Christina Hoppin, MS, LCPC
Human beings have a base biological need for emotional connection with other people. Throughout human evolution, being a part of a group of people was necessary for survival. Our distant ancestors could not survive alone outside in the harsh elements hunting for food and water and seeking shelter and safety. Humans have survived by being able to connect with other people in a manner which allowed them to remain within a group. Being seen as dangerous, selfish, or unable to connect and contribute to the group meant being ostracized and soon after, death.
Even today, without the dangers our distant ancestors faced, our biological systems are strongly geared toward social engagement. The only priority that trumps social engagement is physical survival. This means that our nervous systems are built to respond quickly and automatically, without any thought, to keep us alive AND in connection with other people. Some level of emotional connection is paramount to our survival and health. Feelings of loneliness, detachment, and isolation are not merely due to individual histories or personalities. They are built-in warning signs that we are missing life-sustaining connection with other people.
Today we refer to this life-sustaining connection as emotional connection. Emotional connection requires some level of emotional maturity - skills to build and maintain healthy interpersonal interactions and relationships. As with just about everything else, different people have different types of skills and varying degrees of skills. Being biologically geared toward social/emotional engagement means that we have innate (both conscious and subconscious) urges to connect to others and that we experience reward and pleasure (both consciously and subconsciously) when we relate to others. However, the innate urge to connect with others does not mean we all have the same ability to do so. For example, even though our nervous systems are geared toward physical survival, we all have different attributes, such as physical strength, physical endurance, and quickness, as well as varying degrees of such attributes, needed to help us physically survive. The same is true for emotional connectedness. We all have an innate urge toward emotional connection with others, but we do not all have the same attributes/abilities that allow us to maintain that connectedness.
It seems unfair that we are not born with the skills necessary to satisfy a survival need. Alas, we rely on other people to teach us such skills and to model such skills. Research informs us that our strongest bond in childhood is with our primary attachment figure, hopefully a loving, nurturing parent. We will reach out to connect with others (innate urge) via play when we are feeling well. But we instinctively turn toward our primary attachment figure when we are hungry, tired, ill, or stressed in any way.
Unfortunately, not all primary attachment figures are equipped to handle the needs of a child in a nurturing, comforting, emotionally mature way--likely because their primary attachment figure could not offer emotionally mature care to them. Despite experiencing the lack of fulfillment of our needs in an emotionally nurturing way, our biological instincts keep us turning to our primary attachment figure to get our needs met. When we are distant or separated from our primary attachment figure, we feel like something essential is missing, even if they are not meeting our needs.
Familiarity feels safer to our nervous system than change--even when change could improve our lives. So, we find ourselves repeating familiar behaviors, such as turning to a primary attachment figure who, in truth, causes more hurt, confusion, loneliness, frustration, and feelings of rejection. As you can imagine, the most profound consequences of emotional immaturity occur when a parent, or primary attachment figure, who is emotionally immature, chronically interacts with a child in the ways described below. For this reason, this article will focus on emotional immaturity in a parent and the effects of emotional immaturity on children.
Even as young children, our systems feel the consequences and impact of interacting with emotionally immature parents. We might experience loneliness, shame, rejection, isolation, and fear around our emotions. However, particularly as children, we are not able to pinpoint the source of these feelings and experiences, so we tend to grow up believing there is something wrong with us. We do not naturally know what emotional maturity is, where it comes from, and what it can look like, which causes a lot of confusion, and again, self-blame.
In this article the focus will be on recognizing emotional immaturity in parents. There are many indicators for emotional immaturity. We need to remember that we all will show such indicators occasionally, in isolated situations; however, when the indicators become a pattern across interactions, emotional immaturity is likely the source. Below are some indicators, certainly not all, that a parent is emotionally immature.
Communication Feels One-Sided Communication with emotionally immature people usually feels one-sided. They aren’t interested in reciprocal, mutual conversations. Emotionally immature people crave other’s undivided attention, so they prefer to spend time talking about their own interests or life experiences. Furthermore, they have little tolerance for listening to or learning about other’s interests and life experiences. Yet, seeking emotional connection and familiarity, as discussed above, children will continue trying to connect to their emotionally immature primary attachment figure, hoping to finally feel seen, heard, understood, and validated. Unfortunately, when they have an emotionally immature parent, children repeatedly end up feeling lonely, frustrated, damaged, rejected, etc.
Parents’ Expression of Emotion Feels Intense/Scary to Others Emotionally immature adults have a limited vocabulary for emotional experiences, and they have no desire to be vulnerable enough to verbalize their emotions. Therefore, they often act out their emotions instead of talking about them. Acting out emotions and emotional needs can include screaming, throwing things, refusing to talk about the problem, refusing to admit to their feelings, giving the silent treatment, and refusing to carry out tasks their children need them to do, such as cooking and driving them places. These parents’ emotional expression can be so painful that others simply become willing to do anything to keep them happy.
Parents have Low Tolerance for Their Children’s Emotions Emotionally immature parents likely had negative experiences around their own and other’s emotions while growing up which led to emotions becoming a scary and shameful mystery. It follows that, as parents, they would not want what they consider the heavy responsibility of understanding what is going on inside their children or the responsibility of responding to their children in an emotionally supportive manner.
One example of this is that emotionally immature parents fail to mirror their own children’s emotions. Mirroring is a form of empathy and relatedness, during which parents show the same emotions as their children are showing through facial expression. They look concerned when their children are sad and display enthusiasm when their children are happy. By mirroring, they teach their children about emotions, about how to engage spontaneously with others, and they give children the feeling/experience of being known and understood as a unique individual. Emotionally mature parents naturally and spontaneously mirror their children. Emotionally immature parents want to be relieved from such a burden. Emotionally immature parents want their children to mirror them and their current state of emotions. If they feel happy, they expect their children to be happy, again to relieve them of the responsibility to tolerate and deal with emotions they are not currently experiencing themselves.
Emotionally immature parents also show low tolerance for their children’s emotions by resisting any admission that their own behaviors led to emotional distress in their children. This could look like emotionally immature parents rationalizing impulsive and insensitive responses with excuses like, “I’m just saying what I think” OR “I can’t change who I am.” If you grew up with an emotionally immature parent, you might also have heard “Well, you should have said so!” OR “I’m not a mind reader!” OR “You are too needy/sensitive....You shouldn’t feel upset about that...You are wrong to feel that way.” If they do acknowledge responsibility, they expect their children to forgive them fully and immediately. To them, the child’s forgiveness should make them feel like the rift never happened or as though a completely fresh start is possible. They do not accept that their children might need time and space for or help with emotional processing.
Parents’ low tolerance of their children’s emotions also involves the belief that their children’s emotions--and thus outward presentation and behaviors--make the parent look good or bad. Parents who are emotionally immature feel better about themselves when their children are compliant with their wishes. This can look like a child following the parent’s rules, not asking for too much, offering to help the parent, or mimicking the parent’s interests. When a child becomes upset, emotionally immature parents believe the child’s distress is a reflection of their own fundamental value. If they cannot immediately calm their child, they may feel like a failure. To deflect and defend against such personalization, an emotionally immature parent might say, “Well then, I must be the worst mother ever!” OR “Obviously, I can’t do anything right!” to a child who is upset.
They Want Others to Read Their Minds Despite emotionally immature parents avoiding any responsibility for their children’s internal experiences, they wish for and expect their children to innately know/figure out their own internal experiences, including how they want their children to behave. According to McCullough et al. 2003, emotionally immature people seem to expect people to read their minds and are often quick to anger if others don’t anticipate their wishes fast enough. Due to their own insecurities around emotions, desires, and needs, they dislike having to tell people what they need. They would rather remain silent and wait to see if someone else notices how they’re feeling. The classic unspoken demand of the emotionally immature adult is, “If you really loved me, you’d know what I want you to do.”
Individualization is Threatening; Maintaining a Role is Safe Emotionally immature parents are keen on each member of the family playing a role because they are not comfortable with the complexity that individuality demands. Individuality may mean differences of opinion, unshared interests, and open expression of emotion, which all call for putting effort into sustaining a relationship. Family members staying in rigid roles simplifies life for the emotionally immature parent. Through such an enmeshed relationship, a sense of certainty, predictability, and security is maintained. For example, simply being the parent (role) means they are entitled to do what they want, without respecting the feelings and boundaries of their children. An example of this would be parents stopping by their adult child’s home unannounced and/or walking in without knocking.
A child in a pleasing role is not going to challenge his/her parents’ expectations and rules. If a child is maladjusted, the parent can play the role of either rescuer or victim, which they find very rewarding.. Emotionally immature parents benefit so much from their children maintaining roles, that they often coerce their child into the role they want them in by using tactics such as not speaking to them, threatening to reject them, getting other family members to gang up on them, or telling the child he/she is a bad person for wanting something the parent disapproves of.
Impulsivity Rules Ruled by desires of the moment, emotionally immature parents act on impulses; they don’t use the past for guidance, and they don’t anticipate the future. They have no investment in being consistent, so they say whatever benefits them the most in the moment. The children are the ones who suffer most from lack of consistency. Children need consistency to experience control over and predictability/safety in their lives. They need consistency to learn. They need consistency to understand why things happen to them and what they are responsible for and not responsible for.
If you believe you might have been raised by an emotionally immature and/or abusive parent, participating in therapy with a relational trauma-informed clinician can help you sort through and heal from the confusion, rejection, frustration, loneliness, and your belief that there “just something wrong with you.”
Reference: McCullough, Leigh, N. Kuhn, S. Andrews, A. Kaplan, J. Wolf, and C.Hurley. 2003. Treating Affect Phobia: A Manual for Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford