1.26 Adult Children of Emotionally-Immature Parents

Noted author of the book the best selling book

Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents," Dr. Lindsay Gibson, is back to talk with Ameé about life as an adult who had emotionally-immature parents. When a child is in an environment that is leaving them starved of the emotional connections they need to develop properly, they find ways to survive. However, these survival mechanisms or adaptions to the environment become the norm and carry through into our adult life. Without developing self-awareness and understanding the types of parents we had and the environment we grew up in, we are apt to continue to relive or recreate our conditions over and over again.

Listen as Ameé and Lindsay talk about the types of coping styles children develop and how they influence us as adults in parenting, romantic relationships and life in general. 


*May contain some grammatical errors

Amee: 00:00:48 All right. Today I am really excited because I have back with me on one broken mom, Dr. Lindsey Gibson and Dr. Gibson is a clinical psychologist with a private practice that specializes in psychotherapy for adult children of you emotionally immature parents and she's the author of one of my favorite books, which is the "Adult Children of Emotionally-Immature Parents: How to deal from distant rejecting or self involved parents." She's a writer, a professor, she's got a few other books and in fact she's actually working on another one that'll be coming out. So she and I haven't talked for about three months and we've been scheduling around a lot of her editing schedule for her, her book. So I'm really, really happy to have her back on here. So welcome back, Dr. Gibson.

Lindsay Gibson: 00:01:31 Oh, thank you. Amee, it's wonderful to be back

Amee: 00:01:33 and I, and I love your accent. I don't know if I said that before, but it's so pleasant. Just a nice southern accent.

Lindsay Gibson: 00:01:39 Glad to hear that.

Amee: 00:01:41 So where are you located in the u s

Lindsay Gibson: 00:01:43 I'm in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Amee: 00:01:45 Okay. And did you grow up there out on the east coast?

Lindsay Gibson: 00:01:48 Uh, yeah, I did grow up on the east coast, but in northern Virginia at, but I've been in tidewater, Virginia here for many, many years. So this feels like home now.

Amee: 00:01:59 Okay, that's awesome. Well, so for anybody that's wondering, that's, that's where the delightful accent comes from. Um, well, and so when we first talked, we got, we really kind of went through the overview of the books that you have here and you know, emotionally immature parents are probably something that many people have in their life and may not have been able to identify or put a finger on it. And so when you and I had talked originally, we were really only kind of able to kind of just touch on the topic, introduced the concept of the parent. And then today what I wanted for us to, to get into was to really start to talk about the, uh, the affects on the adults a little bit more deeply and what are some of the ways in which we may have coped as children that we are probably still playing out or are coping with as adults today.

Amee: 00:02:49 And I know that, um, one of the, one of the saddest pieces of the book, and if any of you are listening and you haven't read the books and I absolutely recommend that you get it. Um, and there's a whole chapter about, and we'll talk about this type of a person, which is the internalizer and that growing up around emotionally immature parents, you find yourself of finding ways to cope and, um, deal and by playing roles or just your personality is affected and developed through this. And I know that for me, I resonated a lot with, you know, the section of the book here. And so first before we really jumped into this, for anyone that's arriving at the show at One Broken Mom for the first time today, and this is the very first episode they're listening to, I'd like to ask you, Lindsey if you can go back and describe what an emotionally immature parent is.

Lindsay Gibson: 00:03:41 Yeah, sure. Um, the term emotionally immature is something that I came up with that I hadn't read about anywhere else. And it's a, it's a broad term, but it's very descriptive. Um, and I like it better than any kind of clinical diagnosis or, um, other kinds of catchy names that really focused on pathology. Um, what I liked about calling these parents emotionally immature is that they truly do come from a very, uh, childlike place where they are very self involved like children are. But they also have this other dimension of being self preoccupied because of probable wounding or trauma, uh, or emotional deprivation that they had and their own backgrounds. And anybody who has an emotionally immature parent, if you think back to stories that your parent has told about their parenting, uh, or the parenting that they got and their childhood, there are often many signs of this unhappiness that they have from their own nurturing history.

Lindsay Gibson: 00:04:56 So it's a emotionally immature means that they tend to have kind of stopped developing psychologically in some ways. They may be great socially, they may be great at their job, but when it comes to intimate relationships, they tend to be very self involved. Uh, they're real black and white thinkers. They tend to be quite judgemental. Um, they don't have a lot of patience and forbearance and warmth that children need. They tend to be in a rush a lot of the times because there's an uncomfortableness about them and they're not the kind of cuddle the parent that would talk to you about your feelings or help you to get through a tough time, but they might be great when you're sick. Um, they tend to be kind of concrete and material that way. They may give gifts, they may loan you money. It may take good care of you when you're sick, but when it comes to making you feel valued and listened to and heard and seen, instead, they tend to pull back when that kind of intimacy is needed.

Lindsay Gibson: 00:06:12 Um, in fact, one of the terms that describes them is emotionally phobic, meaning that they're scared of intense emotions. So if you as the child get upset or have a need, um, some kinds of emotional emergency, that kind of freaks them out a bit and they will tend to pull back or shut you down just because they have not developed the capacity to deal with those strong feelings themselves. Hmm. So they can be very contradictory, uh, in terms of sometimes they're nice, sometimes they're not, and the children end up feeling like, uh, they may have done something wrong or there's something lacking in them because they can't get a good connection going with these parents. But that's the nature of the emotional immaturity is that they have a big problem, uh, establishing that kind of connection that children need at an emotional level.

Amee: 00:07:15 Yeah. And I'm glad you pointed that out because I, um, in terms of the fact that they can be nice, that there, it's not like there's a parent that shuts you down, like, you know, stop crying or that we think of, you know, you're, you're upset about something and they're locking you out. I feel like in life,

Lindsay Gibson: 00:07:32 although some of them, I just don't want to interrupt their on that because some of them can be that way, but that's just the subtype that said that is that way and they're not all that way. So, uh, but it can happen, but there are a lot of them who don't do that. You're right.

Amee: 00:07:46 Yeah. Because I think I've seen some where they just, you, like you said phobic when you said the word phobic, that resonated with me where I was like, yeah, you kind of see them and they just, they almost do have a scared, confused and uncertain look on their face. They can be very nice people, but when it gets to the emotional piece of it, there's no follow through.

Lindsay Gibson: 00:08:06 Well, I love that description. Scared, confused. Look on their face. Yeah. That's it.

Amee: 00:08:11 Yeah. And I, and I have seen that sadly with it, you know, where you're just like, okay, we, we've just ventured into a realm of where this is a, you know, not something that you're comfortable with being able to do now. Um, empathy is one of these things that we talk a great deal about how important it is to teach our children how to be empathetic. And, um, do you think that you emotionally immature parents lack that? That, that's one of the things that maybe that's one of the things that they may not have where they're able to read their children and interpret their children's feelings enough to be able to respond appropriately to them.

Lindsay Gibson: 00:08:47 Oh, thank you so much for bringing that up because yes. Um, that is a hallmark, uh, the lack of empathy. Uh, they can show empathy in situations that aren't, yeah. Very intimate and close. For instance, they may feel empathy or sympathy for somebody who's not real close to them, but when it comes to say their, their child who needs the parent to feel for them or to genuinely resonate with their emotional experience. Yeah. They, they are very limited in their ability to do that. So what ends up happening through that lack of empathy from the parent is that the child feels like they can't get close enough yeah. To the parents. And that ends up leaving the child on the state of emotional loneliness where, you know, here I am, I'm with my parents, I'm with my family. And yet somehow I feel set apart or I don't feel like I belong where I don't feel this good connection. Um, I'm, I'm having to try to hardest this is not coming easily. And that's because the parent doesn't have the kind of empathic attunement to the child that makes the child feel seen and received and doesn't build up that sense of connection.

Amee: 00:10:12 Yeah. And it's, you know, as a child and you're watching your parents seem to show more care and concern for other people and then yet yourself feeling like they don't seem to care or have any concern for you. And it's a confusing, a confusing thing to be around. Um, so when you're working with adults and reviewing all of this, what you've found through your work is that the coping that a child kind of deal, you know, kind of puts together for themselves in order to survive through this. And, and to live through this experience, you have like two distinct forms that you talk about and one is called healing fantasies and then self roles. So let's talk about healing fantasies. What's a healing fantasy and how is that, uh, a coping mechanism or a, you know, a tool that a child with an emotionally immature parent uses?

Lindsay Gibson: 00:10:59 Yeah. Well, if we go back to the basics, a child's number one job is to forge some kind of, um, emotional connection to their parents. They, they need to be important to the parent. They need to matter to the parent. And if they're not feeling that that is happening, then children tend to find a way to, uh, make sure that their emotional needs are met. So basically, there are two broad ways that kids can go. Um, one is that they will, um, try to get their needs met through externalizing that is they will act up, they will force things in the environment to get the parent to respond to them or they will internalize and when they internalize, they go inside and say, how can I sit here out how to get it, this mom or dad to love me and treat me as someone important and lovable to them?

Lindsay Gibson: 00:12:12 Um, either way, whether you're an internalizer or an externalizer, which we'll talk about soon, I think the healing fantasy is that I can do something, I can act out or I can find a way to change myself so that I can be in such a way that this parent will give me what I need in terms of emotional connection. And that healing fantasy is that's your driver, uh, in the relationship with these parents. I mean, these parents, when you get older can be incredibly frustrating and draining and yet the adult child, many times to keep this fantasy going, that somehow they'll find a way to trigger some kind of deeper parental attachment and they will be able to get that love and emotional support that they missed in childhood and healing fantasy as poignant and understandable as it is, can really get in the way of finding a, a real genuine relationship on the terms that are possible in, in, you know, in present day life. And so the healing fantasies are understandable, but they can keep you trying in a way that really isn't productive and prevents you from having a more genuine relationship in the present day with your parents.

Amee: 00:13:48 Yeah, and I, and I, for me, you know, I always reflect on this. I kind of described life as, you know, you kind of learn how to live in a box, you know, and in the box you're able to generate, you know, the what your wishes could be, what you imagined life could be, what needs to change for you. Um, and I actually do believe that today as an adult, you know, I rely a lot on my creativity and it's a, it's a very strong skill that I have that I'm very grateful to have because not everybody has, you know, all of this. But, but I think that part of that was a skill that unfortunately was developed through the, started off by imaginary play that gave me a better life, you know, and kind of, and, and growing in any folding it, developing it.

Amee: 00:14:36 And then, um, and then, you know, you, you talk about what's the downside and it when, how it affects adult relationships just in general. And I would have to say that in the end, the downside to have having such a great fantasy life in my head and being able to soothe myself, the fantasy life is that it kept me from getting out of bad situations with, you know, the codependent relationships, abusive relationships. Because I learned how to by living vicariously through my fantasy so well that I could then just adapt to the reality and then just go retreat in my head to get away from all of that. Is that something that you see often with other people?

Lindsay Gibson: 00:15:14 That is a beautiful description of the process where a person's internal strength, their ability to, you know, make it through a difficult, um, uh, unsatisfying situation becomes actually a liability when it gets too far into really, it's kind of like you, you learn to live on fumes and you call it a full tank of gas and you may not even be aware that you're not getting what you need. Um, because one of the things that happens with these children is that no one is no parent is saying, you know, honey, I didn't meet your needs this morning. Um, I'm afraid that you're living in an emotionally neglectful environment with me. So I think I'm going to try harder to be more consistent and more empathic parents doesn't repair it, doesn't have these concepts. They don't know how to explain it to the child. The child has the concepts, think about this stuff. So the child is always flying by the seat of their pants, trying to make the best of a unrewarding situation oftentimes. And

Lindsay Gibson: 00:16:38 they have learned to stay out of touch with their dissatisfaction and pain because there's just too much of it. So the fantasy is like a perfect example of resilience and self reliance in, in children like this. Yeah. But when it's used in a situation where it's not going to improve something, I mean it's not like you're using it out in the wilderness and you're trying to get back to civilization, that's great. But when you use it in a relationship where maybe that partner is also emotionally immature and unable to give at an emotional level, then it just keeps being a one person job. And these adult children keep taking it on because they don't have the concepts. Just think about what's really happening, uh, in the relationship.

Amee: 00:17:33 Bring that awareness to somebody that you're working with that who is excusing a lot of their, of the behaviors around them because the fantasy is validating it. How do you kind of snap them into realizing, listen, you know, this is you coping here and not really what's going on.

Lindsay Gibson: 00:17:54 Right. Um, well, I never had any luck snapping anybody into anything

Lindsay Gibson: 00:18:03 drive and would like to, but it's, it's more my experience of it has then that they respond well when my response is puzzled and questioning. Um, I'll hear something that sounds like there, uh, being taken advantage of or they're making light of something that sounds pretty serious to me and in terms of, uh, feeling mistreated or not listened to whatever it is. And so I always pause and I back up to that moment and then I really invite them to get back in touch with their feelings in that situation. So we'll, we'll get very, um, very granular here. Very basic, like, well, hang on a second. When they said that, what was it that you actually felt in that moment? And they'll say, well, you know, I thought blah, blah. I'll say, no, not what you thought. What did it feel like in your body when they said this? And then we're able to start getting them back in touch with their inner self, which will always tell you whether your energy is going up or going down. And if we're not being treated well or if we're not being emotionally nurtured by the people we live with, it, um, you, you will always be able to tell if someone asks you to slow down, you can tell whether that made your energy go up

Lindsay Gibson: 00:19:40 or made it go down. And that's the beginning of getting back in touch with your own guidance inside instead of following the way that the emotionally mature parent sort of the storyline that they gave you. Like it's really okay and we're just kidding when we make fun of you, that's just good, clean fun or, uh, it's not that we don't love you, it's just that, you know, we have to work or we forgot to pick you up or all of this kind of means nothing. But when you start tuning into your feelings, it's really the beginning of being able to tell what it is that you need and what's not good for you.

Amee: 00:20:23 Right. Okay. Now you talk about self roles, which is just another, another thing that a child will do. And one of my other guests that I speak with, um, quite a bit, she works with narcissistic abuse survivors and, and so, um, which is a form of an emotionally immature parent. It's not all, although emotionally immature parents are narcissistic and, but narcissistic parents are, you know, emotionally immature. And she, and she talks about, and you guys both used, I love that you both use marbles. You know, when you and I talked originally talking about how, you know, emotions are marbles, they don't really connect together. They're just their own isolated things in that, um, uh, the, the narcissistic mom will actually start to divide the, the children into these roles, these marbles. Now you're talking here that sometimes kids actually develop their own role and, and so how is that done? How does a child develop their own role to play with their parents?

Lindsay Gibson: 00:21:20 Okay, well that all kids are trying to get their emotional needs met, which means that they are trying to forge an emotional connection in which they feel safe, secure. And also that the other person cares about what's going on inside them and that they matter to that person a lot. That's what kids are going for. And they need that, that kind of um, feedback and engagement in order to successfully formed their own personalities and their own inner security. So the child is tasked with that. That's what they've gotta do in order to have, okay, uh, what they need kind of the vital nutrients of, um, of emotion. They will try to get them that and they will try to figure it, figure out how to get that. Now one of the ways that they come up with is what sort of role can I take on in the family?

Lindsay Gibson: 00:22:23 This is all subconscious, but you know, this is kind of the way it goes. They, by trial and error, they, they say, what kind of role can I take on in the family that will make me matter to my parent? What kind of role will get me attention and connection and a sense that their focus is on me. So for different kids, they come up with different kinds of things. Like one kid might figure out, oh, when I pitch a fit and throw things, I get what I want and everybody pays a lot of attention to me. I got it. That's the role self and I need to, boy, lots of times kids will, if they have a different temperament, they might decide that, oh, when I control myself and I don't show many needs, that's when my parents seems to be very pleased with me. Or I noticed that mom talks about what a good little helper I am to her friends. Uh Oh that, that's, that's what I need to do. I need to not show my needs and be very, very helpful and good. You know, those are two vastly different roles. But depending on the child, they might seem to be just the ticket and they both my work with the parent.

Amee: 00:23:45 Now you talk about emotional development, and I know this is something that not a lot of people really, um, understand in terms of the, of the neuroscience behind this, that, you know, kids don't just need this and they're not being needy because they need some emotional support. That this is real life brain development that's happening, that the child's brain is forming and emotional development is a big piece of it and it feels wishy washy because it's not like, you know, growing, you know, your bones get longer, you know, you get taller and all that other stuff. There's a lot of misunderstandings I think about brain development and that people just haven't learned enough about that aspect of it. And so, um, I think that, you know, when we talk about, I'm just kind of saying this for the listeners out there, you know, when we talk about that the kids need emotional development. It's because as you said, this is how we're learning emotions and they are the emotions that we store that then we rely on through the rest of our life. And so the messages that we're getting at this point in time. And so when you, when, when children develop these roles, they carry them on into their adulthood, don't they?

Lindsay Gibson: 00:24:55 Yes, they do. For instance, let's say that, that, uh, that last child I've talked about, the good girl that doesn't have any needs. So let's say she gets married and she's attracted to what feels familiar to her, which is a person that, you know, may pay her a lot of attention at the outset, but then once the relationship is established, or maybe after she gets married, then they like don't relate to her in the same way or they're not really interested in her needs. So, so she's beginning to move back into a similar situation that she may have had in childhood in terms of feeling emotionally deprived.

Amee: 00:25:40 Lindsay, because you are, you keep describing my life.

Lindsay Gibson: 00:25:55 this hypothetical girl as a woman, she says, oh, I know what to do. I've just got to love him enough that he will give me love back. There's the healing fantasy that she may have had about her parents. So this, this woman, um, has learned how to not cost her mate any kind of emotional work or worry or, um, anything that he has to put any energy into in terms of emotional intimacy. She's learned how to be a good girl in her childhood and she will try to make this healing fantasy work with husband or her mate. And of course the longer this goes on the say the man is, is happy with this arrangement because he's not interested in that kind of emotional closeness. But she becomes over time more and more emotionally deprived. And so, you know, at some point there is, there has to be some kind of reckoning where that emotional deprivation needs to be addressed.

Lindsay Gibson: 00:27:12 So that's where you get situations where, um, the, the woman might, in this example, she might try to reach the husband. She may start asking for what she needs, but it may be too late in terms of the marriage has deteriorated or maybe the mate is just not interested in doing that kind of relationship. And so this is a time, often when relationships start to break down, when, when the adult child realizes that this healing fantasy isn't going to happen. And also that this role self that they've been trying to live, uh, hasn't brought them at all what they wanted.

Amee: 00:27:57 And that's probably usually the point at which you've got your phone rings and an email comes in and somebody says, I need to, I need to talk. You know, when you're, when somebody is just at that emotional emptiness there. Um, one of the things that I, you know, I had found for myself, and I know this doesn't always happen with other people and it's, you know, I wouldn't describe it as a severe form of it, that it definitely has been a way of, maybe it's a healing fantasy, I don't know what you would call it, but love addiction and the, um, the, the fantasy of, you know, finding someone who would finally love me and, and having that shape, you know, relationships from that way. Um, is that, is that something that isn't a kind of an outfall of how a a child, you know, have an uh, an emotionally immature parent evolves into an adult that you'd seen?

Lindsay Gibson: 00:28:46 Oh, absolutely. Isn't that a heartbreaking?

Amee: 00:28:50 Oh, totally. Yeah.

Lindsay Gibson: 00:28:53 And of course it's, the child has no way to understand what happened to them. Um, you know, that little boy, that little girl has, like I said, no parent is identifying what they're doing to that child at an emotional level because they don't know. So without awareness, I mean, that's why I wrote this book because I wanted people to have a vocabulary and a language for understanding these types of relationships. But without that, all you can do is go on instinct and that's where the healing fantasies are. The love addiction or okay, whatever comes in because you know, that poor child is still in there trying to get somebody to give them the support and the love that they need in order to, you know, complete their development to find themselves to feel valuable. And, and that process goes on until that person becomes consciously aware of what it is that they need. Um, and that they don't find it in love addiction. They find it in there, uh, own self awareness and their own growth.

Amee: 00:30:10 Yeah. Yeah. And that's, I, for any like my 2 cents to that, I mean, I know you're the professional therapist, but as the person recovering, that's 100% correct. You know, seeking it out in somebody else that you're just waiting for the right person to love you the right way is not that solution. At some point, as an adult, you know, the boat, the ship has sailed. You know, it should have come from your caregivers when you were little to teach, taught you that security and all that. But once you're at the adult level, it's up to you to, to learn how to, to kind of bring that to yourself, which it feels unfair, you know? And that's what I tell everybody. It's like, I get it. You know, it doesn't feel fair that you have to do this to yourself right now and that you're dealing with all of that. But it is your, you know, if you want to feel better and happier, it is your responsibility to kind of take some accountability that you're just going to have to find it, find a great therapist to work with and, and get started with it. So, yeah,

Lindsay Gibson: 00:31:02 yeah, it is up to you. But it, it's a very important, you know, whether you're doing it through books or talking to an insightful friend or a group therapy, um, okay. Individual therapy, it helps to have somebody that can give you ideas that maybe you couldn't come up with on your own. So that's crucial. It's sort of like there, there's some self examinations that you can't do, um, on yourself and it really helps to get some input from outside because that self awareness and that self growth, you know, lots of times people just like you say, they want that other person to supply that to them that feels natural. Like it didn't childhood, someone should give this to me to correct. That's right. But as an adult, this whole process of becoming aware of yourself can be so rewarding. I mean, uh, once you start getting into it, it's a very fulfilling kind of pursuit to find yourself again. And once that starts to happen, it's like the appeal of a bad relationship just loses its cachet. I mean, yeah, it's just not attract to you anymore. And then, and then over time you start naturally defined yourself, being attracted to more self aware people who are, you know, frankly nicer and more so, you know, you change yourself and you'll find that your outside relationship world will change too.

Amee: 00:32:45 Yeah, for sure. And that, and that's a great message of hope and one that I like to always like carry on with everybody. And, and also once you have that deep self awareness, you know, it's not like the movie the Matrix where you can take the red pill or the blue pill and you can choose to go back in time and pretend once you have done it, you're done. Like your world is different, your life will never be the same. And it's a, and it's brighter. It has definitely brighter. Um, so the two types of big buckets of coping is externalizing and internalizing. Right. And so what's the difference, you know, as between these two types of coping mechanism that kids slash adults end up developing?

Lindsay Gibson: 00:33:26 Yeah. Well the, um, the externalizers are, well let me, let me back up for a second. As any parent can tell you no ba