"Adult Children of Emotionally Immataure Parents"

How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD, 2015

Comforting encouragements as you lean in and observe your parents' parenting of you (pp. 25-26):

Look at your parents objectively

Much of their immature, hurtful behavior is unintentional

Most emotionally immature parents have no awareness of how they've affected their children

Your thoughts about your parents are private

You aren't betraying your parents by seeing them accurately. Thinking about them objectively can't hurt them. But it can help you.

"Emotionally immature parents fear genuine emotion and pull back from emotional closeness.

They use coping mechanisms that resist reality rather than dealing with it...their children's emotional needs will almost lose out to the parents' own survival instincts...Understanding their emotional immaturity frees us from the emotional loneliness as we realize their neglect wasn't about us, but about them" (pp.1-3).

Emotionally immature parents are passing their "trauma down the line, as people do when they repress their childhood pain" (p. 145).

Having Emotionally Immature Parents can make a child feel (pp.8-9):

  • a vague, private, difficult-to-describe type of emotional loneliness

  • a feeling of emptiness of being alone in the world

  • a sense that their emotions don't matter, and, a fear of emotional intimacy

  • a sense of shame for needing to be comforted when emotions are difficult

Children with Emotionally Immature Parents often cope by (p.11):

  • learning to put other people's needs as a priority above their own

  • disowning any felt-sense that others are expected to provide support or show interest in them

  • focusing on helping others over being helped

  • convincing others that they have few emotional needs of their own

  • growing up quickly and becoming self-sufficient

Personality traits associated with emotionally
immaturity (pp.29-47):

  • they are rigid and single-minded

  • they have low stress tolerance

  • they do what feels best

  • they are subjective, not objective

  • they have little respect for differences

  • they are egocentric

  • they are self-preoccupied and self-involved

  • they are self-referential, not self-reflective

  • they like to be the center of attention

  • they promote role reversal (ex. the parentified child)

  • they have low empathy and are emotionally insensitive

  • they are often inconsistent and contradictory

  • they develop strong defenses that take the place of the self

  • they fear feelings

  • they focus on the physical instead of the emotional

  • they can be killjoys

  • they have intense but shallow emotions

  • they don't experience mixed emotions (i.e. black and white emotions)

  • they have oversimplified thinking and cannot hold opposing ideas in mind, simultaneously

  • they are intelligent and insightful ONLY with topics that aren't emotionally arousing to them

  • they have very literal and routine thinking

  • they may get obsessed with certain topics, distracted from emotional intimacy

In contrast, "With a mature parent,

the child's remedy for loneliness is simply to go to the parent for affectionate connection...

Emotional intimacy involves knowing that you have someone you can tell anything to, someone to go to with all your feelings, about anything and everything. You feel completely safe opening up to the other person...

Emotional intimacy is profoundly fulfilling, creating a sense of being seen for who you really are...

These parents have a lively, balanced emotional life and are usually consistent in their attentiveness and interest toward their children. They are emotionally dependable" (pp. 8-9).

"'Emotionally maturity' means a person is capable of thinking objectively and conceptually while sustaining deep emotional connections to others.

People who are emotionally mature can function independently while also having deep emotional attachments, smoothly incorporating both intho their daily life.

They are direct about pursuing what they want, yet do so without exploiting other people.

They've differentiated from their original family relationships sufficiently to build a life of their own

They have a well-developed sense of self and identify and treasure their closest relationships...

[They] are comfortable and honest about their own feelings and get along with other people, thanks to their well-developed empathy, impulse control, and emotional intelligence.

They're interested in other people's inner lives and enjoy opening up and sharing with others in an emotionally intimate way...

They deal with others directly to smooth out differences...

[They] cope with stress in a realistic, forward-looking way...

They control their emotions when necessary, anticipate the future, and strengthen bonds with others

[They] know themselves well enough to admit their weaknesses" (pp. 28-29).

Chapter 4: Types of Emotionally Immature Parents:

  1. The Emotional Parent

  • The most infantile

  • Controlled by their feelings, prone to frightening instability and unpredictability

  • Unreliable and intimidating

  • Overwhelmed by anxiety and rely on others to stabilize them

  • Swing between overinvolved and abrupt withdrawal

  • Makes everyone in the family feel as if they're walking on eggshells

  • Likely an Ambivalent or Victim (Disorganized) Attachment Style

  • Ex. Brittany's Story: "When confronted about her intrusiveness, Shonda acted wounded and hid behind the excuse 'I just needed to know you're better.; But the truth was, her primary concern was with her own feelings, not with what Brittany needed" (p. 72).

  1. The Driven Parent

  • Look the most normal

  • Goal-oriented and busy, always focused on getting things done

  • Can't stop trying to perfect everything, including other people

  • Convicted they know what is best for others, they expect others to want and value the same things they do

  • Fear their children will embarrass them by not succeeding

  • May order their child to be a success without offering guidance on how to be successful

  • Make their children feel evaluated constantly

  • Often end up with unmotivated, maybe depressed children who have trouble with either initiative or self-control, who resist the influence of authority

  • Likely an Avoidant or Controller (Disorganized) Attachment Style

  • Ex. Christine's Story: "'He would command me to do well but didn't offer any guidance or help. I was simply ordered to be a success.' To all outward appearances, Christine did become a success, but on the inside she felt a tremendous insecurity, like she didn't really know what she was doing" (p. 75).

  1. The Passive Parent

    • Avoid dealing with anything upsetting

    • Attracted to dominant partners and may look the other way when the other parent is abusive or neglectful

    • May be the favorite parent, empathizing with their children, as long as doing so does not interfere with their own needs being met

    • May desire to be the focus of child's affectionate attention

    • Cope by minimizing problems, acquiescing, or going into a type of trance, retreating into themselves or finding other passive ways to weather the storm

    • Children may grow up believing the Passive Parent was truly helpless and make excuses for their abandoning behavior

    • Likely an Avoidant, Pleaser, or Victim (Disorganized) Attachment Style

    • Ex. Molly's Story: "Molly's safe haven was her relationship with her father. His kindness was the single bright spot and source of love in her life, and she both worshipped him and felt protective of him. It never occurred to her to expect him to protect her."

  2. The Rejecting Parent

    • Seem to have a wall around them

    • Least empathetic, capable of punitive physical attacks

    • Ruler of the house, family life revolves around their wishes

    • With a rejecting parent, it's easy to feel apologetic for existing. Children see themselves as bothers and irritants, give up easily, and find it difficult to ask for what they need.

    • Clearly don't want to be bothered by children

    • Their interactions consist of issuing commands, blowing up, or isolating themselves from family life

    • Likely an Avoidant Attachment Style

    • Ex. Beth's Story: "If Beth suggested spending time together, Rosea acted irritated and told Beth she was too dependent on her. When Beth telephoned her mother, anything Beth said was usually cut short as Rose quickly found an excuse to get off the phone, often giving the phone to Beth's father" (p. 78).

Siblings from the same family can be so vastly different in their style of functioning. Neither coping style allows a child to fully develop his or her potential (pp. 89-94):

"While the internalizers felt like they couldn't get away with anything, their externalizing siblings were let off the hook repeatedly. Emotionally immature parents often placate or rescue externalizing children" (p. 94).

Internalizers are:

  • mentally active and love to learn

  • solve problems from the inside out

  • self-reflective and learn from their mistakes

  • believe they can make things better by trying harder

  • "Their main sources of anxiety are feeling guilty when they displease others and the fear of being exposed as imposters."

  • "Their biggest relationship downfall is being overly self-sacrificing and then becoming resentful of how much they do for others." Unfortunately, people don't realize they need help.


  • take action before they think about things

  • are reactive and do things impulsively to blow off anxiety quickly

  • avoid shame through denial or by assigning blame to other people and circumstances rather than their own actions

  • experience life as a process of trial and error, rarely learning how to do things better in the future

  • believe things need to change in the outside world in order for them to be happy

  • believe if other people give them what they want, their problems would be solved

  • "Their coping style is frequently so self-defeating and disruptive that other people have to step in to repair the damage from their impulsive actions."

  • believe that competent people owe them help

  • believe good things have come to other people unfairly

  • either have very low self-confidence or a sense of inflated superiority

  • depend on external soothing, making them susceptible to substance abuse and addictive relationships

  • "Their main source of anxiety is that they will be cut off from the external sources their security depends upon."

  • "Their biggest relationship problems include being attracted to impulsive people and being overly dependent on others for support and stability."

When burnt-out, at their rock bottom, or under intense stress, internalizers may adopt external strategies of reacting impulsively, and, externalizers may seek programs such as AA that teach internalizing strategies.

Quick differences (pp. 103-121):

Internalizers vs. Externalizers

Seen as: emotionally sensitive vs. having behavioral issues

Emotional experience: painful loneliness, feel embarrassed and undeserving of help vs. mistrusting and get mad easily

Negative messaging: "My very nature is the problem" vs. "My behavior is the problem"

Desire: to share their inner experience within emotionally intimate connections vs. attention, no matter by what means

Coping strategy: being helpful and hiding their needs will win their parents' love vs. act and parents will be there to save them

Negative belief: "Other people are more important" "I am a bother" and "My value is based on what I can do for others" vs. "Others don't meet my needs" and "I can't get what I want"

Relation with others: Independent by necessity vs. Dependent

Attract: Needy people vs. Helpers

The Role-Self "doesn't have its own source of energy. It has to steal vitality form the true self. Playing a role is much more tiring than just being yourself because it takes a huge effort to be something you are not. And because it's made-up, the role self is insecure and afraid of being revealed as an imposter" (p. 87).

The goal is to uncover the True Self underneath the Role Self that has learned how to perform the family rules.

A healing fantasy is the hopeful story about what will make us truly happy one day (p. 84):

Often beginning with If only...

It comes from a child's mind, so it often doesn't fit adult realities

It gives a child the optimism to get through a painful upbringing in hopes of a better future

A thought exercise (pp. 87-88):

Complete the following sentences with your first response to reveal your healing fantasy:

I wish other people were more ____________________________________________________.

Why is it so hard for people to ____________________________________________________?

For a change, I would love someone to treat me like _____________________________.

Maybe one of these days I'll find someone who will ______________________________.

In an ideal world with good people, other people would _________________________.

Complete the following sentences with your first response to reveal your Role-Self:

I try hard to be _____________________________________________________________________.

The main reason people like me is because I ______________________________________.

Other people don't appreciate how much I _______________________________________.

I always have to be the one who ___________________________________________________.

I've tried to be the kind of person who ____________________________________________.

"Your true self has the same needs as a flourishing, healthy child: to grow, be known, and express itself...it asks for your acceptance of its guidance and legitimate desires. It has no interest in whatever desperate ideas you came up with in childhood regarding a healing fantasy or role-self. It only wants to be genuine with other people and sincere in its own pursuits" (p. 124).

Your True Self needs you to (pp.124-138):

  • break down in order to wake up

  • wake up from an outdated Role-Self

  • wake up to what you really feel

  • wake up to anger, as an expression of individuality

  • wake up to better self-care

  • wake up through relationship breakdowns

  • wake up from idealizing others

  • wake up to your strengths

  • wake up to a new set of values

  • wake up by getting free of childhood issues

Chapter 8: How to Avoid Getting Hooked by an Emotionally Immature Parent

Identify what is realistic, moving away from the fantasy that your parent will change.

Forge a new relationship, changing your expectations and replacing reactivity with observation.

Save yourself by identifying how to maintain the necessary boundaries to act from your True Self rather than the acquired Role Self that operates to please your parents.

Practice becoming observational within yourself. If you become distressed, recognize the sign that your Healing Fantasy has become activated. "If you find yourself becoming reactive, silently repeat to yourself, 'Detach, detach, detach,'" try to name exactly what you are feeling internally, and find your way back to a calm centeredness within the connection or find an excuse to take space (p. 147).

Change your expectation to relatedness (communication without any goal of having a satisfying emotional exchange) rather than relationship (being open and establishing emotional reciprocity).

The Maturity Awareness Approach: How to Relate with Someone You've Decided is Emotionally Immature (pp. 148-153).

  1. Expressing and then letting go: "Explicitly say what you feel or want and enjoy that act of self-expression, but release any need or the other person to hear you or change. You can't force others to empathize or understand. The point is to feel good about yourself for engaging in what I call clear, intimate communication."

  2. Focusing on the outcome, not the relationship: Identify a specific and achievable goal that does not involve empathy or a change of heart. Examples include: just to express your feelings, asking others to listen, or reaching an agreement. "The key is to go into the interaction always knowing the end point you with to arrive at...It isn't about winning or losing; it's about freeing yourself from reacting to your parents' emotional contagion."

  3. Managing the interaction, including duration and topics, not emotionally engaging. "You may need to repeatedly redirect the conversation...be polite, but be prepared...Manage your own emotions by observing and narrating your feelings to yourself, rather than becoming reactive."

The approach allows you to focus on maintaining personal emotional balance, keeping yourself from being drawn into a whirlpool of reactions that further the feelings of disconnection.

"To be an emotionally mature adult, you must be free to observe and assess others in the privacy of your own mind" (p. 151).

Keep in mind, "just because they're complaining doesn't necessarily mean their goal is to feel better. That's your interpretation" (p. 153).

"Only if you operate from your adult, objective mind will you feel safe to your parents. It's unfortunate, but the reality is, they are simply too terrified to handle your inner child's emotional needs" (p. 156).

Chapter 9: How it Feels to Live Free of Roles and Fantasies

"You'll have more energy when you let your thoughts and feelings flow naturally, without worrying about what they mean about you" (p. 164).

"You don't have to have an active relationship with your parents to free yourself from their influence...True freedom from unhealthy roles and relationships starts within each of us, not in our interactions and confrontations with others" (p. 165).

"Take control of how frequently you're in contact with your parents...you can devote more energy to your own needs for self-care...Remember, your goodness as a person isn't based on how much you give in relationships, and it isn't selfish to set limits on people who keep on taking" (p. 167).

Feel what you're feeling in order to "integrate and absorb new awareness into your consciousness" (p. 169).

Move towards healthy empathy, having compassion without losing awareness of your own limits, and, always ask for help when necessary.

Self-affirming implicit value of existing as an individual, with your own feelings and thoughts

Chapter 10: How to Identify Emotionally Mature People

  • They're realistic and reliable

    • They work with reality rather than fighting it

    • They can feel and think at the same time

    • Their consistency makes them reliable

    • They don't take everything personally

  • They're respectful and reciprocal

    • They respect your boundaries

    • They give back

    • They are flexible and compromise well

    • They're even-tempered

    • They are willing to be influenced

    • They're truthful

    • They apologize and make amends

  • They're responsive

    • Their empathy makes you feel safe

    • They make you feel seen and understood

    • They like to comfort and be comforted

    • They reflect on their actions and try to change

    • They can laugh and be playful

    • They're enjoyable to be around

"Working through a difficult past makes things in the present more real and precious...I actually think it can feel more rewarding to give yourself a happy life now as an aware adult than to have always had it from the beginning" (Epilogue).