Relationships With Emotionally Immature Parents: Defining Realistic Expectations

The following excerpt is taken from Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD 

Although we’re accustomed to thinking of grown-ups as more mature than their children, what if some sensitive children come into the world and within a few years are more emotionally mature than their parents, who have been around for decades? 

What happens when these immature parents lack the emotional responsiveness necessary to meet their children’s emotional needs? 

The result is emotional neglect, a phenomenon as real as any physical deprivation. Emotional neglect in childhood leads to a painful emotional loneliness that can have a long-term negative impact on a person’s choices regarding relationships and intimate partners. 

Emotionally immature parents fear genuine emotion and pull back from emotional closeness. They use coping mechanisms that resist reality rather than dealing with it. They don’t welcome self-reflection, so they rarely accept blame or apologize. Their immaturity makes them inconsistent and emotionally unreliable, and they’re blind to their children’s needs once their own agenda comes into play. 

Myths and fairy tales have been depicting such parents for centuries. Think of how many fairy tales feature abandoned children who must find aid from animals and other helpers because their parents are careless, clueless, or absent. In some stories, the parent character is actually malevolent and the children must take their survival into their own hands. These stories have been popular for centuries because they touch a common chord: how children must fend for themselves after their parents have neglected or abandoned them. 

Apparently, immature parents have been a problem since antiquity. And this theme of emotional neglect by self-preoccupied parents can still be found in the most compelling stories of our popular culture. In books, movies, and television, the story of emotionally immature parents and the effects they have on their children’s lives makes for a rich subject. In some stories, this parent-child dynamic is the main focus; in others, it might be depicted in the backstory of a character. 

Knowing about differences in emotional maturity gives you a way of understanding why you can feel so emotionally lonely in spite of other people’s claims of love and kinship. By grasping the concept of emotional immaturity, you can develop more realistic expectations of other people, accepting the level of relationship possible with them instead of feeling hurt by their lack of response. 

Among psychotherapists, it’s long been known that emotionally disengaging from toxic parents is the way to restore peace and self-sufficiency. But how does one do this? We do it by understanding what we are dealing with.

Once you understand their traits, you’ll be able to judge for yourself what level of relationship might be possible, or impossible, with your parent. Knowing this allows us to return to ourselves, living life from our own deeper nature instead of focusing on parents who refuse to change. Understanding their emotional immaturity frees us from emotional loneliness as we realize their neglect wasn’t about us, but about them. When we see why they can’t be different, we can finally be free of our frustration with them, as well as our doubts about our own lovability.

Join Dr. Lindsay Gibson for her upcoming live online course, Treating Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents. Click here to learn more and enroll.