Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (2015) exposes the negative impacts that many adults face as the result of growing up with distant, rejecting, or self-involved parents. From demystifying the behavior of emotionally immature caregivers to providing practical tools for personal growth, it’s a step-by-step guide to healing old wounds and embracing a more positive future.
Introduction: A guide to healing childhood trauma caused by emotionally immature parents
Although society is accustomed to the idea that parents are supposed to be more mature than their children, this doesn’t always prove to be true.
Sometimes, highly sensitive children become much more emotionally capable than their parents in just a few short years of life. What happens when emotionally immature parents lack the skills necessary to meet their children’s needs?
The result is a profound sense of neglect and loneliness that continues into adulthood. The good news is that these deep emotional wounds can be healed.
This summary to Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents explores the ideas of clinical psychologist Lindsay C. Gibson. We’ll pull back the curtain on a syndrome that is very common – but rarely talked about. We’ll take a deep dive into the characteristics of emotionally immature parents and discuss healthier methods for effective communication. Finally, we’ll discover how to recognize emotional maturity, break free from negative thought patterns, and take a step closer toward a more positive life.
A lack of emotional intimacy results in profound loneliness for both children and adults
Before we begin, take a moment to think about your childhood. What words would you use to describe your experience? How do you feel when you think back to that time?
If you grew up with an emotionally immature parent, there’s a good chance that you have lingering feelings of anger, betrayal, and loneliness. You may even feel uneasy or ashamed for feeling this way.
True emotional intimacy means that you feel safe enough to communicate your deepest feelings to someone. It is a profoundly fulfilling part of human relationships that makes us feel seen for who we truly are. Without it, both children and adults can experience deep feelings of loneliness.
Emotional loneliness can be an isolating experience, especially when it stems from childhood neglect. If one or both of your parents were not mature enough to provide adequate emotional support, you probably felt the effects – even if you didn’t understand what was happening at the time.
When we don’t receive the emotional connections we need as children, we can grow into adults with a lack of security and an overall weak sense of self. While invisible on the outside, these wounds can be just as painful as any physical injury.
What most people don’t know is that these feelings of pain and loneliness are actually a good thing. They are our body’s way of sending us the message that we desire an emotional connection. In fact, we have a strong biological need to have emotional closeness with others.
Throughout human history, being part of a group has always meant security. Even our earliest ancestors were more likely to survive when they enjoyed the safety of being close to one another.
Once you begin listening to your emotions instead of pushing them away, you’ll be able to form more genuine, authentic connections. Being able to identify the root cause of your emotional loneliness is the first step toward healing.
How to recognize the signs of emotional immaturity
If you’ve gotten this far, chances are you suspect that one or both of your parents were emotionally immature. But how can you know for sure?
After all, under a significant amount of stress or exhaustion, anyone can lose emotional control or become temporarily impulsive. What sets truly emotionally immature parents apart is the pattern of their behavior. When someone is not fully equipped to deal with complicated emotions, they tend to exhibit certain negative characteristics repeatedly.
To make matters worse, most emotionally immature behaviors are unconscious – the parent often has no awareness of how their actions have affected their children.
Although there are different types of emotionally immature parents, they all tend to share a similar personality profile – one centered around narcissism, insensitivity, and a limited tolerance for genuine emotional intimacy.
With truly emotionally immature parents, communication can be very difficult and may even feel impossible at times. Your interactions might leave you feeling completely shut down and invalidated. One of the most exhausting aspects of their personality is that they are unwilling to put in the emotional work needed to maintain a healthy relationship.
These kinds of parents don’t have the self-confidence to admit that they were wrong and will resist fixing their own mistakes. Ironically, emotionally immature people crave attention for their own needs but aren’t likely to respond to the needs of others.
Emotionally immature parents will also seek to form enmeshment rather than intimacy. Enmeshment occurs when two people find their identity through an intense, codependent relationship. This can also manifest as “playing favorites” with their children.
If you ever felt like your parent treated your sibling better than you, it’s likely that the “favorite” sibling was also emotionally immature. Low levels of emotional maturity can pull people into a relationship of mutual enmeshment.
Last, because they lack a solid sense of self, emotionally immature parents will usually demand that their children either mirror their own harmful behaviors or play a role that they deem appropriate. They thrive on the idea of each family member having a specific role because it helps them oversimplify complex issues, making them easier to deal with.
The four different styles of emotionally immature parenting
Hopefully by now, you feel a bit more confident identifying the characteristics that all emotionally immature parents share. Armed with this information, we can now dive a bit deeper and discuss the four main types of emotionally immature parents.
The first type is the emotional parent. Ironically, these kinds of parents are ruled by their feelings – often swinging wildly between being over-involved and completely withdrawing from their children’s lives. The most important characteristic of this type is that they often exhibit frightening levels of instability.
Often overwhelmed by their own anxieties, they see small problems as a complete disaster. This means that the entire family has to walk on eggshells around them, always careful to avoid triggering an emotional blowup.
The second type is the driven parent. This personality type is obsessively goal-oriented and perpetually busy. They are on a constant quest for perfection, which includes every detail of their lives – even their children.
Although they rarely show any true empathy, these kinds of parents enjoy having complete control over their children’s lives.
The third type is the passive parent. As you might have guessed, these parents employ a laissez-faire style of engagement. This tends to make them less harmful than the other three types, but they still come with their own set of negative impacts.
For instance, since passive parents try their hardest to avoid anything that might upset them, they often willingly take a backseat to a more dominant partner. This can sometimes lead to physical and emotional abuse for both them and their children.
The fourth and final type is the rejecting parent. Whether mild or severe, these parents don’t enjoy any level of emotional intimacy. This makes their tolerance for other people’s needs nonexistent.
As a result, their interactions with other family members usually consist of getting angry, commanding others, or completely isolating themselves. In fact, these parents’ behaviors make you wonder why they even had children in the first place.
Although each type of parent undermines their child’s sense of security with different behaviors, all four styles give their children unstable emotional support and show very little empathy for them.
As we learned earlier, this lack of emotional security can have devastating effects on children that follow them into adulthood. In the next section, we’ll discuss the ways that children learn to cope with these negative impacts.
Coping mechanisms: Internalizers vs externalizers
There are two distinct personality types that can arise from an emotionally neglectful childhood – internalizers and externalizers. Determining which style you’ve adopted is an important part of healing. So what exactly sets these coping mechanisms apart?
A useful analogy to distinguish between the two types is to think of them as appliances. Externalizers draw their energy from being plugged into the grid, while internalizers come with batteries included.
Externalizers tend to be highly reactive and take action before they really have a chance to think. They outwardly display their depression, anxiety, or pain and often act impulsively to distract themselves from their own issues. Not willing to be self-reflective, externalizers usually seek support from others – and also blame them for their problems.
On the other hand, internalizers look for solutions within themselves. Since they depend on their own inner resources, internalizers may seem to need less attention – although in reality, it’s the opposite. As they are highly sensitive and naturally perceptive, this personality type can’t help but notice when they don’t have a genuine emotional connection with their parents.
As with most things in life, finding a balance is key. Externalizers can benefit from learning to find a sense of control within themselves. Internalizers need to learn how to be more comfortable seeking help from others.
Whether they internalize or externalize their feelings, most children of emotionally immature parents create healing fantasies about how their lives might be better someday. These fantasies are hopeful scenarios about a future where they might finally be loved and cared for.
If the child’s true identity is rejected by their parents, they may also develop a role-self – a part to play that secures their place in the family. For example, a naturally curious and inquisitive child might take on a more quiet, passive role in order to appease their parent.
Children create these roles and fantasies to help them survive a difficult childhood. However, this only leads to a sense of disappointment when, as adults, they can no longer keep up the facade.
In the next section, we’ll discuss a healthier approach to dealing with an emotionally immature parent. Once you learn to look beyond your childhood hopes and cultural beliefs, you’ll be able to see your parents in a new light. Instead of falling victim to their emotional sabotage, you’ll gain the ability to protect your own emotions and preserve your individuality.
How to use the maturity awareness approach
As children, it can be difficult to see our parents objectively. After all, aren’t we taught that our parents are supposed to be our heroes? Fortunately, as we grow into adulthood, we gain the freedom to assess whether or not our parents really gave us the care we needed.
The first step to gaining emotional freedom is to learn how to become observational rather than reactive. To do this, you’ll need to approach any interaction from a place of calm centeredness. There are many ways to do this. You can take deep breaths, tense and relax your muscles, or even imagine calming scenery.
Next, you need to think like a scientist. If it helps, you can even pretend you’re completing a field study. Mentally take note of how your parent is responding to you. What is their body language like? Do they seem calm or irritated? Are they actually listening to you, or are they just trying to appease you? Do you recognize any of the emotionally immature behaviors we talked about earlier?
After reaching a state of objectivity, you can begin to employ what Gibson calls the three-step maturity awareness approach.
The first step is to express yourself and let go. Tell your parent what you want to say, but don’t worry about controlling the outcome. It doesn’t matter how they react to you – what matters is that you express your true feelings.
The second step is to focus on the interaction, not on the relationship itself. Set a goal of what you want to achieve from the conversation. For example, you might say, “I want to tell my mother how I really feel without getting upset.”
Step three is to manage instead of engage. Engaging with emotionally immature people can be an exhausting experience. Instead, simply try to manage the interaction. For example, you may need to redirect the conversation if your parent tries to deflect or steer it in another direction. Stay polite, but be aware that you may need to address the problem many times before you get an answer.
The key point here is to free yourself from the obligation of constantly trying to “fix” your relationship with your parent. Remember, you can’t control your parent’s behavior – you can only control how you react to it.
Recognizing emotionally mature behaviors can help you seek out healthier relationships
Adult children of emotionally immature parents tend to grow up believing that a healthy, rewarding relationship is too good to be true. Hidden behind this thought is the fear that no one will ever love them for who they really are.
Reclaiming your true self can help you learn to finally interact with your parents in a constructive manner. Another thing you can do? Hone your ability to recognize a truly emotionally mature person. This will help you create mutually satisfying relationships beyond your immediate family.
So how can you know if someone is emotionally mature? What characteristics should you be looking for?
The most important traits of an emotionally mature person are that they are realistic and reliable. They see problems and try to find a real solution instead of fixating on how they think things should be. Because they have such a strong sense of self-awareness, they’re unlikely to surprise their loved ones with unexpected inconsistencies.
Another sign of emotional maturity is the ability to laugh at yourself. Mature people are not easily offended and are quick to joke about their own shortcomings. They understand that they aren’t perfect – and won’t expect you to be either. Willing to be self-reflective, these kinds of people will put in the work to change their behavior if needed.
Emotionally mature people are also typically flexible, even-tempered, and truthful. They are genuinely interested in your unique inner experience and want to get to know you.
Finally, emotionally mature people are enjoyable to be around! This isn’t to say that they’re happy all the time, but they have an overall positive vibe that makes you want to spend time with them.
When dating or seeking out new friendships as an adult, it can be tempting to fall back into the old, harmful patterns we developed as children. However, being able to recognize emotionally mature behaviors can lead to the kind of healthy and satisfying relationship you’ve always wanted.
Growing up with an emotionally immature parent has devastating effects on children, which follow them into adulthood. Whether they internalize or externalize these negative feelings, children often develop harmful coping mechanisms that only make the problem worse. As an adult, you have the opportunity to finally break free from these old, destructive thought patterns.
When you learn to recognize emotionally mature behavior and embrace your true self, you can begin to heal. Not only will you be able to interact with your parents in a more objective way, but you’ll be able to create relationships with people who will finally care for you in the way that you need.
About the author
Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in individual psychotherapy with adult children of emotionally immature parents. She is author of Who You Were Meant to Be and writes a monthly column on well-being for Tidewater Women magazine. In the past she has served as an adjunct assistant professor of graduate psychology for the College of William and Mary, as well as for Old Dominion University. Gibson lives and practices in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Marguerite Gavin is a seasoned theater veteran, a five-time nominee for the prestigious Audie Award, and the winner of numerous AudioFile Earphones and Publishers Weekly awards. Marguerite has been an actor, director, and audiobook narrator for her entire professional career, and has over four hundred titles to her credit.
Psychology, Parenting, Adult Children, Self Help, Mental Health, Relationships, Personal Development, Family, Parent and Adult Child Relationships, Dysfunctional Families, Personal Transformation Self-Help, Interpersonal Relations
Table of Contents
Introduction: Life Skills Yon Were Never Taught 1
Part I Protecting and Caring for Yourself
Be True to Yourself 9
1 Build a Better Relationship with Yourself 10
2 You Have the Right to Be Here 13
3 A Case of Mistaken Identity 15
4 Be Proud of Yourself 17
5 Listening to Your Soul 20
Practice Emotional Self-Protection 23
6 Loosening the Ties That Bind 24
7 The Purpose of Boundaries 27
8 Why You’re Emotionally Fatigued 29
9 Healing from Emotional Injuries 32
10 Debug Your Mind 35
Honor Your Inner World 39
11 Pick Your Right Inner Voice 40
12 What Emotions Are For 42
13 Why You Feel Dread 44
14 Don’t Be Undermined into Depression 46
Nurture Your Emotional Health 49
15 Self-Care Instead of Self-Indulgence 50
16 The Importance of Emotional Safety 53
17 Use Your Health-O-Meter 56
18 Writing Therapy 59
19 Learning from Nature 61
Part II Dealing with People
Relationship Issues 67
20 The Relationship Economy 68
21 The Gumby Effect 71
22 The Cafe of Love 74
23 Mr. and Ms. Right Now 77
24 Should I Stay, or Should I Go? 80
25 Be a Relationship Leader 82
26 Why Emotional Maturity Matters 85
Difficult People 87
27 Dominating Types 88
28 Tyrannical Talkers 91
29 The Cold Shoulder 94
30 Such a Nice Person 97
31 The Empty Mirror 99
32 Relationship Wolves 102
33 Struggling with Forgiveness 105
34 Don’t Blame My Parents 107
35 Meeting Your Maker 110
How It Feels to Be Treated Well 113
36 What Mr. Rogers Loved in You 114
37 The Dalai Lama Wants You to Be Happy 116
38 Kindness Lessons from a Dentist 119
39 Finding a Spiritual Teacher 122
40 Pets Who Love Us 125
Emotionally Mature Parenting 129
41 The Truth about Children 130
42 Best-Kept Secret in Parenting 132
43 Focus Your Praise 134
44 How to Comfort an Extrovert 137
45 How to Comfort an Introvert 140
46 Ungrateful Children 142
47 Here Come the Zoomers 144
48 Accept Your Teen’s Immaturity 147
49 Why Einstein Didn’t Play Soccer 149
50 Evolution in Our Children 152
51 Graduation for Parents 155
Part III Coping with Challenges
Meet Life on Its Own Terms 161
52 It’s a Wild World 162
53 The Realm of the Required 165
54 Cultivate Your Mule Mind 168
55 When to Back Off 172
56 Appreciate Your Threshold Guardians 175
57 Football Lessons 177
58 Life’s Tuition 179
Lower Your Stress 181
59 The Stressaholic 182
60 Ninety Seconds to Feel Better 185
61 Try the Judgment Diet 188
62 Overcoming Social Anxiety 190
63 Master Your Machine Mind 193
64 Stopping Self-Criticism 196
65 Seeking Perfection 199
66 Find Your Pace 201
Take the Right Approach for You 205
67 How to Approach Problems 206
68 Focus on the Outcome You Want 209
69 Challenge Your Negativity Bias 21
70 Live Your Own Story 214
71 Life Coaching from Technology 217
72 Crossing the Fear Boundary 220
73 Don’t Call Yourself Lazy 222
74 Make Room for Space 224
75 The Art of Living 227
76 The Rest of Your Life 230
If you grew up with an emotionally immature, unavailable, or selfish parent, you may have lingering feelings of anger, loneliness, betrayal, or abandonment. You may recall your childhood as a time when your emotional needs were not met, when your feelings were dismissed, or when you took on adult levels of responsibility in an effort to compensate for your parent’s behavior. These wounds can be healed, and you can move forward in your life.
In this breakthrough book, clinical psychologist Lindsay Gibson exposes the destructive nature of parents who are emotionally immature or unavailable. You will see how these parents create a sense of neglect, and discover ways to heal from the pain and confusion caused by your childhood. By freeing yourself from your parents’ emotional immaturity, you can recover your true nature, control how you react to them, and avoid disappointment. Finally, you’ll learn how to create positive, new relationships so you can build a better life.
Discover the four types of difficult parents:
- The emotional parent instills feelings of instability and anxiety
- The driven parent stays busy trying to perfect everything and everyone
- The passive parent avoids dealing with anything upsetting
- The rejecting parent is withdrawn, dismissive, and derogatory
“Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD, gives practical insight into a prevalent problem…The book is impeccably clear…This utter lack of confusion makes the book quite soothing, despite the heavy subject. The soothing effect is amplified by Gibson’s caring, knowledgeable voice—it’s easy to believe her when she says, ‘I wish the very best for you.’ This book can be a source of healing for adult children of these kinds of parents—particularly for young adults. But it’s also insightful for bosses, therapists, friends, and anyone else who works with, cares for, and supports the people described in this book. Gibson’s professional background allows her to anticipate people’s emotions and reticence—and urge them gently forward.” —Foreword Magazine
“Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents is written with the wisdom and heart of a seasoned therapist and the mind of a scholar who’s spent decades poring over psychological research and theory. In this book, Lindsay C. Gibson seamlessly blends this impressive body of knowledge with the real-life experiences of her clients to create a user-friendly and highly readable book. … This book is not about blame but rather about understanding oneself on a deep level and learning to heal.” —Esther Lerman Freeman, PsyD, clinical associate professor at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine
“Children cannot choose their parents. Unfortunately, many individuals grow up suffering the life-shaping adversities of having emotionally immature, neglectful parents. With wisdom and compassion, Lindsay C. Gibson enables readers to recognize and better understand these toxic relationships and to create novel, healthy paths of healing. This book provides a powerful opportunity for self-help and is a wonderful resource for therapists to recommend to clients in need.” —Thomas F. Cash, PhD, Professor Emeritus of psychology at Old Dominion University, and author of The Body Image Workbook
“Lindsay C. Gibson’s insightful book offers the ‘emotionally lonely’ a step-by-step journey toward self-awareness and healing. Gibson’s revealing anecdotes, enlightening exercises, and honest insight lead the reader to a better understanding of how to connect more fully with oneself and others. This is an excellent book for anyone who feels isolated from family members and seeks to enjoy a more emotionally connected life.” —Peggy Sijswerda, editor and publisher of Tidewater Women (tidewaterwomen.com) and Tidewater Family (tidewaterfamily.com), and author of Still Life with Sierra
“Lindsay C. Gibson’s Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents is an insightful and compassionate guide for anyone seeking to understand and overcome the long-term impact of growing up in an emotionally barren family. Here you will find sage advice and simple practices that will help you break free from old patterns, connect more deeply with yourself and others, and, ultimately, be the person you were always meant to be.” —Ronald J. Frederick, PhD, psychologist and author of Living Like You Mean It
“Lindsay C. Gibson, a very experienced psychotherapist, wrote Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents to provide guidance to adults for self-help in resolving anxiety, depression, and relationship difficulties that result from having emotionally immature parents. It is a thorough and detailed description of immature parents, children’s experience of their parenting, and methods to resolve the resulting problems. There are many useful examples from Gibson’s psychotherapy clients. The book includes helpful exercises for self-understanding. A person can use the book to develop emotional maturity and deeper relationships.” —Neill Watson, PhD, research professor and Professor Emeritus of psychology at the College of William and Mary, and clinical psychologist who does research on anxiety, depression, and psychotherapy
“Based on years of reading, research, and working with patients, psychologist Lindsay C. Gibson has written an outstanding book about the multiple ways that emotionally immature parents impact the lives of their adult children. I highly recommend Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents for all readers who want to understand the parent/child dynamic. This is an uplifting book that provides hope and superb coping strategies for those who find it difficult or impossible to bond with parents who lack empathy and sensitivity. … Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents is full of wisdom that will enable you to relate to your family members and friends in the healthiest way possible—no matter what age you are—and possibly even to recognize what’s behind some of the dysfunctional exchanges depicted in the news and in popular culture.” —Robin Cutler, PhD, historian and author of A Soul on Trial
“Lindsay C. Gibson’s book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, is filled with clinical vignettes that will resonate with adult children of emotionally immature parents. The book also offers practical advice and exercises for identifying one’s true self and avoiding the pitfalls of self-images, relationships, and fantasies that undermine one’s psychological well-being. Finally, the book provides solid guidelines for interacting with one’s emotionally immature parents in a manner that avoids painful and damaging recreations of the past. Readers will find relief from recognizing that they are not alone and that they are understood by this remarkable clinician.” —B. A. Winstead, PhD, professor of psychology at Old Dominion University and the Virginia Consortium Program in Clinical Psychology, and coeditor of Psychopathology: Foundations for a Contemporary Understanding, Third Edition