Ever since the Cleavers first beamed their way into American homes, the trope of precocious kids supported by loving parents has been held up as the “perfect” family.
And it’s true!
Studies show that growing up in a safe home under the care of one or more loving and engaged guardians is ideal.
But TV and reality are often leagues apart, and in the real world, many children must contend with emotionally distant parents.
So today, we’re looking at the signs of detached parenting and how to deal with it.
What Is an Emotionally Unavailable Parent?
Emotionally unavailable parents don’t meet their children’s psychological needs and can’t provide the comfort and validation needed for proper mental health growth.
Children who grow up with detached guardians may develop deep-seated insecurities, fears, depression, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and even PTSD.
Many also have anger management issues that continue well into adulthood if not addressed.
(Read about emotionally immature parents here)
Why are some parents emotionally absent?
Reasons abound, including:
- Trauma: Trauma has a profound impact on our physical and mental health. If someone was treated poorly as a child or experienced a negative life-changing event, it may cause detachment from their children. Getting therapy may help.
- Mental Health Condition: People of all ages are affected by mental health conditions — even parents — and certain neuro divergences may cause emotional detachment. Try to remember that mental health disorders aren’t a choice. While you have every right to shield yourself from harm and wrath — and should — sometimes, blaming someone for a personality condition is like blaming someone for getting breast cancer. Again, getting therapy will help, but you cannot force anyone to do something they don’t want to do.
- Hormone Deficiency: Hormones play a huge role in contouring our personalities and behaviors. If a parent has an undiagnosed imbalance of these mood-regulating chemicals, it can cause them to be emotionally detached.
- Crippling Insecurity: Pathological insecurity can stun a person into inaction because it often leads to fear. In other words, an individual may be emotionally unavailable because they’re afraid of messing you up or raising you incorrectly. Usually, this type of relationship can be healed with the right approach — because there is love.
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder: People with NPD are incapable of genuinely caring about anyone but themselves. If one of your parents deals with this condition, it’s useful to read up on it to gain some perspective. Doing so will make you realize it’s not your fault!
15 Signs of Emotionally Unavailable Parents
Are you struggling to make sense of your emotionally nonexistent mother or emotionally hollow father?
You’re not alone.
Millions of people worldwide are navigating similar waters.
The good news is that psychological researchers have conducted countless studies to help individuals in your situation, and they’ve identified numerous signs exhibited by emotionally absent parents.
Let’s unpack 15 of them.
1. They Don’t Listen
Detached parents tend not to pay attention to their children. They’re either preoccupied or completely withdrawn. This lack of validation can make you feel unloved, unwanted, and a bit lost.
However, it’s essential to understand that parents and children clash during certain life stages.
For example, teenager-parental relations are notoriously fraught, and the former often accuses the latter of not listening or understanding. So try not to confuse normal dynamics with emotional abuse.
2. They Unable To Sustain Emotional Bonds
Healthy parent-child relationships require emotional bonds. If that element is missing, things usually go awry for the kids. However, it’s not an insurmountable feat.
Plenty of people with emotionally distant parents have gone on to do wonderful things and be positive, productive, generous members of society.
Sometimes, a difficult child can help mold you into a spectacular adult.
3. They Don’t Ask Questions About Your Life
Do your parents not ask questions about your life? If so, it may be a sign of emotional distance. Feelings of inadequacy often accompany this behavior, which is completely normal — but it’s also not true.
Just because your parents aren’t well-socialized doesn’t mean you’re insignificant. They’re in the wrong, not you.
4. They’re Uninterested in Your Achievements
You get a good grade on a hard test, and your parents don’t praise you. When you tell them, they barely say a word. If you’re lucky, you may get a grunt and a shrug.
This type of behavior is a definite sign of emotional detachment. At the very least, they could mumble “good job,” but they don’t. Again, try not to internalize their disinterest. It’s their problem, not yours.
5. They Don’t Validate Your Hard Work
No matter how well you do in school, sports, or other activities, they never congratulate you. It feels like anything you do isn’t good enough. You bring home a report card with seven As and one B, and all they can focus on is the latter.
Not validating your efforts is another tactic tossed around by emotionally stunted parents. Sometimes, it stems from jealousy; other times, it’s just an inability to act affectionate.
6. They Aren’t Engaged in Your Activities
Not every parent has to coach the soccer team or be involved with the PTA. Truth be told, many compassionate, less competitive ones are not! But if they never show up to any of your events, that’s a red flag.
We’re not talking about parents who work 9-to-5 jobs and can’t get away from work. Instead, we’re talking about the guardians who could be more involved but choose not to be.
7. They Don’t Make You Feel Important
Do your parents make you feel like you’re not a priority? Being dismissed is difficult. It may make you feel worthless or unloved — which is especially hard when you’re going through growing pains.
And yet, this is the norm for emotionally unavailable parents.
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8. They Don’t Say “I Love You”
Sure, “I love you” is just a phrase — but it means so much when coming from your parents. Their love is the foundation for your self-esteem. Refusing to say it verges on cruel.
And don’t fall for the excuse that they do it to “toughen you up.” Vulnerability isn’t a weakness; it’s a strength.
And while it’s probably not appropriate to live in a never-ending state of defenselessness, the one place it should be OK to let down your guard is at home, among your family.
9. They Don’t Spend Time With You
Parents who prioritize their own lives over their children need a parenting course, STAT. Yes, it’s fine for parents to pamper themselves and engage in self-care, but if it’s detrimental to the kids, it’s a problem.
This type of behavior is indicative of someone with detachment or self-absorption issues.
10. They Disregard Your Happiness
Do they not care about how you feel? Is your happiness off their radar? This is another sign your guardians are not emotionally invested in child-rearing.
Emotionally absent parents don’t have the skills to give more than they get.
11. They Yell a Lot
Common wisdom says there’s no use crying over spilled milk, but detached parents will shout, scream, and holler over such inconsequential things. It’s an over-reaction, and living with excessive hostility can lead to lifetime scars.
Sure, sometimes parents lose their tempers. But if the yelling and screaming are constant, there’s a reason for concern. It’s not healthy.
12. They’re Friendlier to Neighbors Than You
Are your parents one way in public and another behind closed doors? Do they greet neighbors with smiles and laughs and then spend the night mopping around the house? Parents who do this are usually the type of people who care too much about appearances.
Children stuck in these situations often feel empty and forlorn. After all, the folks who are supposed to love them unconditionally are more concerned with the competitive judgments of virtual strangers.
13. They Prioritize Work Above Children
Of course, parents need to work. Heck, providing is part of being a good parent! But if your parents never make time for you and always prioritize money over your emotional development, they’re messing up.
14. They Won’t Take Accountability
Accountability is a cornerstone of maturation. Unfortunately, not everyone learns it — including emotionally detached parents. They’ll blame their children at the drop of a hat for their mistakes.
They also tend to label you as “overly dramatic” for trying to express themselves or discuss the family’s problems.
15. They Let You Do Whatever You Want
Folks who aren’t emotionally invested in you tend not to care what you do or how you act. As such, they let you do whatever you want. Being overly strict isn’t healthy, and neither is being too permissive.
Structure is good for social development, and if your parents don’t give you any, it’s a sign of neglect.
How Do You Deal With An Emotionally Unavailable Parent?
We’ve established how emotionally absent parents behave. Now let’s explore how to handle it.
1. Think of Them as Children
In some ways, emotionally distant parents behave like bratty children. Learning to look at them that way will help keep you from internalizing their barbs and negligence.
2. Don’t Try To Change Their Behavior
It’s nearly impossible to change another person. Improvement comes from within. Their behavior may be maddening and hurtful, but trying to force them to be a different person may make matters worse.
3. Walk Away
No rule says you must stick around if your parents are acting ridiculous. We’re not suggesting you move out — although it’s an option if you have alternatives — but you can go into another room and close the door.
4. Tell a Trusted Adult
If things are unbearable, tell a trusted adult about the situation. They’ll be able to help you get the appropriate help. If the emotional or physical detachment has mushroomed into abuse, there is no shame in getting authorities involved. It’s the right thing to do.
However, ask for help from another adult. It’s prudent to get an outsider’s perspective. They can assess the situation objectively.
5. Don’t Onboard Their Baggage
Life is challenging enough without taking on someone else’s baggage. It’s rough when you live with detached parents, but don’t make their problems your own.
6. Parent Yourself
It’s not ideal, but if you’re stuck with an emotionally detached parent, for the time being, learn to parent yourself. Give yourself compliments, and shield yourself from their toxicity.
If you can, lean on aunts, uncles, grandparents, or cousins. One day, you’ll be free of the situation and able to craft a life you love. The key is not to give up.
You can’t have a healthy relationship with an emotionally absent mother or father. So do the best you can to get through this stage.
With a touch of self-confidence and a little perseverance, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.