"The Flow Of Care Is Off": Therapists Told Us The Signs That You Grew Up With Emotionally Immature Parents

  Halfpoint Images via Getty Images
Halfpoint Images via Getty Images

Childhood should be whimsical, nurturing and validating. But for many kids, this just isn’t the case.

Some children have parents who may provide for their kids physically but don’t quite understand how to support their child emotionally or mentally. These types of parents are known in the therapy world as emotionally immature parents.

“An emotionally immature parent is a parent who is unable to meet your emotional needs, either as a kid or an adult child,” said Aparna Sagaram, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and owner of Space to Reflect in Philadelphia. “They center themselves regardless of what’s going on in your life.”

In other words, everything is about them, their emotional needs and what’s going on in their day, Sagaram explained. An emotionally immature parent often struggles to regulate their own emotions, said Jennifer Chaiken, a licensed marriage and family therapist, co-owner of The Therapy Group in Pennsylvania and co-host of ShrinkChicks podcast.

Emotionally mature parents are the opposite: “They’re parents who are more able to emotionally engage with you,” said Chaiken. “They’re able to really recognize and understand, and also affirm your emotions without taking them personally, or trying to change how you feel.”

A mother and daughter sitting on a couch, facing each other and smiling, in a casual home setting
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Emotionally mature parents possess emotional intelligence, which allows them to navigate their emotions while communicating with their child in a way that’s effective and nurturing, added Chaiken.

“That level of support, it allows the child to grow and give[s] them the space to be their true self, rather than kind of imposing their own desires on the child,” Chaiken said.

Whether someone is an emotionally immature or emotionally mature parent has a lot to do with how they were raised. These behaviors were modeled for them, so it’s how they think they should handle situations with their children.

“Often, parents who are emotionally immature tended to also grow up with emotionally immature parents. It gets passed down generations until we realize this is what’s going on and do the work to heal the wounds of having emotionally immature parents,” Chaiken said.

Below, experts share the signs of an emotionally immature parent and how to cope if you have one (or are one).

1. They emotionally dump on their children.

Two people sitting together, one appears to be a young adult and the other could be their parent, engaged in conversation
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Emotionally immature parents don’t handle their emotions well. In fact, according to Sagaram, emotionally immature parents are known to vent to children about their adult problems.

This could be anything from issues at work to problems in their marriage to financial difficulties.

Emotionally immature parents tend to do this because of the hierarchy that exists in parent-child relationships, said Sagaram. “Parents who are not able to regulate themselves now turn to their kid because it feels safe, it feels comfortable, it feels like, ‘Oh, this is like a nonthreatening person that I can dump all my stuff on,’” Sagaram said.

“If you’re a kid, and you’re hearing all these adult problems, you can imagine how chaotic that must feel,” said Sagaram, “But then you eventually learn how to deal with those emotions.”

Often, this results in children shutting down emotionally or projecting onto other people, she stated. Additionally, it can make the child feel like they’re responsible for their parent’s moods and emotions.

2. Emotionally immature parents rely on their kids for emotional support.

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Another big sign is a dependence on their children for emotional support, according to Chaiken. “So, they may turn to their children for a level of validation and comfort and companionship ... the flow of care is off,” Chaiken added.

Children can’t properly give their parents the support they need (and shouldn’t have to), so this leads to another problem.

“Another characteristic is that they get mad at you for not being there for them in the way that they want,” added Sagaram. “So, oftentimes, emotionally immature parents expect you to know what it is that they want and need ... if you’re not able to do that, or you’re not able to support them in the way that they want to be supported, they get emotionally explosive with you.”

3. They possess a lack of empathy.

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Emotionally immature parents are “unable to recognize how their emotions may impact those around them,” noted Chaiken.

These kinds of parents can struggle to understand their children’s feelings and needs, she said.

Think about it: Someone who centers everything on themselves won’t be able to think about how a decision or conversation impacts you.

4. They struggle with boundaries.

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If your parent refuses to respect your boundaries or has questionable boundaries of their own, it is a red flag.

“That can go either way — they may set overly rigid boundaries or may, on the other end of the spectrum, be extremely lenient and have a really hard time finding the balance,” said Chaiken.

What’s more, they also have a hard time with boundaries you set with them, noted Sagaram. For example, if you ask your mom to call before stopping by your house, she may become offended and continue stopping by unannounced.

5. They use guilt and the silent treatment as a weapon.

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As you get older and work to set boundaries with an emotionally immature parent, you may notice that they use shame or guilt as a weapon, said Sagaram.

This may sound like, “Oh, you never let me see my grandkids anymore” or “No one ever calls me back.”

Additionally, emotionally immature parents often employ the silent treatment, Sagaram said. If they feel unhappy about your behavior, they avoid speaking to you instead of talking out the problem like an emotionally mature person.

“And you’re left thinking that you did something wrong, even though it’s been a power struggle this entire time,” she noted.

6. They often have inconsistent behavior and reactions.

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Oftentimes, when an emotionally immature parent has a rough day at work, they make it everyone’s problem — even though it has nothing at all to do with their kids or spouse.

“It leads to emotional outbursts in the family ... they really don’t have the ability to regulate their emotions [and keep them] separate from their parenting,” Chaiken said.

This can also lead to inconsistent behavior, she noted. For example, if your mom usually helped you with your math homework but had a rough day at work, she may explode when you ask for your regularly scheduled help.

“So, they may have these unpredictable reactions to situations leading to a level of inconsistency in their parenting,” Chaiken said.

7. They don’t respect your individuality.

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“Another characteristic, they don’t respect your individuality ... when we think about healthy family systems, parents raise their kids to be individuals and a person outside of themselves,” explained Sagaram. “And you want to start that pretty early on.”

Even when your kids are young and still dependent on you, you should work to encourage (and respect) their likes and dislikes. “So, eventually when they do become an adult, that transition is smoother,” Sagaram said.

When you respect your child’s individuality, you see them as someone who has their own values, beliefs and boundaries, she added. “But, an emotionally immature parent is not able to do that.”

Here’s how to take care of yourself if you have emotionally immature parents: 

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If you recognize any of the behaviors above in your parents or caretakers, take a deep breath. According to Sagaram, the most important thing is recognizing this fact — it will help you feel less alone.

“There’s a name for this type of parent, which means you’re clearly not alone in that, and I think that itself can feel really validating,” said Sagaram.

You should also give yourself credit for simply being able to notice this: It isn’t easy to admit that your parents have faults.

“I think it’s hard because sometimes people have a hard time admitting that maybe their parents didn’t do what they needed when they were a child,” said Chaiken. “But, I think both things can be true: Your parents did the best they could and, at the same time, they were also unable to give you what you needed as a child because they weren’t given what they needed as a child.”

Chaiken said re-parenting is a huge part of healing; to do this, take notice of the things that you needed in your childhood but did not receive. This could be emotional support, an opportunity to voice your opinions or unconditional love. As you re-parent yourself, you can give these things to yourself.

Additionally, social support is important, Chaiken said. “We don’t choose our parents, and you get the choice as an adult to build a family in your life of people who are able to give you support and the support that you really need,” she added.

“I think that that’s a really important thing, to find people in your life who you feel like can give you that support,” she said.

When it comes to your parents, Chaiken noted that it’s important to set clear and healthy boundaries around what you will and won’t accept from them.

If you think you are an emotionally immature parent, there are things you can do to break the cycle.

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Emotional immaturity is a learned behavior that is likely something that’s been in your bloodline for generations.

“The fact that you want to do something different itself is breaking a cycle, so that is always a really great first step,” said Sagaram. Your ability to recognize your behavior is emotional maturity in itself, Chaiken added.

To combat this behavior, Sagaram said it’s important to be self-aware and to take notice of your triggers — what makes you fall into emotional immaturity?

“I definitely recommend professional help here because this is not an easy thing to do,” noted Sagaram.

A therapist can help you learn to self-soothe, create an emotionally supportive community so you don’t feel like you have to rely on your child and heal the wounds that likely will emerge from your own childhood.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.