7 signs you grew up with emotionally unavailable parents, according to psychology

The way you were parented has a big effect on how you behave as an adult.

Because your parents or primary caregivers represent the first important human relationship you have, that relationship tends to define how you think about and relate to others.

If you were lucky, you had at least one carer who not only saw to your material needs but also your emotional needs.

They gave you attention and affection and enabled you to build a secure sense of yourself and your relation to others.

Not all of us, however, were that lucky.

You may instead have grown up with one or both parents who were distant, cold, or uncaring. 

The only thing is, for you, this was normal.

You might not even realize that you didn’t get your emotional needs met as a child.

Or you might have a sneaking suspicion that this might be why you have some issues in your adult life, especially in your relationships.

Psychologists have studied parenting inside and out, and they can help us both identify the signs of emotionally unavailable parents and the symptoms that growing up with them can produce in adults.

So here are seven signs you grew up with emotionally unavailable parents, according to psychology, that might help you find some answers.

1) Your parents ran hot and cold

According to psychologists, a sure sign of emotionally immature parents is flip-flopping between closeness and distance or between affection and rejection.

What does this look like?

At times, your parents may have seemed very close to you, wanting to connect with you.

They might show physical closeness with a lot of hugging and holding and talk to you about feelings and important things in your lives.

Then, at other times, they suddenly seem to push you away, not wanting to talk about anything serious and even rejecting your signs of affection.

For children, this can be intensely confusing.

Children learn about human behavior first from their caregivers, and if these people constantly send them inconsistent signals, it can make them baffled about how people are supposed to behave. 

Or this parenting style can make them understand that all people are like this.

So later in life, when they meet consistent people, they may think they’re odd or even untrustworthy.

2) Your parents were hostile

Do you remember your parents playing with you patiently and happily, even if you know you were a bit of a pain?

Or do you remember something different, something a lot less welcoming?

One sign of parents with limited emotional availability is hostility. What does this mean?

According to research, hostility can show up overtly with “negative statements toward the child, physical aggression, and threats of separation.”

But it can also be seen in “less-obvious expression of negative emotions, such as impatience, frustration, and boredom.” 

Hostility in both overt and covert forms sends children a clear message – I don’t like you or want to be with you.

You can see how damaging this can be to a fragile little child’s ego.

Carers are supposed to do just that – care – but instead, they reject the child and make them feel worthless. 

Obviously, this is never the child’s fault.

Kids don’t ask to be born, and their presence is something they simply shouldn’t be blamed for.

However, parents struggling with their own traumas and emotional issues are often unable to keep from responding to their children in these negative ways.

3) Your parents were insensitive

You might think insensitivity means the same thing as emotional unavailability, but it’s really just part of the picture.

A parent can be around and try to support their kids but may also not be the most sensitive person around.

However, if this insensitivity comes along with other signs of being emotionally unavailable, it could be a part of the overall package that really affects the child.

The same psychological research explains insensitivity as lacking “the behaviors and emotions used by an adult to create and maintain a positive, healthy emotional connection with the child.”

Insensitive parents may simply not notice when their kids are in distress or when they’re dealing with emotions that they need help with.

That means the parents don’t normally give that help and the kids are then left to fend for themselves. 

They often grow up struggling to cope with their emotions in healthy ways.

Does this sound familiar? 

4) Your parents didn’t give you support

Your parents didnt give you support 7 signs you grew up with emotionally unavailable parents, according to psychology

Research into emotional availability shows another important facet of the way parents behave toward their children.

Children are little people who are going to grow into adults.

For them to be successful in functioning as grown-ups, they need to develop physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

Parents and other caregivers have the responsibility of guiding and shaping this development more than anyone else in children’s lives. 

However, many parents don’t provide the structure that children need to develop well.

This means they don’t effectively support learning and personal growth in their children.

We’re talking here about parents who don’t teach their kids how to do things, lead them in activities, or praise them appropriately when they show these signs of development.

A mother who looks at a scribble and praises her child’s use of color and ability to hold and control a crayon can be seen as appropriately supportive.

One who ignores her child’s effort and tosses the picture away without any comment isn’t giving that child emotional support.

Other parents are overly intrusive in their children’s lives and activities.  They’re bossy and forceful, usually showing their children that they expect them to do things the way a fully developed adult would.

This denies the child’s need for autonomy in their development and can have far-reaching consequences down the road.

5) You’ve become a perfectionist

If you had parents who were highly controlling, this might be one of those consequences.

When parents criticize and interfere with their kids’ activities, they send them a couple of messages. 

One is that the parents don’t understand the kids’ needs. 

They don’t seem to care that the child has done their best or feels proud of their accomplishments. 

The other message is that the kid isn’t good enough.

If the parent has to constantly interfere or interrupt, the child might begin to feel like nothing they ever do is good enough.

And you guessed it, this is what leads them to become perfectionists

They didn’t get the very crucial positive reinforcement they needed as kids for doing things well for their ability level.

Because of this, they can find it hard to evaluate their own effort and become highly critical of themselves.

It’s as though they’re constantly searching for that praise they didn’t get from their parents.

At the same time, they also don’t know how to give it to themselves or reward themselves for making a solid effort.

6) You struggle with compulsive behavior

Controlling parents disempower their children whether they realize it or not.

Rather than recognizing and connecting with their kids’ emotional needs, they steamroll right over them.

These are parents who are always there, always telling their kids what to do and never letting them learn through experience (which, of course, involves trial and lots of error).

They are often called helicopter parents because they’re always buzzing around, circling, and ready to swoop in at any second.

This can lead to children struggling to gain a sense of self-worth.

If the parents always swoop down, the children can be left feeling like they can’t do anything right by themselves.

They also don’t develop a way of trusting their own abilities or judgment since their parents always overrule them.

A big symptom of being raised in this way is struggling to know when to trust your own choices.

This can lead people into compulsive behavior like substance abuse, workaholism, and even eating disorders.

As an adult, you struggle to take power and control over your own life and end up doing things that are harmful to you.

7) You suffer from anxiety or depression

One final sign that you grew up with emotionally unavailable parents is that you have difficulty regulating your emotions. 

This can manifest in anxiety, depression, and other challenges.

Parents who have trouble with their own emotional regulation can be unavailable to their children.

They, therefore, don’t provide guidance to their kids in regulating their difficult emotions.

In worse cases, they may even neglect their children physically, emotionally, or both.

If you struggle with these emotional issues, it may be because you didn’t have parents who were able to demonstrate how to deal with emotions effectively when you were young.

Final thoughts

These seven signs you grew up with emotionally unavailable parents, according to psychology, might be all too familiar to you.

If they are, your parents may not have given you an ideal, stable childhood and have left you with a lot of work to do to learn to love and trust yourself and others.

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’.

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