How to Deal with Your Emotionally Immature Parents During the Holidays (and Beyond)
The holidays can be a joyous time. You see the highlights on social media–all those happy family reunions.
But inside, you cringe. It’s yet another reminder that your family didn’t fall out of a Hallmark movie. You’re not looking forward to another nightmare holiday season of mandatory togetherness with your emotionally immature parents.
What could make the “happiest time of the year” the most miserable time of the year? Dysfunctional family relationships, especially those with parents, can sour any occasion.
To be sure, no family is perfect. What you see on social media is a highlight reel. It’s what someone wants you to see about their family.
So what is an “emotionally immature” and how can you, as an adult, manage the relationship?
Sabrina is in her late 20s and a success by most anyone’s standards. She was was one of the first members to join a rapidly growing tech start-up after grad school and has worked her way to a high level management position. She is well manicured and dons her own unique style. Sabrina lives in a top floor Victorian flat overlooking Hayes Valley with her business consultant boyfriend, Alex. If you’re on the outside looking in, Sabrina looks like she has it all. She’s living the dream.
What you can’t see–because she is very careful to hide it–is that Sabrina is deeply unhappy. She spends her life walking a tightrope. If she slips and lets her true emotions out, she feels it will be disastrous.
She spends all of her time and mental energy trying to gauge and control the feelings of others. Sabrina has taken responsibility for how everyone close to her feels.
The person she shows the world is a mask. Sabrina is so terrified of doing something “wrong” or being something “wrong” that she can’t be her authentic self at all. In her mind, the risk is too big.
What’s she afraid of?
Sabrina believes if she isn’t perfect, accommodating, generous, and bending to meet everyone else’s needs, she won’t be loved, or worse, she’ll have real mess on her hands.
Where did she get this idea?
Meet Sabrina’s Parents
Julie, a school guidance counselor and Mitch, an attorney, strove to give their children everything. Their children were privileged to live in an affluent neighborhood and attend fancy private schools. But they were deprived of consistent and resilient, mature parenting.
As most mothers due, Julie strived to be a fantastic mother. Unfortunately, her identity was completely wrapped up in receiving instant feedback from her three children that she was doing a good job. Julie was highly attentive and also highly emotional, swinging between over-involvement in her children’s homework, social life and appearance and quick withdrawal when they asserted their own opinions. As the youngest child, Sabrina learned to swallow her needs and wants to buoy her mother’s self esteem and prevent incesent emotional meltdowns.
Mitch had his own issues. At work, he appeared sophisticated, smooth and stealy. At home, he tatrummed like a toddler when he didn’t get his way. An avid runner and healthy eater, Mitch thrived on controlling his exercise, diet and tidiness at home to manage his wound up and fragile inner world. When something or someone didn’t fall in line with his rigid expectations he would leap into angry and sometimes violent outbursts that sent a rush of adrenaline and helplessness through his wife fearful children.
During Sabrina’s Freshman year of high school, Julie reached the end of her rope with Mitch’s hostile outbreaks and found the courage to leave her husband. Since her siblings had both gone off to college, Sabrina she was left to tend to her fragile mother. Desperate for soothing and validation, and now without a partner, Julie adopted loyal and empathetic Sabrina as her “best friend”. Wanting to stay the “good daughter” instead of rebelling like her older siblings and feeling sorry for her mother, Sabrina obliged.
Now, 10 years later, Sabrina finds herself in my office wondering why she feels so stuck in her life and so unhappy.
What makes a parent emotionally immature?
Every one of us is imperfect. No parent does everything right. Yet, there’s a difference between a “good enough” parent and an emotionally immature parent.
“Good enough” parents are attuned to their children’s needs and wants. And don’t give or expect more than what they need or want. They are self reflective about their own shortcomings and able to apologise when they lose their cool. They have the capacity to tolerate and even respect their children’s opinions and preferences, even if they are different than their own or than what they might want for them.
In her book, “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self Involved Parents”, Lindsey C. Gibson says that these parents create feelings of insecurity in their children because they don’t have their own healthy skills to cope with life.
Emotionally immature parents:
- Have low empathy and are emotionally insensitive
- Have low stress tolerance
- Don’t respect differences
- Seek enmeshment instead of true emotional intimacy
- Demand mirroring
- Can be rigid or impulsive
- Are self-preoccupied and self involved
- Are self referential rather than self reflect
- Like to be the center of attention
When these qualities manifest in extreme and persistent ways they are often of signs of severe psychological challenges like:
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Bipolar Disorder
- Substance Abuse
- Anxiety Disorders
- Emotional Incest
You may be well aware that your parents have significant psychological challenges. But you’re much less likely to realize how your childhood has shaped your life, and that your current relationship with your parents may still be extremely harmful to your wellbeing.
Signs You May Have Emotionally Immature Parents
You may be thinking, “If I don’t take care of my parents needs, who will? Plus, if I don’t, it’ll just be worse for me.”
You’re afraid that without you, your parents will have a total emotional meltdown, relapse into substance abuse, react with violence, reject you, or criticize you. You’re afraid their whole world will be chaos.
In your mind, taking care of your parents equals taking care of yourself. Your very survival depends on their survival.
This is the absolute reverse of how it SHOULD be. They act like children and expect their children to treat them like parents. Parents are supposed to take care of their children, not the other way around. (At least until they are physically unable to care for themselves and their loving children step in.
As a child, here’s how you may have coped with toxic parents (many spill over into adulthood):
- You were highly attuned to and valued your parents’ needs over your own.
- You regulated your self esteem and anxiety.
- You had to be a “good girl” to please your parents and avoid conflict.
- You developed a false self to survive.
Signs of a emotionally immature parent relationships most often manifest in either compliant or aggressive behavior.
Compliant behavior might be giving in to your parents’ demands, playing peacemaker, and hiding how you really feel so you don’t upset them.
Aggressive behavior includes arguing with your parents constantly, cutting them out of your life, and doing things to rebel against them, even as an adult.
Your feelings about your emotionally immature parents may include:
- Guilt that you don’t do enough.
- Fear of what they might do when they’re angry.
- Sadness that you can’t make their lives better.
- Anger when they try to control you.
The effects of this relationship on you as an adult may manifest as physical symptoms, such as insomnia, headaches, and digestive issues.
Effects may also include:
- Anxiety around speaking your truth
- Co-dependent relationships
- Low self-esteem
- Failure to launch/thrive
- Not knowing who you truly are
Being the Adult
Your parents are responsible for how they chose to raise you. But for many a bad childhood can become a crutch, leaning on the parents to take the blame for your present state. Bottom line: As an adult you’re responsible for yourself.
You’re responsible for caring for your own children and your loved ones–to an extent. You aren’t responsible for anyone else’s behavior, happiness, or emotional state. Please hear this:
You were NEVER responsible for anyone else’s behavior, happiness, or emotional state.
As a child, you weren’t the cause of your parents’ problems, no matter what blame may have been thrown your way.
It’s not easy to recognize the effects of a childhood with emotionally immature parents. For many, it leads to feelings of shame and self-hate and huge waves of grief.
This may sound odd, but opening to this depth of grief is actually natural and healthy. Grief doesn’t have to be related to death. You can allow yourself to grieve for your childhood, for what your childhood could have been, for what your parents could have been. Grieve for your unmet expectations for your parents. Allow yourself to grieve for your loss.
Allowing this grief may open the doorway to overwhelming emotions. Therapy can help.
The role of therapy:
- To tell your story and your parents’ place in it.
- To help you give a name to the unhealthy behaviors you witnessed.
- To make space for grief for your traumatic childhood and compromised adulthood.
- To uncover false beliefs, painful feelings, and hidden emotions like anger and rage that you feel toward your parents.
- To learn new behaviors like setting boundaries, shifting expectations, emotional regulation, and identifying and respecting your own needs and wants.