‘Their child is likely to learn from a young age that in order for the parent to be stable and reliable; they need to edit and adapt their own behaviour’ (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Growing up, we are often led to believe that our parents – and pretty much all adults – are mature, and that we should look up to them as examples of how to behave.
But as we get older, it’s not hard to work out that some ‘grown-ups’ have not developed the emotional maturity needed to be there for their children – or to even understand their own emotions.
That can be really difficult to deal with as an adult trying to maintain a healthy relationship with your parents.
And while it’s easy to normalise behaviour that we have grown up with, dealing with an emotionally immature parent can be frustrating, demoralising and leave us unable to deal with our own emotions.
We spoke to two psychologists who share their expertise and advice on how to deal with an emotionally immature parent.
Let’s get into it.
What does it mean when a parent is emotionally immature?
‘Emotionally immature parents don’t meet the emotional needs of their children, and struggle to understand, control and express their own feelings’, says chartered clinical psychologist Dr Liam Gilligan.
These parents will still feed, clothe and physically look after their children, but actively pull back and resist any sort of emotional connection – particularly if these emotions are negative or they feel like they are being blamed for something.
This psychological and emotional immaturity can be caused by a variety of factors. A common scenario is where parents were emotionally neglected in their own childhood and have not dealt with it.
This parent might have subconsciously had a child because they wanted to feel the unconditional love that they did not get from their own parent.
Relational psychotherapist, Hannah Beckett-Pratt explains: ‘This unconscious ‘reason for being’ will direct their parenting and the child might grow up feeling as though they are not wanted as an autonomous person in their own right; but only for what they can give to another.’
Hannah gives the example of another scenario where a parent has not learned to regulate and control their emotions, so lives a somewhat chaotic daily life.
‘Their child is likely to learn from a young age that in order for the parent to be stable and reliable; they need to edit and adapt their own behaviour,’ Hannah says.
This child won’t learn how to feel or express healthy anger, as they worry it could make the parent lash out.
‘The repression of the natural anger response means that the child might have difficulty understanding boundaries and protecting themselves against manipulation,’ Hannah says.
Dr Gilligan adds that a parent may also be dismissive of any strong emotions.
He says: ‘Phrases such as “I’ll give you something to cry about” or “what a stupid thing to be upset about”, can be very commonly heard in response to strong emotions.’
In particularly toxic situations, a parent can yo-yo between responses, such as ignoring a hurt child who is crying, before snapping at them to “grow up and stop being a baby”.
Unable to deal with their emotions, parents like this tend to sweep things under the carpet or blame other people.
What is the impact of an emotionally immature parent?
Babies and young children learn to understand and regulate their own responses from their caregiver – from what they see, feel and do; not what they are told.
Emotionally immature parents don’t create a nurturing space for children to grow this understanding. They invalidate their children’s emotions, and so the child doesn’t learn how to understand and manage their emotions.
Instead, children will view these emotions as wrong or unacceptable.
‘This can mean that as adults, we either learn to push down and ignore our emotions, or we believe that others will not care unless you really escalate your emotions, so we learn to get our needs met by acting in a way that can’t be ignored,’ Dr Gilligan says.
Most commonly, the children of emotionally immature parents commonly present as ‘parentified’ and precocious.
Hannah says: ‘They are often the ‘good’ child at school and deemed to be ‘mature’ for their age.
‘They are very unlikely to behave in ways considered ‘difficult’ or ‘different’, choosing instead to be quiet and fit in.’
Children who are too busy trying to placate their parents, ‘are likely to grow up without the agency, autonomy and independence that keeps them safe and allows them to find their own path in life,’ Hannah says.
They can become people-pleasing adults who may appear happy but feel lonely, are highly-strung, anxious and controlling.
Hannah says adult children of emotionally immature parents often cannot identify where this all comes from.
She adds: ‘Adults of emotionally immature parents often report that their childhoods have been ‘happy’, ‘normal’ or fine; without being able to recall much or have many specific memories.
‘In therapy, what usually emerges is that they do not have a sense of who they really are, because they have not had an ideal ‘child-centred’ development and have instead become so focused on regulating the parent that they have a kind of void, where their true self is yet to develop.’
What are the signs you have an emotionally immature parent?
As an adult, it takes a while to realise you have an emotionally immature parent.
Hannah says: ‘This is because we develop according to the relational patterns we absorb – so children rarely question their parent’s personalities or their family dynamics, because they are already part of them.
‘It’s like not being able to see the wood for the trees; it’s usually when we are older and have experienced other relational dynamics that we begin to feel curious about those we thought were the status quo.’
If you’re unsure, there are some signs to watch out for. ‘The parent may focus on solving things ‘practically’ rather than deal with the emotions,’ Dr Gillgan says.
‘They may see the world in black and white and struggle with self-reflection or accepting any sort of responsibility.’
They are likely to place intense pressure on your relationship.
Hannah explains: ‘The parent might really want the child to know they are loved and so tells them things such as “you’re my reason for living”, “what would I ever do without you?” or “you’re my best friend”.
‘While this is meant with loving intent, it is misplaced on a child and usually received as a burdensome statement, as though it is their responsibility to keep the parent from being lonely, depressed or even alive.’
Whatever the scenario, emotionally immature parents have blurred the boundary between themselves and their child.
They may expect more from their child than the child is able to give, or lean on them for emotional support.
This can cause a ‘role-reversal’, where the child is so relied on emotionally, that they are parenting the parent.
How to deal with an emotionally immature parent
Your parents’ emotions are not your responsibility, and you cannot control them.
Accepting this can help you heal. Dr Gillgan says: ‘We have to accept that without parents doing their own psychological work, these emotional responses are not going to change.’
You may want to stop reaching out if it remains emotionally painful, or find ways to stop being hooked in by these old patterns, making this a much less frustrating experience.
Remember, whether you want to try and repair the relationship is totally up to you.
If you recognise you need help with your own emotionally maturity, Hannah wants you to be kind to yourself.
Hannah says: ‘None of us become who we are in isolation and the best chance we have of changing our ways of relating to others, including our children; is to increase our awareness of how and why we are the way we are, so we have new choice in how we want to be.’
Therapy is one way to do this, and there are also self-help books on offer. Hannah recommends reading Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt and Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay Gibson.
Do you have a story to share?
Get in touch by emailing [email protected].
Growing up with an emotionally immature parents can turn you into a people pleaser.