This phrase, if not spoken out loud, is one often thought by the children of emotionally absent (EA) parents. Children who are made to feel unloveable, that they are in the way, or feel they are sub-standard and unloved grow up with some pretty weak foundations and often view the world through skewed lenses.
Absent or unavailable is an umbrella term (not a medical term) used to describe parents who are uncaring, emotionally unavailable, narcissistic or generally display self-centred and cruel behaviours which can – and often do – tip into verbal and physical abuse.
Start typing the word toxic into any one of the big search engines, and you will find no shortage of survival guides to help you navigate and recover from what can be some very damaging treatment in your formative years. In fact, as soon as you type the letters “tox”, there is an array of choices from popular searches with options like toxic childhood stress. Can it really be that bad? Actually, it can.
What Is the Role of A Parent?
In the main clauses of the parent/child service level agreement sit obligations like food, shelter, clothing, and other basic material needs. Often, even the children of emotionally unavailable parents will have their needs in these areas met but is that enough? If you want a happy, confident, successful, and balanced child, then no.
In the next tier are the logistical clauses such as consistency and routine, which help children feel safe and in control. Included in the next tier of the unwritten parent manual comes praise, encouragement, helping to understand the importance of rules, honesty, and the concepts of caring, socialisation, and sharing. These life skills won’t prevent a child from surviving, but a lack of mastery over them will make it harder for them to forge their own healthy relationships and succeed in life.
As we reach the pinnacle, really competent parents will understand and make allowances for the concepts of gender difference, where a child sits in the family pecking order, and crucially, personality – taking these factors into account when ensuring that their mutual expectations are compatible. All of the tiers of this hierarchy should be running concurrently to ensure that the child’s basic human needs (see non-negotiables of the parent/child SLA) are met.
Nobody’s Perfect but Trying At the Very Least is Quite Important
One could argue that modern parenting requires today’s parents (and often those under the heading of non-traditional, which includes single parents) to manage more moving pieces than their earlier counterparts, especially if they are working.
Every parent will tell you that they make mistakes, but in the main, they manage to not damage their children too badly in the process of parenting, and this is where things differ with EA parents. The effects of toxic stress on the children of EA parents is extremely damaging and very real and can give rise to neurobiological and psychological damage.
The healthy development of a child “depends on adult caregivers, who are mediators of child development because infants depend on parents or other primary caregivers for physical and emotional care.” Their mandate is to provide the full spectrum of love and care and accept that their children are individuals with their own personalities and aspirations. They should ensure their children feel safe but not over-protected and guided but not controlled.
According to educator and author Michael Grose, “Families work well when they are guided democracies or benign dictatorships. Someone should be in charge of a family, and it’s a good idea if it’s parents!” Unfortunately for some children, the dictatorship is not so benign, with the concepts of firmness and nurturance, in reality, becoming a combination of cruel and neglectful. These actions aren’t one-offs but a pattern of behaviour that has a cumulative negative effect on the child, carrying into adulthood which can then create a generational pattern of behaviour.
All parents make mistakes, but the difference is that the average parent will acknowledge this, make amends and undertake to do better. This is not so with EA parents, who are often also narcissists who are only concerned with their own needs. Research found that adult children of narcissistic parents experience problems with substance abuse, mood disorder, PTSD, anxiety disorder, reported insecurity in relationships, and difficulty with intimacy. It’s important for parents to at least try to get parenting right, acknowledge when they’re not, and seek help.
How to Recognise if Your Childhood Was Unhealthy
You may have been controlled or manipulated or not had your boundaries respected, especially as you got older and were consistently told that everything was always your fault.
Here are some of the other signs that you were brought up in a harmful environment:
- There was a role reversal in the child/parent relationship, which meant you had to parent your parent(s) or take on responsibility not appropriate for your age.
- You were told that you deserved the physical abuse doled out to you because that was the only way you would learn or something similar.
- You were forced to lie about your mistreatment under the threat of more punishment. This includes sexual and other physical abuse.
- One or both of your parents competed with you. This is particularly common in father/son and mother/daughter relationships.
- You were emotionally neglected or abused, perhaps being told things like you’re no good, ugly, or you need to try harder.
- You often felt fearful, afraid to express yourself and challenge opinions, or were just afraid of your parents in general.
- Love or any form of attention was conditional and therefore frequently withdrawn if you fell short of often unrealistic criteria.
- You experienced a lack of understanding when you needed support and comfort the
You might not have realised that life, especially a child’s life, is not supposed to be like this because it was the only benchmark you had. This can especially be the case for over-protected children who are not allowed to go anywhere independent of their parent(s).
In other words, this is the only version of normal, you know.
Because of this, your blueprint for acceptable behaviours and forming bonds with people may also be compromised.
The Ongoing Effects of Emotionally Absent Parenting and Moving Forward
Coming to the realisation that what you viewed as normal was actually very unhealthy is the first step to getting help and support and finding liberation toward a new and healthier way of being. It will probably be imperative to you that you don’t carry on the legacy of this behaviour passed to you like a badly smoking torch. As is often the case, the abused can themselves become abusers as it’s all they’ve ever known. It can also explain why children of abusive and unavailable parents cling to them despite their mistreatment. It is crucial for a child’s self-worth and self-esteem to have their deepest emotional needs met and to be able to relate to parents on an emotional level. When they are instead met with detachment and constant criticism, it creates an atmosphere of stress and anticipation of punishment, which can have long-term effects on both physical and mental health due to the relentless environment of stress it creates. The good news is that with the appropriate care and support, you can move past this. You can put down that baggage and change the course of history, or even her story.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).