6 classic signs you grew up with an emotionally unavailable parent, according to psychology

What does it mean to have emotionally unavailable parents?

This is when a mother is distant, unapproachable, or cold.

Or when a father is largely uninterested in his children.

Emotionally unavailable parents avoid dealing with and discussing negative emotions. They have difficulty providing their children with comfort when they’re in physical or emotional distress. And they can respond to their children with impatience or indifference.

In short, there is a lack of emotional connection between the parent and the child(ren).

This distance can derive from stress, attachment style, or even mental illness in the parents, and it has long-lasting, negative effects on their children.

If you’re an adult who feels like your parents weren’t able to connect with you, the proof might be in your behavior and life experiences.

Here are six classic signs you grew up with an emotionally unavailable parent that you might recognize, according to psychology.

1) You have trouble regulating your emotions

Emotional regulation is a person’s ability to control their own emotional state. This can mean controlling how strong emotions are, how long they last, and even which emotions are felt in any situation.

This is clearly a useful ability to have in life.

People with good emotional regulation are able to control themselves in stressful, emotionally-charged situations. They can suppress the instinct to react emotionally and instead can observe and analyze their emotions without being overwhelmed by them.

However, the opposite is true for people with poor emotional regulation, and this is unfortunately common in people who grew up with emotionally unavailable parents. And evidence of this can even be seen in early childhood.

For one thing, they didn’t receive good examples of emotional regulation from those parents. For another, they didn’t receive the care and attention they needed from their parents when they experienced negative emotions.

Imagine a boy who falls off his bike and skins his knee. Instead of going to comfort him, his mother simply walks into the house and lets him deal with this incident on his own. In this case, the boy doesn’t learn how to effectively deal with his pain and sadness.

Studies show that parental care has a strong effect on helping people regulate their emotions. But if you have trouble doing this, you may well have grown up with a parent or parents who weren’t emotionally available to you.

2) You started having sex young

One effect of having an emotionally unavailable parent, at least for females, is something that you might not have expected. 

Unless this is your experience.

According to research, adolescent girls tend to start romantic and sexual activities earlier if one or both of their parents are emotionally unavailable. One study found that when it was the father who was emotionally unavailable, these girls involved themselves in riskier behaviors. 

Another study found that if there was a lot of stress or dysfunction within the family, adolescent girls were more likely to start having sex. “Dysphoric [unhappy, dissatisfied] adolescents who were experiencing higher chronic parent-adolescent stress were the most likely to engage in sexual intercourse subsequently.”

Yet another study found, “A higher frequency of romantic experiences (e.g., going on dates) and poor romantic competence were each associated with higher levels of current depressive symptoms. Moreover, these associations were most strong for girls with emotionally unavailable parents.”

There has, unfortunately, been little study of the same nature on adolescent males.

Either way, if you feel like you grew up with an emotionally unavailable parent and you also started having romantic and sexual encounters younger than a lot of your peers, you may be totally right.

3) You have a skewed perception of all men or all women

Depending on which parent was emotionally unavailable to you during childhood, you may have developed slanted views of people of the same sex as that parent.

So, if it were your father, you may see all men as emotionally unavailable, untrustworthy, and undependable. If it was your mother, you might be inclined to see all women as unreliable.

One study that looked at men who had been raised by single mothers found a correlation between emotional availability and views concerning women. The more support boys received, the more egalitarian their views were as men.

If they had little emotional support in their childhoods, men grew up to be more traditionally sexist, seeing women as subordinate.

Does that sound familiar? 

If your views on people are skewed toward being sexist, you may have had an emotionally unavailable parent who really let you down and had a distinct influence on your impression of that parent’s whole sex.

4) You struggle with depression

youre lonely in life 6 classic signs you grew up with an emotionally unavailable parent, according to psychology

A lot of parents are emotionally unavailable because of their own psychological issues. One of the more common reasons a parent may become withdrawn or distant is that they’re dealing with depression.

One astounding estimate suggests that 10% of people will experience major depressive disorder in their lives. 

Research has also found that depression is between 40-50% heritable, which means that the cause of depression is about 50% related to genes.

So, having depression as an adult can be related to your parents or other relatives having been affected before you.

At the same time, depression that causes a parent to become emotionally unavailable can itself lead to the children experiencing depression in their lifetimes. This influence can make the depression have an earlier onset, longer duration, and increased severity.

So, people who had depressed parents who were emotionally distant have two challenges – they’re more susceptible to depression due to their genes and their upbringing.

5) You find interpersonal relationships difficult

When you feel that your parents aren’t emotionally available, it’s common to find yourself having trouble building strong, healthy relationships with others.

This is true across the board, from friendships to romantic relationships and even work interactions.

A lot of this is due to emotional neediness and never feeling like others are sincere. 

For example, if someone gives you praise or affection and you don’t feel like you’ve done enough to deserve it, you may not trust that positive feedback. Your experience is that it takes much more effort to get attention, so getting it easily might seem like a con.

According to one study, “higher levels of maternal and paternal emotional availability are reflective of a more positive style in interpersonal relationships and an increased level of multidimensional social support.”

When people have positive, nurturing relationships with their parents, they learn to view other people as accessible and helpful. This allows them to form more trusting, healthier relationships than people who expect others to be distant or even hostile. 

According to the study, these strong relationships help to buffer the effects of negative experiences in their lives and limit psychological issues as well. 

6) You may have an eating disorder

Eating disorders are complex, and there is no one clear reason why they develop. Instead, we have to look at contributing factors, and parental emotional availability seems to be related.

One study found that lower emotional availability didn’t seem to cause disorders such as anorexia. However, the same study found that mothers were generally seen as more available than fathers. Another study suggests that fathers’ involvement and availability with their children can help prevent the severity of eating disorders.

So it’s complicated, but eating disorders seem to be prevented or at least mitigated by strong emotional connections to parents.


These 6 classic signs you grew up with an emotionally unavailable parent, according to psychology, might be all too familiar to you. 

If they are, you probably needed a lot more from your parent than they were able to give you. 

Picture of Marcel Deer

Marcel Deer

Marcel is a journalist, gamer, and entrepreneur. When not obsessing over his man cave or the latest tech, he’s failing helplessly at training his obnoxious rescue dog ‘Boogies’.

Enhance your experience of Ideapod and join Tribe, our community of free thinkers and seekers.

Related articles

Most read articles

Get our articles

Ideapod news, articles, and resources, sent straight to your inbox every month.