Growing Up With & Healing From Emotionally Immature Parents
Updated: Mar 7
Emotional maturity is the ability to self-reflect, self-regulate, process emotions, communicate emotions, and be consistent and emotionally reliable. People who are emotionally mature are able to apologize and enact change in their own behavior. They're able to differentiate themselves from their original family and have built a life of their own.
On the other hand, emotional immaturity is just the opposite. People who are emotionally immature fear genuine emotions and intimacy with others, and they lack the ability to self-reflect, self-regulate, and have a difficult time accepting blame or even apologizing (Gibson, 2015). As parents, emotionally immature people can't see their children's emotional needs, causing their children to lose to their parents' survival instincts.
Before identifying our own emotional maturity levels, it can be helpful to identify if our parents were emotionally mature or immature. We're going to dive into the different personality traits and types of emotionally immature parents and steps you can take to heal as an adult.
Personality Traits Associated with Emotionally Immature Parents
Emotionally immature parents have a specific set of characteristics that set them apart from those who are emotionally mature. The personality characteristics listed below are all interconnected, meaning that if someone displays one of these characteristics, they are often prone to more.
Rigid and single-minded - once they form an opinion, they will not change their mind; there's one right answer
Low stress tolerance - reactive responses to stress that deny, distort, or replace reality; inability to regulate emotions causes them to overreact
Do what feels best - the childhood instinct to do what feels good doesn't change; makes decisions based on what feels best in the moment
Subjective, not objective - when interpreting situations, how they feel is more important than what's actually happening; what is true doesn't matter compared to what feels true
Little respect for differences - annoyed by other people's different thoughts & opinions; believes everyone should see things the way they do; only comfortable in relationships where everyone has the same beliefs
Egocentric - self-preoccupied in an obsessive way and are dictated by their own anxiety and insecurity, fearing they'll be exposed as unlovable, bad, or inadequate; defenses are kept high so their self-worth can't be threatened
Self-preoccupied and self-involved - their self-esteem rises or falls based on how others react to them; unable to take criticism, therefore they minimize their mistakes
Self-referential, not self-reflective - the road leads back to them in all interactions; unable to consider their role in an issue; unable to assess their own behavior; their focus remains on their intention, not their impact
Promote role reversal - parent relates to the child as if the child were the parent; expects child to be their confidant or be happy for them/praise them (like a child would expect of a parent)
Low empathy and are emotionally insensitive - blind to how they make others feel due to being out of touch with their own deeper feelings
Inconsistent and contradictory - due to potentially being unable to integrate & express their own emotions as children, they grew up to be emotionally inconsistent adults; step in and out of emotional states; love towards others depends on their mood
Develop strong defenses that take the place of the self - learned as children that certain feelings were "bad" and unconsciously developed defenses against those "bad" feelings
Fear feelings - automatic anxiety reaction when it comes to deep emotional connection; genuine emotion makes them feel exposed
Can be killjoys - struggles to celebrate & enjoy their children's excitement and may change the subject or warn them to not get their hopes up; will say something dismissive or skeptical
Has intense but shallow emotions - easily overwhelmed by emotion, and instead of feeling things deeply, they react superficially; may appear to indicate that they're passionate & deeply emotional, but the emotional is fleeting; dramatic, but not deep
Doesn't experience mixed emotions - reactions tend to be black-and-white; no gray areas; unable to experience anything that could be emotionally complicated
Difficulties with conceptual thinking - intellectual objectivity is limited to topics that aren't emotionally arousing
Proneness to literal thinking - they talk about what happened or what they observed, but not their feelings or ideas; unable to have meaningful conversations
Intellectualizing obsessively - obsessed with certain topics; this preoccupation with ideas distracts them from emotional intimacy with others; they discuss their favorite topics but don't engage the other person
Types of Emotionally Immature Parents
Now that we've look at the personality traits of emotionally immature parents, let's take a look at the different types of emotionally immature parents.
Emotional Parents - operate based off of their feelings, usually moving between over-involvement to abrupt withdrawal; rely on others to stabilize their moods; treat smalls upsets like it's the end of the world and view people as either abandoners or rescuers
Driven Parents - busy and compulsively goal-oriented; controlling and interfering when it comes to being involved in their children's lives; can't stop perfecting everything, including others
Passive Parents - avoid dealing with anything upsetting; allows the more dominant mate to take control, and allows abuse or neglect to occur by choosing to "look the other way"; they cope by minimizing their feelings and situations
Rejecting Parents - doesn't enjoy emotional intimacy and doesn't want to be bothered by children; tolerance for the needs of others does not exist; interactions are explosive; show little closeness or real engagement and usually wants to be left alone to do what they want
Steps Toward Healing
If you grew up with an emotionally immature parent, you might still be holding on to the fantasy that they will change and finally give you the love and care you've searched for all these years. One of the first steps of healing is recognizing that it's not your responsibility to make your parents change, or even live with the hope that they will. Emotionally immature parents don't have the ability to self-reflect, therefore the likelihood that they'll ever seek professional mental health help or even accept how they've made you feel and begin to change their behavior is not a realistic option for them.
Your relationship with your emotionally immature parents can be different than what you have now, but it won't depend on if they change. It will depend on the healthy changes you enact to help you gain emotional freedom.
The first way to do this is to act from you own true nature, not the role-self that pleases and serves your parents needs. Express yourself, then let it go. Release the need for the other person to hear you or change. The point is to give you the freedom to clearly communicate in a calm, clear way. Their response is not your responsibility.
Act as an observer with your parent during conversations and interactions. Pretend you're a scientist. How would you describe their body language or facial expressions? Their tone of voice? How do they respond when you try to relate to them? What are you feeling? If you find yourself getting emotional in conversations with them, you've fallen back into believing that you need their validation in order to be okay. Silently repeat to yourself "detach". If you're still unable to detach, find an excuse to leave the room.
When observing, it gives you the ability to stay in a state of relatedness with your parents rather than an emotional relationship. In relatedness, there's communication, but the goal of having a satisfying emotional exchange is off the table. Your focus is on the outcome of the conversation, not on the relationship.
You are not responsible to change your emotionally immature parent. You are free to exist independently from them, and you have the ability to create an emotionally freeing life that isn't dominated by their enmeshment, manipulation, and control.
For more information on this topic, consider reading Dr. Gibson's book on adult children of emotionally immature parents, which can be found here on her website.
Gibson, L. (2015). Adult children of emotionally immature parents: How to heal from distant, rejecting, or self-involved parents.
We understand the impact parents have on their children and are dedicated to helping people process their childhood experiences to become healthy adults. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, visit our therapists here.