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This is the reality of dealing with emotionally immature parents

‘If they even perceive rejection, they will panic and cling even tighter’ (Picture: Getty Images)

If they even perceive rejection, they will panic and cling even tighter’ (Picture: Getty Images)© Provided by Metro

Does your parent or parents pull away from situations that involve emotional closeness? Are their coping mechanisms at odds with reality? Are they bad at self-reflection, accepting blame and apologising?

If your answers to any of these questions are yes, then they might be emotionally immature.

You’d think that the people who raised you and have decades more life experience than you would be more mature than you – it’s just common sense.

But unfortunately, in many families, it’s nowhere near that simple.

In Dr. Lindsay C. Gibson’s 2015 book ‘Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, Or Self-Involved Parents’, she delves deep into the different common ways emotional immaturity can present itself in the people who raised us.

‘Their immaturity makes them inconsistent,’ she writes, ‘and emotionally unreliable, and they’re blind to their children’s needs once their own agenda comes into play.’

Kris Williams, a psychotherapist with over 20 years’ experience, says what Dr. Lindsay is really talking about here, is ’emotional dysregulation’.

‘When a person is unable to regulate their emotions, they will then look to others to do this for them,’ the Counselling Directory member tells

‘If they even perceive rejection, they will panic and cling even tighter, needing constant reassurance that they are not going to be abandoned, which is their greatest underlying fear.’

Dr. Lindsay’s book also describes a vicious cycle of emotional neglect that can see immature parents going on to raise similarly immature adult children.

‘The creation of different types of emotional immaturity would be dependent on how the parents themselves were parented,’ Kris explains.

‘What were the needs of their parents that went unmet? Often this manifests as parents merging with their children beyond the age when this is natural and necessary for the child’s healthy development.

‘Creating and maintaining boundaries is key’ (Picture: Getty Images/Refinery29 RF)© Provided by Metro

‘If, as a child, their parent failed to differentiate between themselves and their offspring, then they too would go on to be a parent that struggles to separate out from their baby.’

She uses the desire some parents have for a ‘mini-me’ instead of an autonomous child as an example.

‘Babies and toddlers experience themselves as the centre of the universe, and rightly so,’ she says. ‘This is a very significant developmental stage during which parents need to allow, and actively encourage their child to grow through and move beyond. However, most of us re-visit our own narcissistic stage when we become parents.

‘If we fail to successfully negotiate this stage of parenthood, then we can project all our unmet needs and desires onto our offspring. We see them as a reflection of us, or of how we wish to appear.’

Different levels of emotional maturity can even mean you remember things differently from your parents, which can make resolving any conflicts with them even more challenging.

‘The emotional turmoil experienced during disagreements causes the brain to go into fight or flight mode,’ Kris explains, ‘resulting in the thinking part of the brain going offline.

‘Emotionally dysregulated people remember the distress they felt during that interaction rather than who said what and why. At all times, they are desperately trying to soothe themselves and lessen their anxiety.

‘Unfortunately, they hadn’t learned in childhood how to self-regulate and so continually need others to do it for them. If they then go on to have children, that need will be projected onto the child.’

In fact, Kris says that, in her work, she’s learned a lot of people simply need to accept and move on from what happened to them in their childhoods.

She says: ‘As a therapist, I have come to realise that many people seeking therapy, irrespective of their presenting problem, actually only need one thing – to grow up.

‘I don’t mean that in a harsh sense of “act your age”, but in the sense of recognising that a lot of adult behaviours and issues are the result of childhood experiences (which don’t have to be traumatic).

‘In exploring these experiences and identifying where they are playing out and sabotaging us as adults, we can then begin to help that younger self (or selves) to mature and become truly independent and autonomous.’

But paradoxically, a key difference between emotionally immature and mature people is the ability to be effectively introspective.

More mature, self-reflecting people are a bit more likely to seek out therapy in the first place, and strive for self-improvement.

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So how can we deal with emotionally immature parents just as they are?

In her book, Dr. Lindsay writes that, if you want to continue a relationship with them at all, it’s important to not just set and stick to boundaries, but also accept what your parent is capable of rather than try and change them.

This would be a totally fruitless endeavour that will just leave you hurt and frustrated, thanks to their aforementioned inability to be properly introspective and accept fault.

Kris says: ‘Creating and maintaining boundaries is key when dealing with the emotional dysregulation in others.

‘By managing your own emotional regulation and not getting caught up in their attempts to pull you into their drama, you can help them to regulate.

‘Refusing to give in to the guilt trips and demands on your time and affection is also important.’

Degrees of Separation 

This series aims to offer a nuanced look at familial estrangement.

Estrangement is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and we want to give voice to those who've been through it themselves. 

Story by Aidan Milan: Metro 

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