Signs Your Parents Are Emotionally Unavailable and How To Heal

September 19, 2022

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About The Editor
About The Editor

Theresa Valenzky graduated from the University of Akron with a Bachelor of Arts in News/Mass Media Communication and a certificate in psychology.

About The Writer
About The Writer

Sara Graff is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in Florida.

About The Medical Reviewer
About The Medical Reviewer

Dr. Angela Phillips is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher.

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The parent-child emotional attachment and bond can impact the quality of emotional connections to others through adulthood. Research supports the importance of the parent and child having a warm, loving, nurturing and supportive relationship. Sometimes, one or more parents are emotionally unavailable to the child. When this happens, it can have long-lasting negative effects and challenges for the child. But, with support and guidance, healing is possible.

What Does It Mean To Be Emotionally Unavailable?

Emotional availability (EA) refers to the quality of the emotional connection between two people. In a parent-child relationship, EA typically describes the parent’s emotional response to the child. This emotional connection begins in infancy and continues into adulthood.

In a relationship with an emotionally available parent, the parent demonstrates appropriate emotional responses to the child during stressful times and typical situations that occur each day. The parent supports the child and responds to the child’s needs. A healthy connection and attachment develop between the parent and child. 

When a parent is emotionally unavailable, the parent does not attend to the child’s needs. The parent may be physically present in a situation but not emotionally present for the child. The child may feel like the parent is neglecting their emotional needs because they don’t receive the desired emotional support from the parent. The parent may be negative and hostile when interacting with the child. The child may feel very inadequate. 

Some examples of emotionally unavailable parent situations:

  • The child comes home from school feeling very upset because other kids are teasing or bullying the child. The child tearfully tells the parent about the situation. The parent looks at the child, gives a big sigh and leaves the room. The parent does not offer a hug, comfort or a discussion on the incident. The child is left alone in the room, crying and feeling very alone and scared.
  • The child comes home after receiving an A on a very difficult test in school. The parent is in the kitchen cooking dinner. The child excitedly tells the parent about the grade and how most other students did not do well on the test. The parent does not congratulate, hug or high-five the child. The parent responds, “You better get to your homework for tonight.” and returns to cooking dinner.

Emotional availability occurs across a spectrum. It involves different factors in the relationship. The factors that influence the emotional connections in the parent-child relationship can include:

  • Sensitivity of the parent
  • Responsiveness of the parent
  • Creating a positive emotional environment
  • Supporting the child’s learning
  • Setting appropriate limits
  • Encouraging the development of autonomy
  • Regulating negative emotions

About the Emotional Availability Assessment

The Emotional Availability Assessment (EA) is a useful research-based tool for measuring the emotional connection between a parent and child. Dr. Zeynop Brinson first published the EA in 1998 and continued to work on it, publishing updates in 2008. 

The EA assessment uses six dimensions to assess the level of emotional attachment between the parent and child. It assesses the parent and child separately.

The four dimensions that assess the parent measure:

  • Sensitivity: the parent’s behaviors and emotions that help to develop and maintain a healthy and positive emotional connection with the child
  • Structuring: the parent’s support of the child’s learning, guidance to a higher level of understanding and help towards the development of the child’s sense of autonomy and independence
  • Non-intrusiveness: the parent’s ability to let the child be independent without interfering or interrupting
  • Non-hostility: the parent’s ability to regulate their expression of negative emotions

The two dimensions that assess the child measure:

  • Child responsiveness: the child’s level of willingness and joy to engage with the parent
  • Child involvement: the level of the child initiating involvement of the parent in their activity by inviting the parent and talking to the parent

Based on the scores on the above factors, the assessment tool places the quality of emotional availability into four categories:

  • Emotionally available: A nurturing parent who remains present and tuned into the child’s needs with a mainly positive and warm connection.
  • Complicated: A parent who can present as warm and positive but inconsistently responds to the child’s needs. This type of parent may seem immature and not authentic.
  • Detached: This parent avoids a close emotional connection to the child with distant, cool and mechanical behaviors.
  • Problematic or disturbed: This parent presents with an odd emotional presence and does not respond to the child’s basic needs. The parent minimally engages with the child, and there may be negativity, hostility and intrusiveness in the interactions.

Why Are Some Parents Emotionally Absent?

Many influences throughout a person’s life can contribute to their level of emotional availability. These influences may be learned, experienced, environmental or biological.

Research has identified different styles of attachment. The parent’s attachment style can influence the quality of their emotional availability to their child. Certain attachment styles may be more likely to result in an emotionally unavailable parent:

  • Avoidant attachment style: avoids developing emotional intimacy with the child, resulting in minimal efforts to invest socially and emotionally in the relationship
  • Anxious, or ambivalent, style: forms an insecure attachment to the child and feels reluctant to develop an emotional connection
  • Disorganized style: inconsistent in responding to the needs of the child

Anxiety can also contribute to a parent’s emotional unavailability. Anxious parents may have difficulty regulating their emotions and staying present in the moment with the child. An anxious parent can be rigid when relating to the child. They may respond to the child based on their need to control the child’s environment and those around them. Anxious people may fear developing an emotional connection with the child and getting hurt. This fear may stem from past experiences with their parents or other relationships. An anxious parent may be unable to remain calm and relaxed in the child’s presence.

A parent who has experienced childhood trauma may have difficulty being emotionally available to the child. They may have unresolved feelings and confusion about how to engage in an emotionally available relationship with their child. The parent may not know how to relate to the child so that the child feels accepted, loved and understood. The parent may have trouble regulating their emotions, being present and tuning in to their child’s needs.

Signs You Have Emotionally Unavailable Parents

Emotionally unavailable parents may present with different levels of availability and behaviors. Some signs suggesting a parent is emotionally unavailable include:

  • They seem impatient or indifferent. 
  • They don’t discuss emotions, especially negative ones.
  • They don’t do activities with you.
  • They don’t spend time alone with you.
  • They do not offer compliments or praise.
  • They have trouble expressing their emotions (positive or negative).
  • They don’t provide support or comfort.
  • They interact with you in a hostile or intrusive way.
  • They have trouble regulating or controlling their negative emotions.
  • They focus more on their needs than yours.
  • They are angry, antagonistic or temperamental with you.
  • They get defensive and have trouble allowing for your point of view.
  • They have difficulty understanding the impact of their behaviors and actions on others.
  • They don’t validate you.

The Long-term Effects of Having Emotionally Unavailable Parents

Having an emotionally unavailable parent can have long-lasting effects beyond childhood. Some people externally react to their parent-child relationship and blame others for problems. Externalizers may struggle with aggression and impulse control. Other people may respond more internally. Internalizers may be more likely to develop symptoms of anxiety or depression or withdrawal from people. 

People can also develop interpersonal and relationship problems when an emotionally unavailable parent has raised them. Some common relationship problems include:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Minimizing their own needs
  • Increased risk of being in an abusive relationship
  • Development of unhealthy attachment styles
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Feel insecure in relationships
  • Prioritize meeting the needs of others
  • Attention seeking behaviors 
  • Unhealthy boundaries in relationships

How To Heal

While having an emotionally unavailable parent can significantly impact mental health and interpersonal relationships, people can work on healing and creating a healthier self.

Finding Your Inner Child

The inner child is the part of you that lives inside and seeks the love, support and validation you did not receive from an emotionally unavailable parent. Finding your inner child, embracing it and allowing it to bloom can help heal. Begin by recognizing and accepting the pain experienced by the emotionally unavailable parent, and then soothe your inner child. Some activities to consider in finding your inner child are:

  • Writing a letter to your inner child
  • Journaling as your inner child
  • Finding time to play and have fun
  • Creative outlets (art, music, dance)
  • Engaging in activities that you enjoyed as a child
  • Playing games
  • Talking to your inner child and offer validation, support and comfort

Self-care

Self-care involves the different things you do to care for your emotional, mental and physical health. It helps you to build strength and resilience to promote your healing. If an emotionally unavailable parent raised you, you might not have learned about the importance of self-care. You may not know how to provide it. Some important areas to address and consider in a self-care routine are:

  • Sleep 
  • Eating well
  • Balancing work and personal life
  • Exercise
  • Attending doctor appointments
  • Taking any necessary medications, vitamins and supplements
  • Socializing with friends and family
  • Doing fun activities
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Journaling
  • Reading

Surrounding Yourself With Emotionally Available People

Being raised by an emotionally unavailable parent likely taught you patterns of interacting with others in an unhealthy way. You may not have learned how to be emotionally available in relationships or feel comfortable and safe doing so. Connecting and engaging with people can teach you and help you learn how to engage with others in an emotionally available manner. It can also teach you how it feels to connect with others who are emotionally available to you. You can look at who you know in your family, friends, work or other activities who demonstrate healthy interactions and relationships. These people can be a great support and community with whom you can connect.

Exploring Your Feelings

It is common to have difficulties expressing emotions if you have an emotionally unavailable parent. As part of healing from this situation, you must learn to explore, identify and express your thoughts and feelings. You can do this by journaling, meditation or doing mindfulness exercises.

Setting Boundaries With Your Parent

To heal fully, you will likely need to get comfortable setting boundaries with your parent. If the relationship continues to jeopardize your well-being, then it is a step that can help you move forward with your life. Setting boundaries can help you heal from the hurt and establish emotionally available relationships. You may choose to set limitations and boundaries regarding your parent-child relationship or completely take a step away from the relationship. Whichever you choose, it is a step in your healing process.

Seeking Therapy

Working with a mental health professional can foster a healing environment for you. In therapy, you can feel safe and supported to identify and express your thoughts and feelings. A therapist can teach you skills to help your process and heal from the pain. Therapy can help you develop and maintain emotionally healthy relationships.

If you or someone you know has experienced an emotionally unavailable parent relationship, the Nobu app can help. Nobu offers several different options for support and assistance. You can access free mental health support, including learning coping skills, journaling prompts and goal setting. You can also connect to a mental health professional to help address trauma and other issues during online therapy sessions. The app is available for download on the Apple Store and the Google Play Store

Take Control Of Your Mental Health

Sign up and download Nobu today.
About The Editor
About The Editor

Theresa Valenzky graduated from the University of Akron with a Bachelor of Arts in News/Mass Media Communication and a certificate in psychology.

About The Writer
About The Writer

Sara Graff is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in Florida.

About The Medical Reviewer
About The Medical Reviewer

Dr. Angela Phillips is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher.

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