Effects of Growing Up With Emotionally Unavailable Parents

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What are the long-term effects of emotional neglect in childhood? How does uninvolved parenting hinder the emotional development of a child? 

Parent-child relationships profoundly shape our lives. If you grew up with emotionally unavailable parents, you may suffer deep, lasting effects.

In this article, you’ll learn how emotional neglect in childhood affects adult relationships, and what you can do to heal and put this trauma past you. 

The Legacy of Childhood

Disrupted parent-child relationships are common. Research shows that 7% to 10% of people in the US have experienced parental rejection. Although what qualifies as parental affection and support varies across cultures, children respond to parental rejection in similar ways, regardless of the cultural context—often through disobedience, bullying behaviors, and anxiety. 

This disruption commonly involves parental unavailability, either physically (due to work, illness, or travel, for example) or emotionally (perhaps due to intense grief or mental illness). If you grew up with emotionally unavailable parents, you might unconsciously avoid getting close to anyone because that feels like a precursor to being hurt or abandoned again. Or you might unconsciously choose a partner with those same tendencies.

Even “Good” Parents Can Cause Pain

According to research, even “good” parents who provide support and love can inadvertently contribute to our difficulties in forming healthy relationships. Their protection and support may not prepare us for hurtful, challenging experiences in the real world. Then, when we encounter criticism or hardship, we don’t know how to respond. This can cause us to feel frustrated, confused, and angry, which we might resentfully direct toward our parents.

Also, our parents’ loving, seemingly “perfect” relationship may give us an impossible standard against which we measure ourselves and any relationships we pursue. This can cause us to avoid trying to establish a satisfying intimate relationship because we think we will inevitably fall short of our parents’ relationship model. 

So, regardless of how well our parents raise us, they shape our views and behaviors in some fashion. Their influence commonly shows up, for example, in the way we feel about our bodies, how much we trust others, and the extent to which we strive to please others

How Uninvolved Parenting Affects Your Adult Relationships

Children who’ve been brought up by emotionally unavailable parents tend to develop an anxious attachment style, characterized by an intense desire for intimacy with a romantic partner and a high sensitivity to anything that seems to endanger that intimacy. 

Anxious attachers believe their very survival depends on the success of their partnership, so they are perpetually on guard and zero in on even the slightest perceived threats, like a small change in their partner’s tone of voice. 

Whenever an anxious attacher perceives a threat, they are flooded with “activating strategies”—internal states that make them want to regain intimacy with their partners at all costs. These activating strategies lead the anxious attacher to engage in “protest behavior,” or actions used to demand greater intimacy—like constantly calling. Once that intimacy is re-established, the anxious attacher relaxes. But the “protest behavior” tends to cause harm in the relationship.

For example, Annie leaves for work before her husband, Anxious Andrew, on the morning of their anniversary. Anxious Andrew wakes up and sees no indication that Annie remembered their anniversary—which he perceives as a threat to their relationship. He immediately grows stressed and wants to speak with her (the activating strategy), so he texts her (the protest behavior). If Annie texts back immediately, Andrew relaxes and goes about his day. But if Annie doesn’t text back immediately, Andrew remains stressed and continues texting—and when Annie finally sees the barrage of texts, she grows annoyed, which sours their anniversary.

If you have an anxious attachment style as a result of growing up with emotionally unavailable parents, you may ignore your needs for intimacy and reassurance because you’re ashamed of them. However, if you accept these needs, you won’t express them and give your partner the opportunity to fulfill them. Alternatively, you may select a partner who’s incapable of fulfilling these needs. Either way, you’ll be perpetually unhappy because your relationship isn’t giving you what you need.

TITLE: Attached
AUTHOR: Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
TIME: 35
READS: 172.1
IMG_URL: https://www.shortform.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/attached-cover.png
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: attached-summary-amir-levine-and-rachel-heller

The Idealized Caregiver

Not only does parental emotional neglect make us live in constant fear of abandonment, we also seek romantic partners who will help us recreate the same dynamics, with the intention that “this time, we’re going to get it right.” 

According to therapists Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt (Getting the Love You Want), during childhood, your subconscious creates a blended image of all the people responsible for your care—parents, grandparents, foster parents, older siblings, and so on. They call this imaginary gestalt “the Imago.” Your own Imago is an idealized image that closely resembles the people who raised you, with all their positive and negative traits, while also making up for your repressed desires and emotions.

Consider the example of a woman we’ll call “Patty.” She was raised by thoughtful, intelligent parents who nevertheless fell short in some ways of nurturing her fully as a child. Patty’s father was an investment adviser who worked long hours and was rarely at home. He encouraged Patty to excel in school, but couldn’t acknowledge her feelings. In fact, he would get angry if she was openly sad or anxious at home.

Patty’s mother was more emotionally available, a painter who worked from a studio in their house. Since she spent most days alone, she relied on Patty to provide much of the emotional support she didn’t receive from Patty’s father. As such, she monopolized Patty’s time whenever she could, micromanaging her daughter as if she was an extension of herself.

As a result, Patty’s “idealized parental image” is of a person who is intelligent, hard-working, and creative, while also being controlling, dismissive, and in need of their own emotional care. 

Whether we know it or not, this parental image is the template we use when evaluating potential romantic partners—and the more closely a potential mate matches your unconscious parental image, the more you feel attracted to them. If you grew up with emotionally unavailable parents, you’ll get attracted to people with whom you’ll be able to recreate that dynamic. 

This process is entirely unconscious and can take place very quickly. Moreover, if two people match each other’s parental image, the mutual attraction can be irresistible. In the case of close “perfect partner” matches, love at first sight can be very real.

TITLE: Getting the Love You Want
AUTHOR: Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt
TIME: 17
READS: 20.8
IMG_URL: https://www.shortform.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/getting-the-love-you-want-cover.png
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: getting-the-love-you-want-summary-harville-hendrix-and-helen-lakelly-hunt

How to Heal and Move Forward From Childhood Emotional Neglect

Healing from the damage inflicted by emotional neglect in childhood is a lifelong journey. In her book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, psychologist Lindsey Gibson provides several strategies to help adults who grew up with emotionally unavailable parents heal and develop healthy emotional connections with others. 

Connect With Your Authentic Self and True Feelings

Gibson says the first step toward healing is connecting with your authentic self, which emotionally unavailable parents prevent by denying their children the ability to express a full range of emotions

Your authentic self is your truest guide to genuine connections with others, because when you honor who you truly are, you exist in your state of greatest potential—focused on possibility, not problems.

Gibson recommends that you begin reconnecting with your authentic self and true feelings by doing two exercises: 

Exercise 1: Make a “Real Me” and “Not Real Me” List

  • On the “Real Me” list, write down everything you loved to do as a child, and all the things that you love and wish you could do as an adult. 
  • On the “Not Real Me” list, write down everything you’ve done only to please and make others like you, including things that you dislike, bore you, and don’t make you feel good.

Now compare your lists and see how much time you’re spending doing things you authentically enjoy and feel connected to versus things that aren’t aligned with your true interests and needs. 

Exercise 2: Acknowledge Your True Feelings

  1. Find a private space where nobody can hear you. 
  2. Think of a person in your life who you’re afraid of or don’t like.
  3. Say, out loud, the things this person does that make you afraid of them or not like them.

The goal of this exercise is to become aware of and acknowledge the validity of your true feelings—not communicate them to the person you’ve named. Admitting how you truly feel is a first step toward healing and feeling greater peace. 

Identify and Develop Connections With Emotionally Healthy People 

Gibson echoes the idea that adult children of emotionally unavailable parents often end up in a cyclical pattern of relationship dysfunction because they gravitate to people whose behavior replicates the emotionally unhealthy family dynamics they grew up with. To break out of this cycle, you have to make conscious decisions about incorporating emotionally healthy people into your life. 

Gibson says that emotionally healthy people share two common characteristics:

  1. They’re invested in your well-being. They care about, respect, and validate your feelings, individuality, and boundaries, and look out for your best interests. 
  2. Their behavior reflects a high level of emotional intelligence. They’re reliable, consistent, and truthful; they’re self-reflective and interested in growth and change; they acknowledge and address problems directly and can apologize when wrong.

The more of these qualities a person has, the more likely they’re capable of forming healthy emotional connections with others.

Final Words

Emotionally unavailable parents tend to raise children who cling hard to their loved ones, desperate to be seen and acknowledged. As a result, their intense need for intimacy and fear of abandonment leads them to sabotage their adult relationships.

Until we unearth and resolve these unhealthy relationship tendencies, we will continue to feel unsettled—and we will continue to unconsciously sabotage our happiness by projecting trauma from emotional neglect from the past onto our current relationships.

If you enjoyed our article about growing up with emotionally unavailable parents, check out the following suggestions for further reading: 

It Didn’t Start With You

If you suffer from persistent anxiety, depression, or illness, you might be playing out trauma from your family’s past. In this case, the question to ask is not “What’s wrong with me?” but “Where did this come from?”

In It Didn’t Start With You, Mark Wolynn says the source of your suffering may lie hidden in your unconscious, where traumas from your past—and your family’s past—are stopping you from being truly happy and free. Wolynn shares the latest research to reveal how traumas get passed biologically from one generation to the next. He also describes how you can uncover and resolve deeply-rooted trauma by applying his unique therapeutic approach. By doing so, he says, you can reprogram your body, stop suffering, and start living a life you love.

What Happened to You?

In What Happened to You?, Oprah Winfrey and renowned psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry discuss how childhood trauma can have a severe and lasting impact on the brain—and thus our worldview, health, and behavior—sometimes without us even realizing it. They discuss why the developing brain is so susceptible to trauma, why trauma survivors often experience flashbacks, and why it’s so important to address your trauma to live a healthy and happy life. They also describe how to begin the healing process with compassion for yourself and others.

Effects of Growing Up With Emotionally Unavailable Parents

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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