotional availability is empathy. Empathy is the ability to take on another individual’s perspective to better understand and value their experience as evidence of their discussion.
Placing value on one another’s experience is then permitted to influence how someone thinks, feels, and acts as a result of the interaction (Riess, 2017).
A better understanding of how researchers and therapists evaluate both emotional availability and empathy help us better understand what parent-caregiver child relationships look like when there are challenges with the lack thereof.
The consequence of emotional unavailability has impacts on children as they grow up and eventually become parents themselves.
Through the research and intervention of mental health within the construct of families and relationships, we can take a better look at the social psychology of the phenomenon of feeling lonely or misunderstood as children.
Your parent may struggle to provide emotional availability if:
They struggle to accept or react to your expression of emotions
When a parent is presented with their child’s emotion, be it a more positive or negative feeling, it is helpful for the child to receive some sort of reaction to the form of expression.
If a child is excited about being accepted into their college of choice, the parent responding with a warm smile, saying “Congratulations!” and giving a hug provides emotional availability. It is essentially saying to the child, “I am with you in this emotion!”
On the flip side, in this same scenario, these may communicate that parents were unable to provide emotional availability in celebrating alongside their child:
- They don’t respond,
- They give the child with a still, flat-faced expression,
- They say, “Nice” in a low, flat voice tone, and then exit the room.
The idea here is that there is a mismatch between the child’s bid for attention and the parent’s attempt to respond to the initiation of conversation or interaction. One individual is excited, and the other appears depressed.
This may communicate to the child that their excitement is an overreaction, that:
- it isn’t something to celebrate, or
- the parent doesn’t value what is important to the child.
A parent’s ability to meet their kid where they are at with their emotions first and foremost demonstrates strong emotional availability. This may also play out in other scenarios.
Take a situation where a parent notices their four-year-old crying over their broken toy from being played with too roughly.
The child is clearly distressed, and although an all-out meltdown may not seem to make sense, it is developmentally appropriate for the child who is still figuring out how to understand and manage their feelings.
Coming in and labeling the child’s experience as ‘sad’ and ‘frustrating’ helps the child feel like the parent ‘gets it.’ From there, the parent can help soothe the child and teach the child about better ways to play with the toy.
Jumping into correcting errors and dismissing the child’s frustration demonstrates a lack of emotional availability.
While we can’t always be emotionally available all the time, it is important to note that a parent’s goal is to be emotionally available more often than not. The goal here isn’t perfection. Good enough is good enough!
When a parent regularly and consistently shuts down, avoids, dismisses, or shames a child for expressing their emotions, it typically represents the parent’s inability to handle the overwhelming actions that the child is putting out.
As a result, the parent retreats or intimidates the child into a more comfortable zone where the parent can cope, yet the child feels unseen and alone.
How to cope:
Let them know what you need from them to prime the conversation
When you are seeking to express yourself with your parent or caregiver, first let them know what you need from them. This helps set the expectation with your caregiver and primes the conversation for success.
You call your parent to share with them some big news about your engagement.
Before sharing the news, try saying something along the lines such as:
“I have some big news to share with you, and I am very excited and happy to have you be a part of it! I need you to be excited for me too. I’m sure you’ll have plenty of questions or even some concerns, but for this conversation today, I want to just celebrate and have you be happy for me. Is that ok with you?”
If your parent says, “yes,” proceed! But if they have questions, anger, or frustration with your expectation, address that first and reset the expectation.
If you notice that your brief help is insufficient and the conversation becomes an argument, feel free to end the conversation with a new expectation.
You can say something along the lines of:
“I know you’re frustrated and that you have questions. I get that. What I want to share with you is important to me, and I don’t want your anger to get in the way of me being happy about it. We can try this conversation again tomorrow.”
This helps the parent navigate their own challenges so that their difficulties do not interrupt your need to express yourself. It also does not put you in the position of sacrificing your own needs for your parent’s self-expression.
Once you have your parent’s acceptance of your expectation and you can proceed in the conversation that is a safe space for you, you can then happily proceed to say, “I am engaged!”
If they respond outside of your expectation, restate the expectation. If they cannot respect this, end the conversation and try again another time.
Related: How to Express Your Emotions
They regularly have difficulty in providing empathy or understanding boundaries
When infants, toddlers, and young children grow up with caregivers who struggle to provide empathy, they learn to be self-sufficient as a survival technique.
When crying does not bring a mother to the crib to help soothe, what is the point in crying? The infant will learn to avoid social cues and, later throughout young childhood, not prioritize the social skills that grow empathy into emotional availability.
Related: Why are Social Skills Important?
These connections are not merely observations in the therapy room. Such findings about the impacts of neglect on development are supported by research performed at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, as printed in their article in 2012.
The idea is that when a caregiver struggles in providing care for basic needs, it can lead to long-lasting impacts that can change the neural development of children well into their teen and adult years.
Science has proven time and time again that love, connection, warmth, and security are just as basic of a need as food itself (Bowlby, 1969).
Through scientific studies of families, we have discovered that children who do not receive empathy are more likely to develop an anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment style.
With these developments, we better understand how our relationships with our caregivers create the social templates of how we interact with others in the future (Ainsworth et al., 1967).
These varying attachment styles demonstrate behaviors of emotional unavailability as evidenced by children, and later adults exhibit difficulty in managing the fight or flight response that impacts their ability to successfully navigate conflict with themselves and others.
We can draw strong connections that children who received parenting lacking emotional availability have an increased chance of having challenges providing emotional availability to their own children.
When children are not exposed to something to learn and practice and, as a consequence, experienced failure, judgment, and rejection throughout childhood and adulthood. They are faced with significant barriers in learning how to understand their own wants and needs, let alone the needs of their own children better.
It takes all the effort of the individual to sustain themselves, and as a result, it can be challenging to extend emotional availability as it is not a practiced skill.
Emotional unavailability is rarely a character flaw. It reflects an individual who requires additional patience and support in both experiencing and providing a basic need.
How to cope:
Don’t rely on your parent’s relationship for that area of socio-emotional need
It may be best to not rely on your relationship with your parent for that area of socio-emotional need if:
- A parent consistently struggles in being empathetic with you, or
- You notice your parent frequently asserts their opinion or perspective on you
It is better to identify another relationship that could provide this level of support if you notice your parent doesn’t:
- empathize, or
- provide time and space for you to discuss your frustrations with work.
Creating boundaries with a parent about what discussions are good to discuss and what topics are off the table is a helpful way of avoiding disappointment, hurt, confusion, or anger.
It can be helpful to include the parent in this discussion of what boundaries they would like to have respected as well. The same could be said for topics your parent may wish to discuss with you if they are struggling with emotional availability.
It is emotionally appropriate to respect your boundaries if your parent wishes to discuss politics with you and you share that you’ve had a hard day and do not wish to discuss the topic.
Parents who struggle with emotional availability may struggle with seeing your perspective and overlook the boundaries you set for them to meet their own needs.
So, if you notice them pushing past your boundary and discussing politics regardless of your boundary, it is best to:
- Interrupt them,
- Restate the boundary, and
- The rationale for your boundary.
If it is still not respected, it is best to explain why you are ending the discussion. A parent’s ability to provide emotional availability is a two-way street.
Emotional availability entails:
- The parents are with you in your emotions when you want them to be,
- Respecting your space and boundaries when you request it and whether it is appropriate or reasonable.
They have a history of acting on their own wants and needs before yours
A parent’s role to their child is to:
- Delight with their child as they explore their world and learn new things, and
- Welcome their child back when the child is scared, hurt, upset, or uncertain.
By doing this, the parent prioritizes the child’s wants and needs as it is age-appropriate for them to be the helper and the child to be the one who is supported.
When the child takes the role of the helper at a young age, it can lead to challenges later in the late teen and early adult years.
How to cope:
Children who grow up being the caretaker, problem solver, and crying shoulder of a parent frequently develop strong emotional intelligence as they are more likely to be exposed to intense emotion and unrealistic difficulties that are not age-appropriate for young kids.
As a result, they mature more quickly in some areas of development, while other areas become stunted.
Children of parents who struggle with emotional availability frequently develop a warped perspective on what is genuinely their fault or struggle in conflict resolution.
Have a friend or partner who can be a good sounding board
If this rings true to you, finding a friend and partner who is direct and honest is helpful. It may be even more beneficial to find a therapist.
Having a friend or partner who can be a good sounding board or a therapist to help you think out loud is a great way to get these thoughts running through your head out in a space where you can take a look at what fallacies are in your self-narrative.
Doing some good self-work helps you maintain objectivity and take the blame out of yourself
Doing some good self-work helps you maintain objectivity as you make sense of past experiences that cause you hurt, make you feel anxious or angry, or even impact your overall self-esteem.
It helps you take the blame out of yourself and see yourself differently so you can rebuild the way you think and feel.
In turn, you can then navigate your present relationship with your parent, who lacks emotional availability.
It helps you:
- Avoid taking the blame in the present for fights, conflicts, or challenges, and
- See ways to redirect your parent’s frustration so that you are not absorbing blame or intense feelings to help them feel better or have their needs met while you sacrifice your own.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M., Waters, E., and Wall, S.. (1978). Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1, Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain, 2012.
Riess H. The Science of Empathy. J Patient Exp. 2017 Jun;4(2):74-77. doi: 10.1177/2374373517699267. Epub 2017 May 9. PMID: 28725865; PMCID: PMC5513638.
Saunders, Hannah & Kraus, Allison & Barone, Lavinia & Biringen, Zeynep. (2015). Emotional Availability: Theory, Research, and Intervention. Frontiers in Psychology. 6. 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01069.
Emotionally unavailable parents can hurt the trajectory of a child’s life. This often isn’t even purposeful. It’s just that the parents don’t have the time or emotional capacity to be there for their kids.
Maybe their own parents weren’t there for them, and they don’t know how to be good parents. They could be dealing with their own issues and trauma.
This may result in not being able to be there for anyone else, including their kids.
Signs of emotionally unavailable parents may include:
Consuming a lot of alcohol (or drugs)
Using substances to check out of reality does not solve anything. It is a way to escape from life’s problems and feel better at the moment. Some people use this as relaxation or recreational fun. But it always points to deeper issues.
If there are things parents aren’t willing to face themselves, how can they help their own kids face life’s problems?
Buying their kids’ happiness and favor
Many parents do this instead of spending quality time with their kids or asking them about their day. They buy expensive toys or gadgets, thinking this is enough.
It is enough to stave off the parents’ guilt. But not enough for the kids’ emotional and personal development. Kids need to feel loved more than anything.
Too much time in daycare or with a babysitter
The reason for this is almost always work. This is legitimate. But at least one parent should spend quality time with the kids daily.
Never going to kids’ activities
Everyone has the same 24 hours a day; we have to choose where we spend it. If a parent never shows up to extracurricular activities like sports, recitals, or concerts their kid participates in, it’s a huge letdown.
The kid may not say anything, but they notice that their friends’ parents showed up, but theirs didn’t.
If the parents don’t enroll them in extracurricular activities, this is even worse. It means they wouldn’t take time out of their schedule.
This leads to less car time together to drive their kids to the activities. It also lessens the chance the kids will develop natural talents they may possess.
Not talking about real issues with their kids
If kids don’t feel comfortable telling their parents about personal life problems, this isn’t a good sign. It probably means their parents never ask or encourage them to open up. The kids may even think their parents don’t care.
These kids usually turn to other people for support.
Best case scenario, they’ll ask:
- a nice teacher or
- older relative.
- They can get involved with the wrong group of friends, or
- Join a gang.
What to do as a concerned adult:
Encourage the parents to spend more quality time with their kids
If you see this, you can try to encourage the parents to spend more quality time with their kids. Just know they may have excuses.
Some reasons may include:
- being a single parent, or
- dealing with a super toxic partner.
If you’re an adult and able to be there for the kids, consider being a mentor for them.
But the parent may not even realize they are neglecting their kids.
If this is the case, give them examples in a non-threatening way if they seem interested. Point out any of the above things they may be engaging in, and say what they can do differently instead.
The parent may want to improve but not know how. If they want more targeted suggestions, improving themselves is the first step. Hiring a therapist or parenting or life coach may be a great option for them.
As soon as they heal themselves, they’ll be able to be more present for their own kids.
Kevin Kidd, LPC, MA
Therapist, Open Arms Wellness
We, as therapists, see signs of emotionally unavailable parents in the parents/caregivers themselves, as well as in their children.
They act in a solution-driven mindset
Parents/caregivers I work with often act in a solution-driven mindset. They view their role in therapy as bringing their child to therapy to have them fixed rather than learning to support and love their child throughout their development.
They appear uneasy showing affection; they may struggle to balance criticism with praise
Emotionally available parents understand the benefit of not spending their time in their child’s session completely focused on what’s going wrong, even when a child has been having frequent behavior problems.
Children of emotionally unavailable parents will often look for validation from their therapist that they’re not receiving from a parent/caregiver.
They’ll also ask questions related to norms of parent-child relationships as they attempt to reconcile the actions of their parent or caregiver with what they observe of emotionally available parents to their friends, peers, relatives, etc.
Working with emotionally unavailable parents/caregivers can be difficult. This mindset was likely passed down to them and engrained by their parent/caregiver and likely the only way they know how to operate.
Help them find positive behaviors their child has had
It’s beneficial to help them find positive behaviors their child has had, even during the most challenging weeks. Let them know that actions like this are important for their child’s mental health.
Reassure that they can hold their child accountable while not being totally negative. Most importantly, praise emotional availability when you see it without going overboard.
The parent/caregiver is going outside of their comfort zone, so you want to recognize it without making things more uncomfortable by patronizing and seeming inauthentic.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Birmingham Maple Clinic
There are various contributing factors and presentations of emotionally unavailable parents.
They may place feelings, relationships, and affection as less important than image and success, whether it’s:
- Immaturity or narcissism that keeps them from being able to listen and empathize and understand your feelings, or
- If it wasn’t modeled for them and they are therefore anxious or uncomfortable about showing affection and saying “I love you,” or
- If they are authoritarian and perfectionistic and put a high emphasis on productivity, work, and a rigid expectation of ‘how things should be.’
The end result may be the same for the child in these relationships may feel unloved, unworthy, lonely, and uncertain of who to trust in healthy adult relationships.
They may be immature or narcissistic
They may give themselves credit for your successes, compare your successes to their own, and may not make an effort to show up for your activities or important events and steal the show, so to speak, when they are there.
- These parents may not listen or ask about your day.
- They may not congratulate achievements or may redirect to their own achievements.
- They may care more about their own happiness or pleasure than your own.
- They may not be responsive to your complaints and rather defensive, make excuses or blame you.
They may be inexperienced as parents
Children who didn’t experience their own affection and love in their household may feel anxious, uncertain, and out of practice with showing it as they become parents.
They may feel socially awkward or uncomfortable with any form of emotional expression, positive or negative.
Related: How to Not Be Socially Awkward?
They may work to be problem solvers to try to avoid unpleasant emotions and distract or reduce emotions as much as possible instead of being understanding, listening, and consoling; they may try to sweep feelings away.
They may be uncomfortable with giving and receiving compliments and thus have a hard time making their child feel special.
They may be anxious and rigid
Obsessive-compulsive, perfectionistic, or authoritarian parents may be anxious and rigid.
- They may demand perfectionism and success.
- They may miss opportunities to congratulate small achievements and or offer support during struggles and care more about a perceived notion of how things should be than instead of providing the love, support, and nurturing a child (of any age) needs.
- Rather than offer support and encouragement, they may nitpick style, households, or choices.
Kassondra Glenn, LMSW
Mental Health Writer | Psychotherapist, Diamond Rehab
They value work and achievements over emotional experience
Emotionally unavailable parents often perpetuate childhood emotional neglect. The impact of childhood emotional neglect can persist into adulthood and present itself in adult relationships.
Those with emotionally unavailable parents may begin noticing that:
- Their parents valued work and achievements over emotional experience,
- Their parents were unable to discuss emotions,
- Their parents were out of touch with their own emotions, or
- Their parents became reactive or shut down in the presence of emotions.
If emotionally unavailable parents have not done the work and engaged in self–reflection, they will likely remain emotionally unavailable.
There are several ways to approach this as an adult.
Recognize that people cannot be changed without wanting to create change for themselves
First, it is crucial to recognize that other people cannot be changed without wanting to create change for themselves. Continuing to attempt to change emotionally unavailable parents usually results in more hurt and frustration.
Examine how childhood emotional neglect continues to show up
It is also important to examine how childhood emotional neglect continues to show up.
These are all common:
- Seeking emotionally unavailable or inconsistent partners,
- Difficulty identifying and processing emotions, and
- Discomfort with emotions.
Although we cannot change others, we have the capacity to put the work in to transform ourselves and break intergenerational cycles of emotional unavailability.
Relationship Expert, Relationship Fire
They are absent physically
Parents who are not physically present do not have the opportunity to be emotionally available.
This can take the form of:
- working long hours,
- traveling for work, or
- being incarcerated.
While these circumstances may not always be within a parent’s control, they can still have a negative impact on the parent-child bond.
Their children are more likely to experience anxiety and depression
Children of emotionally unavailable parents are more likely to experience anxiety and depression. They may also have difficulty forming positive emotional attachments and trusting others.
They don’t say, “I love you”
They may not express love or ask about their child’s feelings. Saying “I love you” is more than just three little words. It’s a way of showing your child that you care about them and that they are important to you.
Unfortunately, some parents withhold this phrase from their children, either because they don’t feel it themselves or because they want their children to earn their love.
Not saying “I love you” is a clear sign that a parent is emotionally unavailable. This can be extremely damaging to a child’s self-esteem and sense of worth. After all, if your own parent doesn’t love you, who will?
It sends the message that their feelings are unimportant and that their relationship with their child is based on conditions.
This can lead to a lifetime of insecurity and self-doubt.
They quickly dismiss feelings
Emotionally unavailable parents may also be dismissive of their child’s feelings or be unresponsive to their needs.
In other words, they may act like the child’s feelings and needs don’t matter.
This can be extremely confusing and hurtful for a child who is trying to figure out how to cope with difficult emotions without any guidance from their parents.
It can also lead to a feeling of isolation and shame, as the child begins to believe something is wrong with them.
All of these signs can cause the child to feel invisible and unimportant.
Ultimately, emotionally unavailable parents may struggle to form a strong emotional bond with their children. However, it is important to remember that every parent-child relationship is unique. Some parents who are emotionally unavailable may still be loving and supportive in other ways.
Try reaching out to them and sharing your feelings
If you suspect that your parents are emotionally unavailable, try reaching out to them and sharing your feelings. They may not be aware of how their behavior is affecting you.
Communicating openly and honestly is the key to any healthy parent-child relationship.
Mary “Mimi” Schultz, MS, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor, Malaty Therapy
They have difficulty holding emotional bonds; they don’t engage in their child’s life
Signs of emotionally unavailable parents:
- They do not provide the emotional support needed for their child.
- They have unhealthy relationships with their children and are often dismissive of them.
- They have difficulty keeping relationships.
- They oftentimes have difficulty expressing and controlling their own emotions.
- They are not interested in their children.
They have difficulty holding emotional bonds, as evidenced by not engaging in the child’s life.
They do not engage in the child’s life by:
- Neglecting to ask questions and learn about the child,
- Neglecting to acknowledge hard work and achievements, and
- Neglecting the child’s positive feelings.
Due to the lack of emotional support received from the parents, children of emotionally unavailable parents feel unimportant.
What to do if you have an emotionally unavailable parent:
Set healthy boundaries with the emotionally unavailable parent
If you have an emotionally unavailable parent, it is important to remember that you will not be able to change your parent’s behavior.
We can only control our own behavior; therefore, we must change by developing boundaries with the emotionally unavailable parent. Healthy boundaries will help protect yourself from getting hurt, and they will give you what you need.
Setting healthy boundaries will allow you not to take on your emotionally unavailable parent’s problems. It is important that you know when you need to remove yourself and recognize that you do not need to take on their problems.
Senior Editor, Tandem
From friends and acquaintances to coworkers to siblings or even our significant others, there are many times when we come across emotionally unavailable people. These individuals may seem standoffish or avoid confrontation.
What if the emotionally unavailable person is someone you need to be there? Someone like a parent that you want to rely on.
What are the signs of emotionally unavailable parents?
They aren’t there for you
If you are having a difficult time and are looking for a parent to lean on for support, but you can’t rely on them because they just aren’t there, it could be that they are emotionally unavailable. Not being there could be referring to their physical presence or their mental presence.
They can’t commit to plans
You have your first band concert, and you are incredibly proud because you got the first chair, so you make sure to tell your parents all about it.
Your mom and dad say they will go, but you find out that your dad can’t make it on the day of the performance. Occurrences like this may be due to emotional unavailability.
No “I love you” in return
As a child, you want to feel the love and adoration parents should unconditionally give you. But when you tell your parent, “I love you,” and they can’t say it in return, it might be because that parent is emotionally unavailable.
The above are just some of the many characteristics that emotionally unavailable parents might exhibit. If you find that your parents are this way, there are some things you can do.
Don’t blame yourself
Your parent being emotionally unavailable wasn’t caused by you or something you did. Never take the blame for their behavior.
Know that you are loved
Family is much more than flesh and blood. It’s the people you surround yourself with that support and love you, even when you are not at your best. This means that if a parent can’t show you the love you deserve, you can still find love from others.
Understand your feelings
Your feelings and emotions were probably highly affected due to how you were raised. Consider talking to a professional who can help you to realize what your upbringing did to you and how you can stop the cycle.
Having an emotionally unavailable parent is difficult, but you are not your parent. In time you can learn how to best handle having an emotionally unavailable parent so you can be your best self.
Vice President of Marketing, Divorce Answers
Failure to be respectful of other people’s boundaries
Your parents often operate or deal with situations from an egotistical standpoint when they are emotionally unavailable, so they feel entitled and selfish most of the time.
Practice healthy detachment from your parents
The best way to cope is to practice healthy detachment from your parents by being assertive of your own boundaries, so you avoid absorbing all their negative energy and keep your self-respect intact.
They don’t take ownership of shortcomings or problems in their relationships
This often stems from all your parents’ relationships, not just yours.
Any attempts to emotionally connect with others fail, and they will easily blame you or others and are incapable of being emotionally immature about it. Understandably, this may affect a child’s emotional ability to connect with others.
Seek friendships that fill up the emotional support you deserve
One of the ways to cope is to consider attending support groups or seeking friendships that fill up the emotional support you deserve.
Be open and transparent about what you’re feeling from your parents, so your friends understand where you’re coming from.
Your choices are not respected or valued by your parents
A typical excuse they will make is that parents know best or just want the best for their children. However, they don’t give their children space to grow and make mistakes by themselves.
This typically results in parents being ignorant of their children’s needs or considering them as a waste of time and attention.
Find healthy ways to express yourself especially your needs
One way to cope or avoid being negatively affected by this is to learn to express yourself, especially your needs. Find healthy ways to express yourself the way you couldn’t to your parents, like writing a diary or other painting/drawing.
You become aware of your own feelings this way, and you are able to healthily release pent-up emotions instead of dumping them on other people like friends or a partner.
Catherine Hall, LMSW
They leave their children in the dark about their thoughts and feelings
Many signs can indicate that a parent is emotionally unavailable, but there is one sign in particular that seems to manifest in the children of those parents themselves.
Emotionally unavailable parents often leave their children in the dark about what they are feeling and thinking.
Their children learn to read the subtle signs that their parent’s mood is changing. The uncertainty and confusion caused by emotionally unavailable parents are distressing for kids.
However, kids are resilient, and they learn how to keep themselves emotionally (and sometimes physically) safe by detecting these little shifts that indicate a parent’s mood.
Adult children of emotionally unavailable parents are often empathetic
Adult children of emotionally unavailable parents are often extraordinarily empathetic. After all, they have had extensive training in picking up on signals about how others feel.
They have a unique ability to see the subtle signs that a friend is feeling down or that someone in a group setting is feeling uncomfortable. In some ways, it’s a superpower.
Empathy is great, but it can also be a burden. Adult children are often made anxious by the constant onslaught of emotional signals they are taking in and processing.
What to do with an emotionally unavailable parent
If you are an adult child of an emotionally unavailable parent, there are a few things you can do to break the cycle.
Stop; try not to expend your emotional energy
First, if you have been taking action based on the emotional signals you receive from a parent, stop.
For example, if you notice a parent seems annoyed during a family dinner, try not to expend your emotional energy trying to remedy that for your parent.
Make it clear that you need them to communicate their feelings to you explicitly
Instead, try talking to them after dinner in more explicit terms about what happened. You can say, “I noticed that you seemed upset during dinner. Was something wrong?”
Make it clear to your parent that you need them to communicate their feelings to you clearly and explicitly to act. Many people report that a weight has been lifted once they free themselves of the responsibility of reading their emotionally unavailable parent’s mind.
Catherine vanVonno, Ph.D
President and CEO, 20four7VA
Unfortunately, many parents are emotionally unavailable to their children. This can be for a variety of reasons, ranging from trauma and abuse in their own childhoods to simply being overwhelmed by the demands of parenting.
Whatever the cause, it’s important to remember that you can still have a strong, meaningful relationship with your parent(s) even if they’re emotionally unavailable.
Here are some signs that your parent(s) may be emotionally unavailable to you:
They consistently cancel plans or break promises
If your parents regularly cancel plans with you or make promises they don’t follow through on, it’s a sign that they’re not prioritizing your relationship. This can be hurtful and leave you feeling unimportant and unloved.
They’re distant or critical
If your parents are always busy or distracted and don’t seem to be interested in hearing about your life, it’s a sign that they’re emotionally unavailable.
They may also be critical of you or regularly point out your flaws. This can make you feel like you’re never good enough and that your parent(s) don’t truly love you.
They’re emotionally abusive
If your parents regularly put you down, call you names, or make you feel bad about yourself, it’s a sign of emotional abuse. This kind of abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse and leave you feeling worthless and alone.
If any of these sound familiar, it’s important to remember that it’s not your fault and that you can’t change them, but you can take steps to protect yourself and thrive despite their emotional unavailability.
Set limits on how much of yourself you’re willing to give physically and emotionally
First and foremost, it’s important to establish boundaries with your emotionally unavailable parents. This means setting limits on how much of yourself you’re willing to give physically and emotionally.
Distance yourself from them when necessary
It also means distancing yourself when necessary, whether that means spending time with friends or family instead or simply taking some time for yourself. It’s also important to build a support system of people who love and accept you for who you are.
These people can be anyone from close friends to extended family members. A supportive network will help you weather the tough times and feel loved even when your parent(s) are unavailable.
Reach out for support and take care of yourself
Finally, it’s crucial to focus on taking care of yourself, both physically and emotionally. This means eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and making time for activities that make you happy.
It also means seeking professional help if you’re struggling to cope with your parent(s) emotional unavailability. A therapist can provide support and guidance as you navigate this difficult situation.
If you’re struggling with an emotionally unavailable parent, know you’re not alone. Some resources and people can help you through this tough time. Reach out for support and take care of yourself. You deserve it.
Addiction Treatment Specialist, Harmony Healing Center
The signs of emotionally unavailable parents can be difficult to identify, especially for children with no other reference point. But, it is possible to notice the signs and prevent them from affecting the child’s development.
They might be indifferent toward their child’s feelings and needs
The first sign is that they cannot show or express emotions in a healthy way. They might be cold or indifferent toward their child’s feelings and needs.
They are unable to acknowledge their own emotions; they cannot help their child through theirs
They are unable to acknowledge their own emotions, so they cannot help their child through theirs. They might also use anger to deal with stress or frustration instead of talking about it with their child.
They cannot empathize with their child
Another sign is that they are not able to empathize with their child. An example of this would be parents who are either unable to understand the situation or the parents tell the child that they made a mistake and things will return to normal soon.
Another example is when a parent blames their child for their misbehavior.
These signs are not definitive, and there are always exceptions to the rule, but they can help identify emotionally unavailable parents. This can help you understand your family and yourself better.
What to do:
Look back on your childhood and see if there are any patterns that stand out
The first step is to identify the problem. If you feel like you have emotionally unavailable parents, it can be helpful to look back on your childhood and see if there are any patterns that stand out.
Keep your reactions positive and supportive
Be as kind and understanding as possible when they are interacting with them. They might not understand why they behave the way they do, so it’s important to keep your reactions positive and supportive.
Seek out other adults who can provide emotional support
Seek out other adults who can provide emotional support. It is also important for the child to learn how to regulate their own emotions so that they don’t become dependent on their parents for emotional support.
Darren Pierre, Ph.D.
Leadership Educator | Speaker | Author, “The Invitation to Love: Recognizing the Gift Despite Pain, Fear, and Resistance“
Emotional availability can be an evasive thing to discern. With parents, particularly for adult children, I suggest you look at how your parental figure(s) have responded to their own childhood traumas.
Are they able to talk openly about difficulties of their past, past hurts, past abuse? Additionally, what is their ability to speak with awareness of their own emotional spaces of being?
They can’t speak with clarity and vulnerability about their own emotions
I have seen people move with anger, but the anger was a masking emotion to underlying hurt and fear.
When we are not able to speak with clarity and vulnerability about our own emotions, it leaves room to question our overall emotional availability.
They deflect when emotionally labor-filled conversations are had
Beyond responding to one’s own hurts, the second question to ask is how are they able to respond to yours?
Parents who either deflect or dismiss when emotionally labor-filled conversations are had are often moving from a place of discomfort and self-protection.
While I believe it is not wise to look to change our parents, I do believe it is worth being aware of their ways of being (including emotional availability) in an effort to see how it has informed and impacted our own.
Different children grow up in different conditions. They all grow up; the question is what and how many problems they have later.
Most of it can be worked out by working on yourself. The only question is how many adults work on themselves or still resent their parents without doing anything to forgive them and ultimately help themselves.
Some parents never have time for their children — either they are too busy or have excuses.
Related: 9 Great Books for Busy Parents
Many claim that they have to take care of finances and consider that part of being the only concern for children. Some others will prefer to buy and do everything materially for the child just so they don’t have to deal with him, physically or mentally.
They will outwardly show care for the child out of duty and obligation
An emotionally unavailable parent will outwardly show care for the child, and do everything they need for the child, but out of duty and obligation. It is easier for such a parent to do any activity for the child, provide or buy whatever they need, just not to get emotionally attached to the child.
Emotional attachment is not good because you will be separated from the child anyway, and he will leave sooner or later.
They may be emotionally wounded in childhood
These are people who were emotionally wounded in childhood. Either emotionally cold parents raised them, or they were repeatedly hurt. They decided to protect themselves by not showing their emotions to anyone.
They do everything from an emotional distance
With childlike naivety and pure love, it is not easy to remain emotionally unavailable.
The child is trying to reach you, win you over with:
- innocence, and
An emotionally unavailable parent plays along, but he withdraws as soon as he moves into emotional satisfaction.
- There is no long and sincere hug.
- He does everything from an emotional distance.
- When a child is injured, such a parent comes to the rescue but has no empathy to understand how the child is doing, no words of comfort or support.
They will turn their attention to something else
Such people will turn their attention to something else, to toys or promises, just so they don’t have to deal with the child’s emotions and how he feels now when he is in pain.
Talking about emotions is a sign of weakness for them
For them, talking about emotions is a sign of weakness, and they would rather criticize a person than praise and compliment them.
At the same time, they will not admit that they are emotionally unavailable because they are unaware of it but will claim that others are too emotional, dramatic, and demanding.
That is why sometimes, with them, you get the impression that something is wrong with you or that you are too emotionally open. In fact, everything is fine with you, and they need to work on themselves.
It is important to recognize in time that you are living with such a person so that they do not impose wrong beliefs on you that something is wrong with you.
They are verbally dexterous
Emotionally unavailable people are verbally very dexterous, while an emotional person will burst into tears when accused and blamed. That is why they will often feel guilty about an emotionally unavailable person as if something is wrong.
Everything is fine if one respects and accepts a person’s character without encroaching on someone else’s character, belittling and insulting any family member.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can emotionally unavailable parents change?
Yes, emotionally unavailable parents can change. However, it takes effort and a willingness to understand and address their own emotional barriers.
Emotionally unavailable parents may have difficulty regulating their emotions and becoming self-aware. They may need support to develop the skills and understanding necessary to connect with their children on an emotional level.
Professional help, such as therapy, can greatly benefit this process. A therapist can help emotionally unavailable parents understand and overcome their emotional barriers, learn healthy communication and boundaries skills, and work on their own self-awareness and emotional regulation.
It is essential to understand that change is a process and does not happen overnight. Emotionally unavailable parents must be patient and persistent as they work to become more emotionally available to their children.
However, with support and effort, it is possible for emotionally unavailable parents to change and build healthier, more fulfilling relationships with their children.
What is the impact on a child growing up with an emotionally unavailable parent?
The effects of growing up with an emotionally unavailable parent can vary depending on the child and the severity of the parent’s emotional unavailability. However, some general effects may be:
– Difficulty forming healthy relationships in adulthood
– Low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness
– Chronic anxiety or depression
– Lack of emotion regulation skills
– Difficulty expressing feelings or understanding the feelings of others
– Perfectionism or need for control
What happens when a child doesn’t feel loved by their parents?
When a child doesn’t feel loved by their parents, it can have profound effects on their emotional and psychological well-being.
Children who don’t feel loved by their parents may experience feelings of abandonment, rejection, and low self-esteem. This can also lead to difficulty building healthy relationships, trust issues, and a constant need for validation.
Without a sense of love and security from their parents, children may have difficulty regulating their feelings and managing their emotions. They may also resort to self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, eating disorders, or other forms of self-harm.
It’s important to understand that children who don’t feel loved by their parents aren’t alone and that support is available to help them heal. With therapy, support from friends and family, and a focus on self-care and self-compassion, children can overcome challenges and build fulfilling lives.
How can I break the cycle of emotional unavailability in my own parenting?
Breaking the cycle of emotional unavailability in your own parenting can take conscious effort and self-reflection. Here are some steps that can help:
– Recognize patterns of behavior from your own upbringing that you want to change.
– Seek out resources such as parenting books or classes to learn healthy parenting methods.
– Make an effort to be present. Put away distractions like your phone or computer and focus on being present at the moment with your children.
– Practice mindfulness and emotion regulation to better manage your child’s feelings.
– Develop empathy and understanding for your child’s experiences and emotions.
– Seek the support of a therapist or counselor as needed.
– Set limits for yourself and your children and ensure they are set in a supportive and not punitive way.
– Ask your child about their interests, hobbies, and experiences. Show genuine interest in their life and who they are.
How can I support a friend raised by emotionally unavailable parents?
Supporting a friend who was raised by emotionally unavailable parents can be as simple as lending a sympathetic ear and being a source of validation. Here are some ways you can show support:
– Validate their experiences and feelings
– Offer to listen without judgment
– Encourage them to seek professional support when needed
– Help them find healthy coping mechanisms, such as journal writing or mindfulness exercises
– Offer to accompany them to therapy or other healing methods if they wish to do so
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