If you ever watched the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond, you’re familiar with an emotionally immature parent. Marie, Raymond’s mother, was constantly gaslighting, controlling and believing she was right. “She was never able to process feelings in a heartfelt way, as she lacked empathy,” said Urszula Kotlow, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner Health.
The things Marie says and does on the sitcom might come across as funny. But if you grew up with an emotionally abusive parent, you probably found it frustrating or even toxic. Dr. Kotlow explained more about emotionally immature behavior in parents and how it affects adult children.
What does it mean to have emotionally immature parents?
Emotionally immature parents can handle some of the responsibilities of parenthood. They probably provided you with a home, clothing, food and education. They made sure you got to school, soccer practice, dance lessons or wherever else you needed to be. They took care of you when you were sick or hurt.
But they can’t understand their own emotions, so they can’t understand other people’s emotions, including their children’s. They lack empathy, so they can’t put themselves in your shoes. “No matter how hard you try, you cannot get the emotionally immature parent to understand how you feel. This leads to tremendous frustration,” Dr. Kotlow said.
Emotionally immature parents often use primitive defense mechanisms like these when they feel uncomfortable or insecure:
- Denial—refusing to acknowledge or believe that a problem exists
- Projection—placing their own faults on other people
- Projective identification—being unaware of their own negative emotions, then wondering why their children are frustrated or angry
Signs of an emotionally immature parent
Emotionally immature parents tend to blame others and do not hold themselves accountable for their own shortcomings. They can be:
- Unable to respect boundaries
- Lacking in integrity
How growing up with emotionally immature parents can affect you
Having a childhood with this type of parent taught you that your needs and emotions don’t matter. So as an adult, you’re likely to question your thoughts and perspectives, doubt yourself and have low self-esteem. You may feel unheard, misunderstood, unloved, put down or trivialized. It may be hard for you to understand your needs or communicate how you feel. You might have a strong need for reassurance and validation from others to feel good about yourself.
You may also feel angry since you can’t have an open, direct conversation with your parent. “The emotionally immature parent’s primitive defenses don’t allow for heart-to-heart talks. They lack the self-awareness and emotional capacity to engage in this type of discussion,” Dr. Kotlow said.
When you try to talk honestly with your parent, they may say things like:
- That’s not true.
- I never tell you what to do.
- You only have yourself to blame.
- I have done my best as a parent.
- You should be grateful for how I raised you.
How can you compensate for the effects of having emotionally immature parents?
You can try to develop a healthy detachment while maintaining your love for your parent. “The goal for you, as the adult child, is to strive for mental wellness, using your emotional intelligence and self-awareness to understand your emotionally immature parent better,” Dr. Kotlow said. You’ll likely go through a grieving process as you come to accept that your parent is incapable of psychologically and emotionally validating your emotional experience.
Therapy can help you process your feelings of loss, hurt and anger and can help you learn communication and self-preservation skills. It can help you recognize that your parent experienced turmoil in their childhood that made them incapable of empathy and triggered primitive defenses. And you may come to realize that your parent’s love may have been why you became an adult with empathy, even if your parent is incapable of it. Therapy can help you bring understanding, patience, kindness and compassion to interactions with your parent.
“To some extent, an emotionally immature parent is often considered as the cause for unhappiness in others. Yet, these parents don’t understand that it was their own toxic relationships that stalled their emotional development and left them incapable of grasping that there is anything wrong with how they relate to others,” Dr. Kotlow said. It doesn’t matter how old your parent is, emotionally they are the age of a young child.
Therapy can help you understand that your parent was not given the opportunity at critical stages in their own development to become a person capable of empathy and emotional awareness. “It’s like your parent is struggling to walk due to a congenital deformity, and you expect them to run a marathon. Then, when they refuse to run, you see it as a rejection instead of a lack of capacity,” Dr. Kotlow said.
The bottom line
If you grew up with emotionally immature parents, your emotions weren’t understood or validated as a child. So, you may have difficulty understanding and expressing your feelings as an adult. Plus, you may struggle to have open, honest conversations with your parent. It can help to recognize that the turmoil in your parent’s childhood made it impossible for them to mature emotionally. A therapist can help you process the challenges of growing up with an emotionally immature parent.
Need help coping with this issue, or any other mental health concern?
Call the Banner Behavioral Health Appointment Line at (800) 254-4357.