Navigating Relationships With Emotionally Immature Parents

Published: April 9, 2024 by Zencare Team

Getting older changes our perspective, particularly when it comes to our relationships. One of the major perspective shifts that can come with getting older is the way that we remember our childhoods and the relationships we had with our parents. If your relationships with your parents were challenging, it’s possible that your parents are emotionally immature. If you were raised by emotionally immature parents, you certainly aren’t alone.

Navigating relationships with emotionally immature parents is challenging, especially if your parents still engage in some of the unhealthy patterns from your childhood. We’ve brought you some key information about parent-child dynamics and some helpful tips for how to take care of yourself when interacting with emotionally immature parents.

An older Caucasian person with light blond hair in the background, with a frustrated face, and hands up in the air, wearing a tan sweater. Next to this person is a younger Caucasian person with long brown hair in a ponytail, wearing a heather grey t-shirt. This person has their head down on their fist and looks discouraged.

What are emotionally immature parents?

Emotional maturity is the ability to appropriately control and express emotions given the context. Parents who lack emotional maturity are unable to meet their children’s emotional needs.

Clinical psychologist Lindsay C. Gibson, who has over 30 years of experience as a therapist, writes about this topic extensively in her published books, including Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents. She notes several key characteristics that answers the question, “What is an emotionally immature parent?”

Emotionally immature parents center themselves in their relationships with their children, which might look like prioritizing their own interests or conflicts above the needs of their children — and this pattern might continue even when those children grow up to be adults. While all parents have bad days, emotionally immature parents hold strong patterns of subverting the parent-child relationship and of engaging in enmeshment.

What are the signs of emotionally immature parents?

Because emotionally immature parents are more concerned with their own lives than the needs of their children, they’re often said to come off as aloof or disinterested as parents. This might even be true when the parent is overly engaged in their child’s life when they’re only involved to the degree that it suits them and their own needs. Every family is different, and there are many signs of emotionally immature parents.

Here are a few other signs of an emotionally immature parent:

What are the 4 types of emotionally immature parents?

There are four types of emotionally immature parents, as categorized in Dr. Gibson’s clinical work. These four types include: emotional parents, driven parents, passive parents, and rejecting parents.

Emotional parents

The category “emotional parents” describes parents who resort to emotionally manipulating their children for the support of their own needs. They often appear to their children as anxious, though their emotions are volatile, so they swing from being upbeat to throwing tantrums and back again. This places their children in the position of needing to take care of their parent’s emotions, which is an inappropriate role-reversal of the parent-child dynamics.

Driven parents

Driven parents are highly ambitious for their children to benefit their own self-image and maintain harsh tactics like shame to control their children. This might look like pushing their children to be high performing athletes or academics, and if they fall short of expectations, they may find themselves receiving punishment.

Passive parents

In contrast to driven parents, passive parents avoid conflict with their children by taking a backseat, often to a more dominant parent or family member. They avoid upset feelings by withholding any limits on their children or by not providing them with any guidance when faced with life challenges. They might minimize their children’s struggles, which might lead to the development of low self-worth.

Rejecting parents

The last category of emotionally immature parents is rejecting parents. Rejecting parents position their feelings and happiness as the most important thing in the family and may even tell their children that they regret having children or that they would be happier if they hadn’t had children. Children might then believe that they’re a burden to their parents.

How does having emotionally immature parents affect me?

Adult children of emotionally immature parents often find it challenging to feel seen and heard by others, as their needs were often pushed to the side when they were children. They might also have not had ample opportunity to explore their own emotions growing up, which can make it hard for them to express how they’re feeling as adults.

Adults who grew up with emotionally immature parents also might find the transition from being a child to an adult difficult. They might form insecure attachment to others or have difficulty with trust. Adult children of emotionally immature parents might also feel responsible for other people’s feelings, bending over backwards to take care of other people.

Will I become emotionally immature?

Many adult children of emotionally immature parents worry that they’ll continue the harmful patterns they experienced from their parents. It’s important for these individuals to understand that it’s entirely possible to break the cycle.

Awareness and understanding of emotional maturity are the first steps towards breaking the cycle — reading articles such as this one and learning more about mental health are powerful ways to grow this awareness and understanding. Working with a therapist to process through the harm done in childhood is another way to ensure that the cycle doesn’t continue.

How to deal with emotionally immature parents

Most children don't understand the limits of their parents’ emotional maturity until they become adults, at which time they may seek ways to deal with their parents’ harmful patterns. That's generally easier said than done, as these patterns are often deeply ingrained into the parent-child dynamics.

Permanent strategies for difficult relationships

Managing difficult relationships with parents can be quite distressing, and often it’s a matter of taking care of yourself rather than changing the other person. If you find that your relationship with your parents is increasingly harmful, and there are a few ways to find peace and independence.

Resources for navigating relationships with emotionally immature parents

In sequence to Dr. Gibson’s book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents is her book Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents. This book includes worksheets and activities for adults to utilize to work through their experiences as children and to manage emotionally immature people (not only parents!). Readers focus on reducing their feelings of shame, guilt, self-doubt, and fear.

Melissa Urban wrote a book that’s helpful for adult children of emotionally immature parents called The Book of Boundaries: Set Limits that Will Set You Free. This book offers readers over 130 scripts to use when speaking with other people about their boundaries, as well as tips for setting strong boundaries to protect well-being.

Inner child work can also be helpful, and we’ve written about this topic in our blog “How to Heal Your Inner Child.” In this blog, we’ve shared a few activities to engage your inner child and explained how therapy can support you as you find peace with your childhood.

From the perspective of an adult, understanding your childhood can be confronting and even distressing. Acknowledging that your parents were emotionally immature and that your needs weren’t met can open a world of healing — and a world of better future relationships with others.