In an ideal world, parents are more emotionally mature than the children.
However, over the years I have met many adults (and teens) who had experienced an upbringing where the basic emotional needs were not met by the parents. For many reasons, there was a lack of emotional connection between the parents and the children, leading to a deep sense of loneliness and pain. What can be confusing, is that on paper, you should be happy; a good job, financially secure, some friends, and maybe in a solid relationship yourself.
But you just can’t shake this deep sense of loneliness and pain that doesn’t make sense. In fact, you feel guilty for feeling this pain. What is this?
It’s because when you were young, you got mostly what you needed, except connection.
It’s this lack of connection that has left the emotional bucket half-empty years later. Lindsay Gibson (2015, 2019) has written about this and I often recommend her books to my clients. She outlines 4 common types of parents that create such disconnection and pain. Some might fit your experience:
The Emotional Parent
The emotional parent is all over the place, and the emotional accelerator is either off or on full speed. They are driven by their feelings, especially anxiety, which makes them the most childish of the four types. They drag their family with them in their meltdowns or depressed days. What they feel, the family feels; anger, depression, elation or despair. In the extreme, they could have a mental illness that is unaddressed such as Bipolar disorder or a personality disorder. Because their foundation is their emotions, you tend to walk on egg shells, not knowing what type of parent you are going to wake up to. This has now made you hypervigilant to the ‘emotional weather’ of other people’s moods. You have learnt to never rest. Sometimes you also had to look after your parent, especially if they were on a downer emotionally, or physically look after them due to their drugs or alcohol (which they used to regulate their emotions). In this scenario, my clients often will say something like “I didn’t know who the parent was; them or me!”
The Driven Parent
These are the parents that never stop, especially with their careers, but it extends to the children (who they see as little extensions of themselves). On the surface they look like high-performing adults, but the performance wheel-barrow they are pushing is a ticking time-bomb for the kids (and them). I can recall a number of parents who have brought their child or teen in for therapy because the child was depressed, anxious or angry. The real issue is that one or both parents are working a 60hr week with no time for the children. They live in a great home, go to the private school, but all the kids want is mum or dad time. The pressure put on the children academically is also way too high. These parents simply can’t hit the pause button and ‘be with’ their kids. The result? You grow up with a deep-seated sense of shame; that you are never good enough (despite much success), and you just can’t sit still.
The Passive Parent
On the surface, these parents appear to have some connection with their children, but it’s shallow. Sometimes you will find this parent attached to one of the other 3 parent types. With this parent, it’s not so much what they do, it’s what they don’t do. Sometimes they are so self-absorbed because of a hobby or friends. Other times it’s a more intentional turning the blind eye to serious matters in the family system. While they can show some love and empathy, when things get stressful, they are nowhere to be seen; physically or emotionally. This can have devastating effects on the young person if the other parent was abusive. I can recall many client stories where some of the deepest hurt was not just because of what the other parent did, but also because the passive parent did nothing. The result? A cemented belief that you are not worth protecting or not worth investing in, not to mention making up excuses for others who are passive or hurtful to you now as an adult.
The Rejecting Parent
This parent can often be the most damaging and are often abusive. When you reflect on a rejecting parent’s behavior, you wonder why they had children in the first place. You get the feeling that they actually hate you sometimes, or at the very least, just don’t like you. Rejection is deeply painful for a child and the distress it causes can last a lifetime. These parents have emotional walls a mile high and can make the home a deeply sad place. In my opinion, this type of parent is the most damaging. When a human comes into the world, one of the first things they need to know is, Am I wanted? When the answer is no, the foundation for adult relationships later on, one’s sense of identity, and ability to connect with others, can have deep cracks. Anger and fear are usually the two most common emotions in these families, with the child growing up too fearful to ask for help, or ending up in a toxic relationship as an adult because this is all they feel they deserve. They have learnt firsthand the power of words in a family.
Now, all the above are on a continuum from mild to severe, and may well be a blend of two or more. Lindsay Gibson (2015, 2019) also discusses how some people will internalize the effects (dumping the pain on themselves), while other people will externalize the effects (dumping the pain on others), or have a mixture. Either way, the source of the pain is a mixture of unresolved pain from the past, compounded by unhelpful habits in the present to cope with that pain. To change this, I highly recommend EMDR therapy which I have used for many years to help ‘clear the clutter’ of the past to help create new patterns.
Finally, I want to quickly say something to the parents who are reading this. I know it is sometimes hard to give our kids that special connection when you yourself didn’t get enough of it. Sometimes parenting brings up all manner of guilt, shame and failure when we get it wrong. Years ago I asked the adult daughter of a well-known therapist in Brisbane what was the most memorable childhood thing she recalled about her father, thinking it would be his sagely advice or great conflict resolution skills. Instead, it was, “playing on the beach” and “Dad being a dag”. In other words, it was the emotional connection. Parents, don’t worry if they miss a day of school and they want to play monopoly with you. Just hang out with your kids and chill with them. That’s what they’ll remember.
Author: Dr David Ward, BSocWk, BA., Grad Dip (Couple Thpy), M.Couns., MPhil., PhD.
Dr David Ward is a psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience, providing therapy to adults, adolescents, children, couples, and families. His areas of professional interest include the use of EMDR therapy to help with recovery from domestic violence, child abuse, PTSD, depression and anxiety; family therapy; and working with victims of spiritual and ritual abuse.
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Gibson, Lindsay C., (2015) Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, New Harbinger Publications.
Gibson, Lindsay C., (2019) Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents, New Harbinger Publications.