The topic of emotionally immature parents is an important one that is densely layered with nuance, generational pain and trauma, and logical defense mechanisms. This article is for the parents whose children have called them emotionally immature, made the decision to limit contact, and find themselves feeling confused, hurt, and angry. Hopefully, light can be shown on why your child may have made that decision for themselves and provide a path towards acceptance and healing either together as a family, or individually.
What Does it Mean to be an Emotionally Immature Parent?
The term emotionally immature parent (EIP) grew in popularly, at first, when the book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Clinical Psychologist Lindsay Gibson, PysD, was published. For many, the concept of EIPs was groundbreaking as it gave a name to painful childhood experiences and relationships with family members that once might have been challenging to articulate.
An emotionally immature parent describes a parent-child dynamic in which a child’s material needs may be consistently met, however, their emotional needs were not, leading to the child growing up feeling emotionally neglected. Frequently, emotionally immature parents lack the awareness that their child is suffering and oftentimes do not have the emotional intelligence and coping skills to adequately attune to the child’s needs and provide the emotional intimacy the child is longing for. Emotionally immature parents might have thoughts such as:
“My child had an amazing life. They had food, a nice home, and everything they needed; they have nothing to be upset about.”
“People are so soft these days; when I was a child, I was abused/neglected, but I made it through and turned out fine!”
“I may not have been a perfect parent, but there are children out there who were actually abused. My kid(s) had it great.”
Thinking these thoughts does not inherently make you a bad parent. There are very real experiences you likely were exposed to that led to the way you parented your own child/children, so please know this information is not an attack, it’s merely a way to provide additional context that you did not choose to be a parent who struggles with emotional maturity. That being said, there are opportunities to learn and take accountability for hurt feelings, heal potential trauma, and build a real connection with your child.
How Does Someone Become an Emotionally Immature Parent?
For many EIPs, they often grew up with an emotionally immature parent during their own upbringings. Today, thanks to the accessibility of information via the internet, younger generations are breaking cycles of trauma by identifying dysfunctional family dynamics such as experiencing passive parents or rejecting parents, attending therapy to heal from childhood trauma, and then setting boundaries to improve their relationships and mental health.
People from older generations were often exposed to messaging of “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” when it comes to emotional and mental health challenges. Many were not taught that uncomfortable emotions are valid, can be safely expressed, and are not a burden to those around them; this ideology can then show up in the way a child is parented.
Older generations did not grow up with the same amount of information and essentially had to parent with the tools and experiences they are familiar with, which might involve emotionally neglectful parenting styles, even if neglect was not what was intended. It might help to think of the phrase “intent vs. impact,” meaning the intent might not have been malicious, but the impact was nonetheless felt.
Repairing & Making Amends
It can be incredibly painful when it comes to talking about trauma, no matter what side of the conversation you’re on. If your child has approached you and has attempted to discuss the impact(s) of their childhood, it can be understandably challenging to actively listen and communicate without becoming defensive.
Your child coming to you and having the willingness to be vulnerable in sharing their experience shows immense love and desire to not only repair, but to ultimately improve their relationship with you.
Drop your defenses
You may feel the urge to defend yourself by denying what your child is sharing with you, offering a different version of events, or centering the conversation on yourself and your feelings. These are normal reactions humans have called psychological defenses and can often be automatic and reactionary. Notice when you have the urge to refute what your child is telling you. Try not to act on it right in the moment but be mindful what is coming up for you emotionally.
Try to remember that your child is coming to you with something important and vulnerable they want to share with you. You may feel a desire to interject when you hear something upsetting but try your best to really listen. Really hear what your child is telling you with an open heart and keep in mind that they are most likely not trying to hurt you, but instead, help you understand their point of view, heal themselves, and their relationship with you.
Don’t invalidate, try to empathize
Your child’s experience is their experience. It most likely won’t help the situation to deny or invalidate the pain they are sharing with you and will likely result in them feeling as if they are walking on eggshells. Even if you don’t understand, remember, or see things the way they do, it doesn’t take away that they experienced real pain. Coming into the conversation with empathy for the pain you child has experienced can help drive the conversation in a more regulated and productive manner and strengthen your emotional connection.
Start your own therapy
If you are struggling to grapple with the information your child has shared with you, it might be beneficial to work with a therapist who can help you process your emotions. It’s very possible you are carrying your own unhealed traumatic experiences and you absolutely deserve to heal from any trauma or pain you experienced from your own childhood. With an experienced trauma therapist, you can simultaneously heal from your own trauma and have support while working on the relationship with your child/children.
The Benefits of Messy Conversations
It’s important to remember that your child opening up to you about their childhood is rarely ever about placing blame and more so is your child’s attempt to heal their own wounds. By talking with you, they are inviting you to be a part of their healing process and to cultivate healthy relationships. Decisions to limit or end contact with a parent(s), for most people, is devastating and not a decision that someone comes to without months, or even years of reflection and internal work.
These conversations can be hard, but they can also be groundbreaking opportunities for growth as a family and for each person individually. It’s a path towards developing closer, more authentic relationships and ultimately, healing together.