Emotional unavailability is a term we usually associate with romantic relationships—lovers, boyfriends, girlfriends and married couples have all experienced it to some extent. Some have even divorced over it! But if we really want to get down to the root of the problem, we must talk about emotionally (un)available parenting.
Whenever I think of emotionally unavailable parents, I’m reminded of a close friend who had a tumultuous relationship with her mother. Oftentimes, she would confide in me that she rarely felt like her mom was there for her when she was going through a difficult period in life. Although her mother never had a problem saying “I love you,” the empathy and understanding that comes with a loving parent-child relationship seemed to be lacking, so she never truly felt that love.
And even when her mother expressed her affection, she did it quickly and in passing. As the years went on, my friend went from thinking nothing of it to realizing that her relationship with her mother had emotionally scarred her for future relationships—because she hadn’t experienced true love and understanding in childhood, she found it difficult to give to others.
In my case, I was lucky enough to have an amazing blueprint of an emotionally available parent in my own mother. Whether it meant enthusiastically listening to me talk about every single detail of my third-grade field trip or comforting me when my first boyfriend broke up with me—my mom was there. After I had my own kids, I thought that emulating my mom would be easy.
But, as was the case with many of my assumptions about parenting, I was wrong!
Being emotionally available to my kids doesn’t only mean that I try to be in tune with their feelings, talk to them when a friend upsets them at school, or help them calm down when they get into a sibling fight. It also means that I’m constantly working on managing my own emotions so that I don’t lash out when I’m stressed or angry and take it out on my two little humans that are the last people on earth who deserve it.
For instance, in our household, eating at the table is a must—I don’t want to discover leftover broccoli behind the couch cushions or have to scrub out ketchup stains from the carpet. But when my kids try to toe this boundary, I firmly remind them to go back to their seats without yelling, screaming, or losing my cool. On some days, though, this is easier said than done. After all, parents are only human! But at the end of the day, you’ll regret sending your kids off to bed angry, without a good night kiss that lets them know they’re safe and that nothing bad will happen to them while you’re around.
Learning how to manage your emotions is one of the hardest things to do as an adult. We often think that being angered quickly or aloof are permanent personality traits, rather than something we have control over. But if we want our kids to grow into stable grownups, we can’t avoid tackling our emotional control head-on.
On the other hand, today it’s easier than ever before to emotionally check out and ignore the presence of our kids, whether it be on purpose or by accident. Phone in hand, thumb scrolling across the screen, we become oblivious to the world around us or the fact that our kids might need us while we’re not reciprocating. Not that using your phone around your kids is necessarily a bad thing—we’ve all done it! It’s almost impossible not to in today’s world. But as long as you spend enough time with your kids and they feel like you’re there for them, there’s no problem with jumping into the virtual world for a bit.
Then there’s the issue of some parents not paying any mind to their kids’ interests or extracurriculars. As a young girl, I loved telling my folks all about the latest book I read and my favorite character. But when I saw that they were interested in what I was talking about, and were even asking me questions about it, my happiness quadrupled! So, try to be interested in whatever your kids are crazy about at the moment, be it a book, a band, or a TV show.
In addition, if a parent dismisses their child’s feelings when they are upset or hurting, this creates a fertile ground for developing emotional issues later on.
Stop crying, you’re so sensitive.
The main issue here is that the parent just wants to put a stop to the crying, without even asking their child what happened to make them so upset or validating their feelings.
No matter how hard it might be, learning how to control our negative emotions, respond to our kids’ needs, and be present in the moment is so important because, more often than not, kids of emotionally unavailable parents grow up to battle the same issues.
One of the biggest consequences of emotionally distant parenting is a child who struggles with building meaningful long-term relationships with others in adulthood, whether they be romantic or platonic. They can even self-sabotage their relationships and push potential partners away due to their emotional issues.
Apart from having trouble when it comes to relationships, these adults often develop trust issues, which is a major obstacle in any relationship.
Naturally, not every child of emotionally distant parents grows up to have such problems; some even grow up to be the polar opposite of their mother or father. My friend, for example, is aware of the effects her relationship with her mom has had on her and is working on overcoming her own codependent parenting issues.
At the end of the day, we can’t choose our parents. If you’re lucky enough, you won’t have a codependent parent or the one who is emotionally unavailable. Unfortunately, some kids don’t have this privilege and they’re doomed to live with parents who never gave them what they need to become satisfied and happy with the life they have.
The good and the bad parts of our childhood are here to stay—there’s no magic time machine to change them! But what we can choose is the kind of parents we are going to be. So, every day I choose to be the most loving and supportive version of myself I can be. Some days are better than others, but I refuse to give up because I know that giving my kids a strong emotional foundation is one of the most important things to help them lead a happy life.