Emotionally Immature Parents
Often at the core of our codependent, perfectionist, and people-pleasing habits are emotionally immature parents.
Our parents are older than us, and as children, we would understandably look to them for wisdom and guidance. But parents are fallible human people like us too. They have their own baggage, trauma, issues. They have their own upbringing and everything they learned from the parents that came before them. Some are able to process their own emotions and experiences, and are able to show up as emotionally mature and are available for the young ones in their lives in a real and powerful way.
While for some people raising kids, that is more than their nervous system has the capacity to handle.
It’s so much more than they can manage with the skills and tools that they got from their parents, and theirs, and theirs.
We will dive into how to know if your parents were emotionally mature and if you are showing up to parenting from emotional immaturity.
The term parent here refers to the adult human who was responsible for your care when you were a child. And that can 100% be an aunty, a tia, abuela, grandmother, foster or adoptive parent, or other caretakers. Not just biological parents. We’ll use parent as a stand-in. Put the word in there that works for you and your experience.
Putting a label on emotionally immature parenting is not going to undo the harm you experienced or are experiencing now in this relationship. Yet it will help us see what really was, what really is, and we can declare, I did nothing wrong, you did nothing wrong, and from compassion and love and care, simultaneously that your parents are not necessarily—individual results may vary—but are not necessarily the villains here.
We are simply stating, “Turns out I was raised by an emotionally immature parent,” and we do that because it can help to bring clarity, understanding, and compassionate healing.
Because awareness is healing in and of itself, and awareness is the gateway to acceptance.
And in your own time, action to heal the hurt that came from living in that situation so you can set healthier boundaries now, so you can change the relationship from your side of it, so the years that you have remaining with an emotionally immature parent can be the best ones possible.
So, as we talk about some signs that you may have been raised by an emotionally immature person, I’ll invite you to pay attention to what resonates with you. Not only cognitively in your mind, but in your heart and somatically, in your body, if that feels safe to do.
Emotionally immature parents don’t know how to regulate their nervous systems.
So they jump from ventral vagus, which is the safe and social part of our nervous system, to sympathetic activation, fight or flight. Someone’s attacking me, I gotta get out of here, everything’s wrong. Anger, frustration, anxiety, worry, stress easily.
Or if they’ve been doing that for a lifetime and their systems are depleted, then they may drop down into dorsal; the freeze, foot all the way off the gas, “I don’t care, just go out with whoever you want to go out with, I don’t know, do whatever you want to do,” checked out.
And because they are coming from emotional immaturity, they’re not checked in with their adult self, they generally don’t realize they’re there.
They don’t know how to regulate themselves and they often project their dysregulation onto their kids, which can sound like, “This is all your fault.”
Because their lack of capacity to be with their feelings means that having an emotion is untenable, they often buffer. And they outsource the blame and the shame and their kids are an easy target.
So growing up this way, you don’t learn how to regulate yourself, or how to be with discomfort. Definitely not to see discomfort as a place for growth and expansion.
Instead, for the emotionally immature parent and their child, discomfort or challenging feelings or nervous system experiences are something to be avoided, pushed down, suppressed.
I think if you did a study of the children of emotionally immature parents, you’d find an awful lot of belly aches, jaw clenching, chronic pain, along with a lot of unexpressed anger, rage, and sadness, and the buffering habits that come with not feeling safe feeling or expressing your emotions.
Another major sign of being raised by an emotionally immature parent is feeling emotionally lonely when you’re with them, which stems from their lack of empathy and their lack of capacity to connect outward with actual you.
Now, your parents may have done all the external parenting things. Provided food, shelter, water, and education, and maybe even shuttle service to after-school activities. But that is different than providing for a child emotionally.
When someone is available emotionally, they can, in a healthy and loving way, separate their emotional experience from someone else’s. They can say, “You are hurting and I am your parent, so that’s what matters most right now. I can hold space, I can be here for you because I can be okay for me.”
And just as importantly can understand that they are in the parental role with their child. And if they’re not actually okay, which is totally fine, they can honor their own feelings and can regulate their own nervous system or turn to another adult for co-regulation.
Even the most emotionally stable amongst us will have times when we can’t be that person for someone else, and that’s okay.
But an emotionally mature parent can be there, can hold their own emotionally so that their kids can be in their feelings most of the time.
That parent, the mature parent, can be there for the heartbreak, the friend drama, the unfair teacher, the growing pains, the he-took-my-Legos, and all the other stuff that comes with growing up as these complex human beings that we are.
For the emotionally immature parent, this is too much to handle most of the time. They may shut down or blow up when you’re in your feelings because they aren’t emotionally stable enough.
That lack of empathy and emotional maturity or nervous system capacity can also show up as a parent who operates primarily from their ego. Now, we love a good ego when it’s in balance.
But when people are ego driven or egocentric because of emotional immaturity, the way toddlers are, they may act like divas, or they may act more like doormats. Either is a dramatic stance in which they are centered.
Divas pull all the attention to themselves and present with narcissistic tendencies or traits, habits.
They are larger than life and steal the show. You may have an exciting announcement or news to share, and the diva parent will find a way to make it all about them.
The flip side of the ego-driven diva is the ego-driven doormat.
When someone plays the victim over and over, and I’m obviously not talking about actually being victimized here, but when they play the victim, never holding boundaries, being passive aggressive, blaming others for all their hurts, creating drama in which once again, they are centered.
That behavior signals ego overload, just as much as the attention-seeking diva. The doormat parent will take your sadness about an emotional hurt and make it all about them and how sad they are, or how disappointed they feel, trying to redirect sympathy to themselves, rather than extending it out to their hurting child, no matter how old you are.
When these issues go unaddressed then all these childhood issues can follow a person into adulthood, and thus the role of parent.
If these descriptions are resonating for you, I want to invite you to take a few deep breaths.
If it feels safe to, I’ll invite you to consider allowing yourself to sit with the discomfort or whatever other feelings may be coming up for you. Anger, sadness, disappointment, rage. See if you can feel safe within yourself, staying with them for just a moment.
There’s one more really clear and important sign that you were raised by an emotionally immature parent.
This is one I want to bring up because it’s something you can do something about if you’re still in relationship with that parent.
So many people raised by emotionally immature parents either were and possibly even as an adult still are the person doing the lion’s share of the emotional work in the relationship.
Now, some people happily declare that their parent is their best friend, and this may be perfectly healthy in some cases.
In the parent-child dynamic, their job is to provide for our physical, mental, and emotional needs. Their job is to be a stabilizing force as we come of age and find our way in the world. As the kids, we are the ones trying to make sense of the world and along the way, making all the mistakes that our parents likely made before us.
A parent should be there to support, guide, and comfort.
And when our parent feels more like a best friend than a parent, particularly in childhood, it can be a sign that our boundaries have gone awry.
- if you are the one to comfort your parent more than they comfort you,
- if you find yourself trying to mind read so you don’t upset them,
- if you put their needs before your own,
- if you pause before you share something real because you don’t want them to have a hard time, or have challenging feelings,
- if you are the one always apologizing when the relationship gets off course, only to be met with accusations, blame, or refusal to take responsibility
then you are the one doing the emotional labor.
And that, my love, is not your job.
Now, there’s emotional work in any relationship, from being polite to the clerk at the store, to supporting your best friend through a breakup, whenever we interact with our fellow humans, we do call upon our emotional intelligence and emotional skill set and do emotional labor.
But when a parent is emotionally immature, they simply cannot do the work that is asked of them in the role of parent.
So who does that work fall to? Well, of course, little you and your inner children who were parentified, or took on a parenting role with your parents in childhood because it was asked or demanded of you. Because it was a way to be loved, cared for, validated, and to feel safe and worthy.
And my love, it’s important to know, if you are doing it with them, you’re likely doing it elsewhere in your life.
And I like to draw attention to this aspect of being raised by an emotionally immature parent because you cannot magically make them mature or change your childhood.
But you can start to do the work to see what role you have played in this relationship. And from there, you can use our tools, thought work, and somatic practices to start to make changes.
You can do thought work around why you think it’s your job to do the emotional work. You can do thought work around why you’re still doing it. You can work on setting and holding boundaries, not just cognitively through your mind, but you can start with your body.
You can leverage the felt sensation of a healthy, mutually loving, reciprocal boundary. And you can experience what that feels like during somatic practice.
You can begin to lovingly take responsibility for what’s yours in the relationship, and you can start to let go of what isn’t.
Now, if you start to establish and hold boundaries, if you begin to decline to do someone else’s emotional labor for them, if you really step into your role as the child in a parent-child relationship, you can likely anticipate some pushback. In short, they won’t like it.
Remember, people are not pleased when we stop people pleasing them. So you don’t have to be taken aback.
Knowing what’s coming could help you to get ahead of it, so you can start to manage your mind around it and can choose thoughts in advance that support you in setting and honoring your boundaries with them. And you can, through your body, remember your own resources.
So, you may be wondering, why was or is your emotionally immature parent like this?
Typically, emotionally immature parents get to be that way because of unaddressed issues from their childhood. They may themselves have been raised by people who were emotionally unavailable, or they may have suffered stress, distress, or trauma that was never properly addressed.
They didn’t get the help and the care and the support they maybe didn’t even know they needed.
Emotionally immature parents may have had insecure attachments of their own.
Or they may be dealing with mental health issues, or substance use issues that make accessing empathy and emotional connectedness incredibly hard. They may also have been raised with the same flavor of codependent, perfectionist, and people-leasing habits you learned in childhood that led them to parent you the way they did.
I think it’s important to know that a parent’s emotional immaturity comes from their own stuff. Not from you.
You didn’t make your parents emotionally immature.
They didn’t speak to you or behave the way they did because of anything that you did.
They showed up to the job emotionally immature.
And you know what else that means? It means it is not, I repeat, not your job to fix them, or to even try. My beauty, that is their work to do and just as important as it not being your job, it’s impossible.
You cannot fix it. You can’t fix them. Because they’re not broken.
They have an operating system for life that doesn’t align with the role of parent.
And because only they can change the way they relate in the world.
And that’s a sad thing to come into acceptance around. And as always, acceptance is vital here. Wishing they were different, hoping they’ll change, babe, you’re just layering pain on top of likely generations old pain and it doesn’t serve anyone for you to continue to be their therapist, their teacher, their counselor, their coach, their parent, their friend but not their kid.
It just continues to enable them to stay in their emotional immaturity and keeps you in a form of emotional immaturity too as you stay in judgment and non-acceptance of them being who they are.
So this is when we lean heavy on the tools Of Course You Did and Of Course They Did.
Your job here is to keep doing the amazing work you’re doing to get to know and understand yourself better. To coach yourself, to attend to your body through somatics, to accept yourself and them with love, care, and compassion.
And while you’re working on that last part, it’s okay to be angry about it. That makes sense.
It sucked to grow up with emotionally immature parents and you really deserved better.
You really did. And this is what was, what is. And the more you’re able to detach from them, to not take them being them personally, because it’s not about you, and the more you’re able to love your inner children and your adult self up for making it through, the stronger and more mature you’ll get in your own life.
My tender little buttercup, lo siento. I’m sorry in the empathy way, for whatever you went through. And you get to keep exploring your own experiences, your values, so you can keep showing up as the intentional and authentic person you want to be in this lifetime.
As you grow in your own awareness and start to own your choices, you have the chance to be thoughtful about what you choose to teach and pass on to the kiddos in your life.
And if you’re parenting yourself and your kids are grown or halfway there, and you’re seeing yourself in this description of the emotionally immature parent, please pause before you beat yourself up. You parented based on what you learned from your parents, who learned from theirs, and theirs, and theirs.
And beating you up now gets you nowhere. Gets your kids nowhere. And likewise, blaming your parents and stopping there does nothing.
Stepping into awareness, acceptance, and then taking action to live differently, to love differently, to think and feel and be and to parent and reparent differently now, and perhaps, to offer a heartfelt apology for those of you who are parents and see this in your own history, perhaps you apologize for not knowing what you didn’t know when you didn’t know is an important place to start.
Remembering that words only go so far. Changed behavior is what rebuilds trust.
So starting with that apology, it’s an important place to start. Because my darling, we cannot change the past.
You get to start from where you are. And you get to remember that you can’t heal hurt with more hurt.
So you can start to use thought work and somatics to change your relationship to yourself and others now. So you can show up the way you want to from here on out. Will reparenting yourself, will parenting kiddos, will managing the relationship with emotionally immature parents suddenly become a bed of roses? No.
It’s still hard work. Life is still 50/50. But the more you’re able to make thoughtful, intentional choices, the more likely you are to get the outcomes you want when you make those choices from mutuality, reciprocity, and interdependence for your own good and the good of all those you love.
Thank you for taking the time to read Feminist Wellness. I’m excited to be here and to help you take back your health!
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