Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents

Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson

Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents summary

Children of emotionally immature, selfish, or unavailable parents tend to experience anger, loneliness, and confusion in adulthood. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents teaches you how to free yourself of your parents’ emotional immaturity, recover your true self, and create positive, new adult relationships.

Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents notes & quotes

Here are my notes and quotes on Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson. My notes are casual and include what I believe are the essential concepts, ideas, and insights from the book, along with direct quotes from the author.


  • Emotional neglect is as real as physical deprivation and leads to painful loneliness and negatively impacts your choice of partners.
  • Emotionally immature parents fear closeness, pull back emotionally, and rarely accept blame or apologize.

How Emotionally Immature Parents Affect Their Adult Children’s Lives

  • “Growing up in a family with emotionally immature parents is a lonely experience.”
  • The emptiness and loneliness of feeling unseen are as real as the pain of physical injury.
  • If your parent was scared of deep feelings, you might have felt shame for needing comfort.
  • “Emotional intimacy is profoundly fulfilling, creating a sense of being seen for who you really are.”
  • Parents uncomfortable with their emotional needs don’t know how to be emotionally supportive and are likely to discount a child’s feelings and punish instead of comfort.
  • Listening to your emotions instead of shutting them down helps build authentic connections.
  • “The most primitive parts of our brain tell us that safety lies in familiarity.”
  • Denying the truth about our parents leaves us vulnerable to attracting the same hurtful people into our adult lives.
  • “I have it all, I should be happy. So why do I feel so miserable?”: Classic confusion from someone who’s childhood physical needs were met but not their emotional needs.
  • People often struggle with feeling selfish for wanting to have a better life.
  • Women outnumber men in seeking psychotherapy.
  • Emotional connection is a fundamental human need.
  • Adults who were emotionally neglected as children can’t believe anyone would accept them as they are. So they play a role that puts others first.
  • Hate is a normal reaction to somebody trying to control you without a good reason. It means the person is “extinguishing your emotional life force by getting his or her needs met at your expense.”
  • “Emotionally immature parents don’t know how to validate their child’s feelings and instincts. Without this validation, children learn to give in to what others seem sure about.”
  • You aren’t an unending emotional pit. Trust that you know when you are emotionally satisfied and when something’s missing.
  • Emotional intimacy is the currency of relationships.
  • “Mutual emotional responsiveness is the single most important ingredient of human relationships.”
  • Children of immature parents try to help their parents by being low maintenance and appearing not to have any needs.
  • The need for emotional bonding is about being part of a group creating more safety and less stress.
  • Adult success doesn’t completely erase the effects of parental disconnection in childhood.

Recognizing the Emotionally Immature Parent

  • Emotionally immature parents are unaware of how they’ve affected their children.
  • Once you understand your parent's behavior and what to expect from them, you are less likely to be caught by their immaturity.
  • “You aren’t betraying your parents by seeing them accurately. Thinking about them objectively can’t help them. But it can help you.”
  • Emotional neglect erodes a child's sense of their lovability.
  • Emotionally immature people don’t self-reflect on how their behavior impacts others, and they seldom apologize and experience regret.
  • Characteristics of emotionally mature people:
  • Able to think objectively and conceptually while sustaining deep connections.
  • Asking directly for what they need without exploiting others.
  • Differentiating from one’s family of origin and building a life of one’s own.
  • A well-developed sense of self and identity.
  • Value close relationships.
  • Comfortable with their feelings and get along well with others.
  • Well-developed empathy, impulse control, and emotional intelligence.
  • Interested in others’ inner lives.
  • Enjoy opening up and sharing intimately.
  • Cope with stress in a realistic, forward-looking way while consciously processing thoughts and feelings.
  • Control emotions as needed.
  • Anticipate the future.
  • Adapt to reality.
  • Use empathy and humor to ease tricky situations and strengthen bonds with others.
  • Enjoy being objective and know themselves well enough to admit their weaknesses.
  • Characteristics of emotionally immature people:
  • Rigid and single-minded.
  • Low stress tolerance. They deny, distort, or replace reality. They discount facts, blame others, and don’t admit mistakes. They have difficulty calming down and expect often use intoxicants and medication.
  • They do what feels best. They follow their childhood instinct of what feels good following the path of least resistance.
  • Subjective, not objective. They do little dispassionate analysis where feelings are more important than what is happening. What feels true is more important than what is true. Trying to reason with an emotionally-driven person is impossible.
  • Have little respect for differences. “They’re only comfortable in role-defined relationships where everyone holds the same beliefs. The quieter, nicer ones are the same, but in a quieter, nicer way.”
  • Egocentric. Children are preoccupied with pure instinct while emotionally immature adults are driven by anxiety and insecurity. “They live in a continual state of insecurity, fearing they’ll be exposed as bad, inadequate, or unlovable.” Their defenses are kept high to prevent others from getting close enough to threaten their unstable sense of self-worth.
  • Self-preoccupied. “Anxious self-preoccupation is a quality all emotionally immature people share.” Anxiety in childhood causes them to be profoundly self-involved, so their egocentrism resembles someone with a chronic pain condition more than someone who can’t get enough of themselves.
  • Self-referential, not self-reflective. Self-referential people bring the conversation back to their own experience rather than expressing curiosity about the details of your experience. They do not self-reflect and don’t consider their part in the problem.
  • Center of attention. Emotionally immature people dominate conversations and unlike extroverts who crave interaction, shut everyone else down.
  • Promote role reversal. Emotionally immature parents expect the child to be the adult, expecting attentiveness and comfort from the child.
  • Low empathy and emotionally insensitive. They avoid intimacy and emotional sharing and are blind to how they make people feel.
  • Empathy is necessary for proper emotional intimacy, the ability to see others with unique minds and thought processes.
  • Emotional intelligence is vital to social and occupational success.
  • Emotionally immature parents come from families with great unhappiness and tension. Their old-school parenting wasn’t concerned about feelings but teaching children how to behave.
  • “Many emotionally immature people were ‘overpruned’ early in life, growing up within a very limited range of acceptability. Their personalities are like stunted bonsai trees, trained to grow in unnatural shapes. Because they had to bend to fit their families, they were unable to develop fluidly into the integrated, natural people they might have become.”
  • If you don’t have a sense of yourself, it’s hard to engage with others at a deep level emotionally.
  • This arrested development gives rise to other issues:
  • Instead of an integrated sense of self, emotionally immature people are like borrowed parts that aren’t cohesive, making them challenging to understand.
  • Emotionally immature people express contradictory emotions—they can be either loving or detached, depending on their mood.
  • Inconsistent parenting undermines a child’s sense of security, keeping them on edge and bound to the parent.
  • People’s ability to become more authentic and emotionally available depends on their ability to self-reflect. Change starts with self-reflection.
  • They’re quick to get emotionally aroused but are scared of the most authentic feelings.
  • They become defensive instead of experiencing their true feelings.
  • Their life energy has been devoted to creating a defensive facade that protects them from emotional vulnerability with other people.
  • Emotionally immature parents can provide for a child’s physical and material needs and provide caring when the child is sick.
  • Emotionally immature people display shallow emotions leaving others unmoved by their distress.
  • “The ability to feel mixed emotions is a sign of maturity,” which allows life to ripen into something richer and more profound.
  • An environment of judgment and anxiety causes simplified thinking and the inability to hold two opposing views simultaneously.
  • Teens’ ability to self-reflect expands rapidly as they become able to think about their thinking.
  • Emotionally immature people tend to be literal and talk about what happened or what they observed, not the world of feelings.
  • They also tend to over-intellectualize and get obsessed with specific topics, allowing them to avoid emotional intimacy.

How It Feels to Have a Relationship with an Emotionally Immature Parent

  • Being with emotionally immature parents can be difficult and endlessly disappointing, but being separated can feel like something is missing, too.
  • “Our earliest instincts prompt us to keep turning to our parents for care and understanding.”
  • They provoke anger. When anger is internalized, it can lead to suicidal feelings—“the ultimate expression of anger against the self.”
  • Some express anger passive-aggressively, like forgetting, lying, delaying, or avoiding.
  • They don’t do emotional work. “Mature people take on the emotional work in relationships automatically because they live in a state of empathy and self-awareness.”
  • “…emotional labor promotes goodwill and good relationships.”
  • Hard to give to. Emotionally immature people crave attention but are hard to give to.
  • Instead of asking for what they need, they think, “If you really loved me, you’d know what I want you to do.”
  • They resist repairing relationships. Emotionally immature people are unaware of the need for emotional processing and the time it takes to rebuild trust after the hurt is created.
  • They demand mirroring. “Mirroring is a form of empathy and relatedness that mature parents spontaneously give to their children.”
  • "Emotionally immature parents often have the fantasy that their babies will make them feel good about themselves.”
  • Their self-esteem rides on your compliance. "People who are emotionally immature only feel good about themselves when they can get other people to give them what they want and to act like they think they should."
  • They see roles as sacred. “Insistence on complying with roles invalidates a child's most personal and essential choices in life.”
  • Enmeshment exists, not emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy is invigorating and encourages personal growth. Immature people “seek their identity and self-completion through an intense, dependent relationship.”
  • Immature parents relate to roles, not individuality.
  • Immature parents share the following traits:
  • “… egocentricity, insensitivity, and a limited capacity for genuine emotional intimacy.”
  • “… distort reality rather than deal with it.”
  • “…use their children to try to make themselves feel better.”
  • “… poor resonance with other people's feelings.”
  • “… extreme boundary problems.”
  • “… tolerate frustration poorly and use emotional tactics for threats….”
  • “… resist seeing their children as separate individuals and instead relate to them strictly on the basis of their own needs.”
  • “… exists along a continuum, from mild to severe, with varying degrees of narcissism.
  • Four types of emotionally immature parents:
  • "Emotional parents are run by their feelings swinging between over-involvement and abrupt withdrawal.” They are the “most infantile of the four types,” and being around them feels like walking on eggshells. On the extreme end, they could be psychotic or bipolar or have a narcissistic or borderline personality disorder. They see the world in black-and-white. Their children struggle with being overly attentive to other people's feelings and moods.
  • Driven parents are compulsively goal oriented and super busy.” “Their frequent interference in their children's lives is legendary.” Goals are more important than their children's feelings. Their children feel evaluated constantly, have trouble with either initiative or self-control, are often unmotivated and depressed, resist connecting with potential mentors, and always feel they should be doing more or something different.
  • Passive parents avoid dealing with anything upsetting. These parents may love you but can't help you and often numb themselves to what's happening around them. “… people with similar emotional maturity levels are attracted to one another.”
  • Rejecting parents don't want to be bothered by children. “Rejecting parents seem to have a wall around them. They don't want to spend time with her children and seem happiest when others leave them alone….” A well-known example is an aloof and scary father. Children of rejecting parents see themselves as bothers and irritants, causing them to give up easily and making it difficult for them to ask for what they need as adults.

How Different Children React to Emotionally Immature Parenting:

  • Children of ignorant parents believe their true selves are not engaging enough, so they have to be someone they aren't to be noticed. One way is to become so self-sacrificing others will praise or love me. Another is causing trouble to get attention.
  • As adults, we tend to keep playing the role to get the attention we never got as children.
  • They have to adjust to the parents' emotional imitations.
  • They develop self-defeating healing fantasies of being rescued as adults.
  • “You can't forge a deep and satisfying relationship from the position of a role-self.
  • You have to be able to express enough of your true self to give the other person something real to relate to. Without that, the relationship is just play-acting between two role-selves.”
  • Two styles of coping with emotionally immature parents:
  • Internalizers’ primary source of anxiety is feeling guilty when others are displeased and have imposter syndrome. In relationships, they tend to be overly self-sacrificing and resentful.
  • Externalizers’ primary source of anxiety is being cut off from external security. Their biggest relationship challenge is being attracted to impulsive people and overly dependent for support and stability. To avoid shame and self-hatred, they blame others and make excuses.
  • “Externalizers think reality should conform to their wishes…At the extreme end are predatory, sociopathic people.”
  • Externalizers can be abusive siblings.
  • Internalizes tend to do too much of the emotional work in their relationships.
  • “Extreme externalizes tend to develop physical symptoms or get in trouble with their behavior, while extreme internalizers are prone to emotional symptoms like anxiety and depression.”

What It’s Like to Be an Internalizer

  • Prone to doing too much for others to the point of neglecting themselves in hopes of a close connection.
  • Extremely sensitive and get the message that who they are is the problem.
  • "Nothing hurts their spirit more than being around someone who won't engage with them emotionally.”
  • They think hiding their needs will win their parents’ love, but “unconditional love cannot be bought with conditional behavior.”
  • Apologetic about needing help.
  • Become invisible and easy to neglect.
  • Overly independent.
  • Don't see the abuse for what it is.
  • Pretend to be cheerful.
  • Do emotional work for parents.
  • Overwork in adult relationships.
  • Attract needy people.
  • Believe that self-neglect will bring love.

Breaking Down and Awakening

  • The true self is “the consciousness that speaks the truth at the center of a person’s being.”
  • Breakdown occurs when the pain of living our role-selves begins to outweigh the potential benefits.
  • Emotional distress signals that remaining emotionally unconscious is getting harder.
  • “Your true self wants you to see what’s really going on.”
  • Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski believed that individuals tolerant of negative emotions have the highest developmental potential.
  • Once we accept our feelings toward someone, our mood lifts.
  • People tend to be most afraid of admitting two feelings: being afraid of someone or not liking someone.
  • Anger expresses our individuality, the emotion emotionally immature parents are most likely to punish. That makes sense, right?
  • “Internalizers are notorious for not taking good care of themselves."
  • When overly responsible, anxious, and depressed people (internalizers) become conscious of their anger, they begin to care about themselves.
  • Relationship challenges are an opportunity to wake up because painful childhood patterns tend to get played out in adult relationships.
  • One of the most significant challenges to wake up from is believing that our parents are wiser and know more than we do.
  • Narrative therapy can help us become conscious of self-neglect-related values and consciously choose new, beneficial ones.
  • “Working through childhood emotional injuries is the most effective way of waking up from repeating the past.”
  • Research suggests that what happened to us is less critical than processing what happened to us.

How to Avoid Getting Hooked by an Emotionally Immature Parent

  • A common fantasy of children of emotionally immature parents: Their parents will wake up and love them for who they are.
  • Finding our path separate from our emotionally immature parents is the only way forward.
  • One of our challenges is learning to replace reactivity with observation. Neutral observation keeps us from getting hooked by immature parents.
  • Practicing observing helps you become stronger and more confident in your ability to see what’s going on.
  • “If you start slipping into your fantasy that you may be able to get the other person to change, you’ll feel weak, vulnerable, apprehensive, and needy.”
  • Relatedness is different from relationship: Relatedness is communication without expecting a satisfying emotional exchange.
  • Observing another’s maturity level helps you determine the level of connection you can expect and keeps you safe.
  • Express what you feel or want, and enjoy the self-expression without needing the other person to hear you or change.
  • Ask yourself: “What am I trying to get from this person in this interaction?”
    With emotionally immature people, focus on the outcome, not the relationship. “Set a goal of managing the interaction, including duration and topics.”
  • "With emotionally mature people, you can talk about your feelings honestly….”
  • “To be an emotionally mature adult, you must be free to observe and assess others in the privacy of your mind. It isn't disloyal to have your own opinion.”
  • Emotional freedom begins by stepping back and observing your parent and your role self. You’re learning to hold onto your true self while old healing fantasies and role expectations swirl about.
  • “Your parents will be emotionally available to you in inverse proportion to how much you feel the need for them. Only if you operate from your adult, objective mind will you feel safe to your parents.”
  • Your immature parents are too terrified to handle your inner child’s emotional needs.

How It Feels to Live Free of Roles and Fantasies

  • A child's individuality threatens emotionally insecure and immature parents because it stirs fears of rejection and abandonment. If you think independently, you might criticize them or leave.
  • Unrelenting negative internal messages can do more harm than the parent him- or herself.
  • “Just because the person is your biological parent doesn't mean you have to keep an emotional or social tie to that person.”
  • “Remember, your goodness as a person isn't based on how much you give in relationships….”
  • Self-compassion helps you know when to set limits and stop giving excessively.
  • Action is the antidote to the traumatic feelings of helplessness.
  • “The point of expressing your feelings is to be true to yourself, not to change your parents.”
  • Self-involved parents like having a needy child because it makes them feel secure and in control.

How to Identify Emotionally Mature People

  • “… the people we find most charismatic are subconsciously triggering us to fall back into old, negative family patterns.”
  • Realistic and reliable: They feel and think simultaneously, are consistent, and don't take everything personally.
  • They are respectful and reciprocal: respect your boundaries; give back, flexible and compromise well; even-tempered; willing to be influenced; truthful, apologize and make amends.
  • Responsive: their empathy makes you feel safe; you feel seen and understood; they like to comfort and be comforted; they reflect on their actions and try to change; they can laugh and be playful; they’re enjoyable to be around.


  • “Not one of them [client] would willingly go back to not knowing. With each bit of truth they encounter within themselves, they experience a feeling of self-reclamation… an unmistakable sensation of wholeness comes over them and they feel as if life is starting over from this new point.”

Related Resources

Here is a list of resources, including authors, books, websites, podcasts, and concepts mentioned in Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, which might be helpful for further learning.


  • John Bowlby
  • Jean Piaget
  • Kazimierz Dabrowski
  • Michael White, family therapist
  • Murray Bowen
  • Iain McGilchrist
  • Michael McCullough
  • Daniel Siegel
  • Jeffrey Young


  • Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice by Lisa Firestone, Joyce Catlett