Insensitivity and disinterest are common traits of emotional unavailability. Here’s how to recognize it in a parent and how to cope.
Being able to identify and respond to another person’s emotional needs can help you connect with them.
Feeling connected can encourage relationship building. It can lay a foundation of support and trust for future interactions.
Being emotionally available can help you show that you care about someone for who they are as an individual — that you’re invested and interested in what they’re experiencing.
When you can’t connect to someone emotionally, it can be challenging to connect with them in other ways, even if they’re your parent.
Emotional availability is a marker of relationship quality, according to research from 2017.
It goes beyond basic features that encourage attachment during childhood and includes a parent’s ability to create a positive emotional environment that supports learning, independence, and personal growth.
Emotionally unavailable parents may have been unresponsive in moments when emotions were expected. They may have lacked the ability to offer their emotional reactions in the face of your emotional need.
“Emotional unavailability refers to a person’s inability to be emotionally present for another person,” says Sarah Epstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Dallas, Texas.
“This can include a variety of tactics and manifestations, but the common outcome is that the person on the receiving end feels a sense of absence where there should be emotional presence and engagement.”
Example of an emotionally unavailable parent’s behavior
Your dog just ran away, and you’re crying — grieving the loss of a beloved companion.
Your mother sees your distress but offers no words of comfort or physical display of affection. Instead, she leaves you outside and walks back to the house to make dinner as if nothing happened.
The emotional availability assessment
Emotional availability can exist on a spectrum.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dr. Zeynep Biringen developed the emotional availability assessment model to help measure the quality of emotional interactions between parents and their children.
It’s a model still widely used in practice today. Parents are assessed on four scales:
- Sensitivity: behaviors and emotions from the parent that create a positive emotional connection to their child
- Structuring: a parent’s ability to support learning, understanding, and personal growth in their child
- Non-intrusiveness: how successfully a parent can allow their child to be independent
- Non-hostility: the level at which a parent regulates the expression of negative emotions toward their child
The other two aspects of the emotional assessment model focus on the child:
- Child responsiveness: how willing and joyful the child is to interact with the parent
- Child involvement: the rate at which a child wants to involve the parent in what they’re doing
These six dimensions of emotional availability can then be scored to determine how emotionally available, or unavailable, a parent may be.
The emotional availability assessment scores are placed into four scoring categories:
- Emotionally available: The parent is nurturing and tuned into their child with an overall positive, relaxed presence.
- Complicated: The parent can be warm and positive but also inconsistently tuned into their child. They may also show signs of immaturity or a lack of authenticity.
- Detached: The parent exhibits distant, cool, and mechanical behaviors, suggesting that they’re avoiding emotional connection.
- Problematic or disturbed: The parent lacks basic-level care and interaction. There may be signs of hostility and intrusiveness.
Emotional unavailability and mental health
Being emotionally unavailable doesn’t mean that your parent lives with a mental health condition. But mental health conditions can sometimes influence how emotionally available a parent can be.
“Emotional unavailability may be connected to mental conditions,” says Epstein. “A highly depressed parent, for example, may be physically incapable of emotional engagement.”
Nancy Denq, an associate marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles, explains that emotional unavailability may be pointing to a mental health condition when signs of a personality disorder are present.
“Behaviors like black-and-white thinking, lack of boundaries, high emotional reactivity, attention-seeking behaviors, and emotional unavailability are sometimes found in borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder,” she notes.
She adds that a mental health condition may also be present when emotional unavailability is a part of escapism or a numbing process, such as in substance use disorders.
“A sign that a parent’s emotional unavailability may be pointing to a mental health condition is when the parent is constantly numbing themselves or mentally ‘checking out’ in order to cope with their children’s emotional needs,” Denq says.
There’s no clear-cut template for how emotionally unavailable parents may act. But according to Denq and Epstein, common signs can include the following:
- They lack the ability to “mirror” (reflect the same emotional state that a child is experiencing).
- They respond to children’s emotions with impatience or indifference.
- They avoid or prevent discussion of negative emotions.
- They’re dismissive or overwhelmed when the child has an emotional need.
- They’re not interested in the child’s life (interests, friend groups, school work).
- They have difficulty expressing their feelings, even with adults.
- They’re unable or unwilling to provide comfort during emotional distress.
- They’re unwilling to engage in any feelings — positive or negative.
The Biringen emotional availability assessment model includes other signs, such as the following:
- They neglect a child’s basic needs or offer only the most basic level of care.
- They behave hostilely or intrusively toward the child.
- They freely express negative emotions such as frustration, annoyance, or boredom during interactions with the child.
- They act as though the child is incapable of doing age-appropriate tasks.
Growing up with an emotionally unavailable parent can have long lasting effects on your life.
A 2017 study showed that both paternal and maternal emotional availability was linked to positive outcomes in mental health, emotional regulation, relationship success, and social support as children entered adulthood.
Healing from a relationship with an emotionally unavailable parent may take time, but it is possible.
Engaging your inner child
“Healing will mostly likely involve shifting the way you perceive yourself and giving yourself permission to express what you truly feel,” says Denq.
“Activities such as play and art-making can bring attention to the inner child that wasn’t validated for being themselves.”
Learning how to self-soothe
Denq points out that an emotionally unavailable parent likely didn’t teach you how to comfort yourself when challenging emotions arose. Learning to self-soothe as an adult can help make up for this.
“One important part of healing is learning how to tolerate emotions when they surface,” she says. “Practicing deep breathing techniques and moving your body by going on a brisk walk can regulate the nervous system and help you cope when you feel overwhelmed.”
Finding emotionally available people
Epstein cautions against falling into a pattern of emotional unavailability yourself.
“Seek out people who are emotionally engaged,” she suggests. This can help show you what emotional availability should look like.
You can identify emotionally available people by watching how they interact with others. Who around you has positive traits that you admire?
For example, befriending a woman at work who asks how your day was and offers genuine responses could be a place to start.
You might also find closer emotional relationships with other family members like aunts, uncles, or grandparents, says Epstein.
Identifying your feelings
If you have an emotionally unavailable parent, you may also experience challenges related to personal emotional expression.
Denq recommends taking time to identify your feelings without assigning a value or judgment to them.
“Start by noticing the sensations in your body and see if you can identify the accompanying emotions,” she suggests. “By practicing mindful awareness of your internal experience, you start to give permission for the entirety of your personhood to exist.”
You can further explore your feelings by writing your observations in a journal where you can notice patterns and other helpful insights.
Distancing yourself from your parent
When a parent isn’t ready to acknowledge their emotional unavailability, they may continue to engage in behaviors that make you feel uncared for.
It’s OK to take a step back from relationships — even parental ones — that are negatively impacting your well-being. You can completely distance yourself or set boundaries.
Whichever path you choose, it can allow you the freedom to make unburdened decisions and evolve your independence.
Seeking professional guidance
“Therapy can offer tremendous healing benefits by creating an experience opposite of parental emotional unavailability,” Denq explains.
“In therapy, you have the safety and freedom to process your thoughts, express what you are feeling, and be who you are without fear of disapproval or judgment.”
An emotionally unavailable parent may provide for your physical needs, but that doesn’t mean that they’re able to connect with you emotionally.
Some parents may only show emotional unavailability in small ways while others may be hostile or neglectful of even basic care.
Growing up with an emotionally unavailable parent may impact your future relationships, social connections, and how well you regulate your own emotions.
Self-introspection and getting in touch with your inner child can help you heal, but it’s possible you may need to distance yourself from your parents for a time.
If you feel the impact of an emotionally unavailable parent continues to negatively affect your well-being, speaking with a mental health professional may help.
You can check out Psych Central’s hub on finding mental health care and support.