Something Missing - Growing Up with an Emotionally Unavailable Mother | Private Therapy
Thursday, 21 Aug 2014

Cold Mother Syndrome – Growing up with an emotionally unavailable Mother

By Dr. Becky Spelman

Dealing with family issues, especially concerning an emotionally unavailable parent, is actually more common than you think. More than 50% of clients have problems linked to this, even if they don’t know it yet.

Sad and lonely hispanic girlGrowing up with a mother who is a mother who is emotionally unavailable can be incredibly difficult for a child as you will experience childhood emotional neglect. While a emotionally underdeveloped mother’s can be good with practical things and sort everything out like meals and laundry and making sure you have a coat on when it’s cold outside you may have felt that from early years there is something missing or that you never knew when your mother would respond positively to you and when she would react in a negative and punishing way. Children who grow up with with mothers who are emotionally unavailable or inconsistently can find themselves very lonely, as your mother may not want to play or interact with you if something doesn’t interest or suit her. Emotional unavailable or emotionally inconsistent Mothers are narcissistic in that everything will be entered around what she wants regardless or her children desires or needs. Sometimes narcistic parents can be very loving and giving provided it makes them feel good about themselves regardless of how it makes their children feel .

Emotional neglect

Times when you need care because of  emotional upsets will probably go completely unnoticed. Most mum’s intuit their children’s emotions responding appropriately to their child’s feelings, when their child is happy they will smile or laugh with them, when they look sad they will ask them what is wrong and get them communicating about it. Emotionally unavailable mother’s won’t notice the more subtle signs of something being wrong, this can seriously affect their children’s emotional wellbeing and self-esteem. It was perhaps easier when you were still young, as children are more emotional when they are little so when they are upset they will cry and perhaps be able to some how get their mother’s attention. However from this young age you will learn to keep your emotions thoughts and feelings to yourself, as they will not be responded to or the responses will be inconsistent. Keeping emotions bottled up in this way is not helpful but you have no other option, as your emotions will not be responded to in a positive way; and if you try and express them, you will not be understood. If you are lucky you may have a father who is a little bit warmer when it comes to things like emotions but the chances are that he will not be someone you can turn to when it comes to emotions either, as your mum and dad will be somewhat similar. When it comes to relationships like for like attracts and the reason you mum and dad were attracted to one another in the first place will be because they have a similar level of emotional development, give or take a bit. If you mum is emotionally unavailable she is likely to go for a partner who is quite immature in their emotional development also, another person with low self worth.

There might have been times when you tried to get your mum’s attention and she ignored you or put you down. Your mum may respond positiveluy

Suppressing Emotions

As a result of your Mothers emotional neglect you will learn to bury your emotions. When you learn to suppress emotions from a young age it can cause all sorts of problems such as eating disorders or addictions. You might have started to develop these unhelpful behaviours from around the age of 12 or 13 and then perhaps a little later in life replacing one unhelpful behaviour for another. Some children will start with restricted eating as their way to suppress their emotions, then later go on to be workaholics or busybodies to distract themselves from emotions, even emotions as simple as boredom can be seen as something that should be shut out. Love or sex addiction may be another problem for you if you have an emotionally unavailable mum, as you will have craved love and acceptance your whole life. An emotionally underdeveloped mum might never tell her children that she loves her or misses them for the sake or her children feeling good, if she ever says it there will be an anterior motive.


Anxiety is the strongest emotion that can break through all other emotions, no matter how good you are at suppressing your feelings. You might find yourself at some point in your life experiencing severe anxiety in the form of social anxiety, worry or panic attacks. You can be left feeling uncertain without that one person you can call who will always help you feel better, a close friend can not offer you the same sense of inner calm that an emotionally available mother can offer. Emotionally underdeveloped mothers can be there for their children and say some nice things but the missing component is being able to offer their child emotional closeness and understanding.

Unhealthy Relationships

This craving for love that children of emotionally unavailable mothers feel can lead them to be desperate to form intimate relationships as soon as possible. First love can be very intense for these people, you may choose completely the wrong partner and are left without any adult guidance from your mother as to how to make good choices in these relationships as she won’t be able to talk to you about something as emotionally fuelled as intimate relationships. What’s even more concerning is that you will seek partners who are somewhat similar to your mother in relation to how emotionally available they are. Being attracted to emotionally unavailable partners may become the compulsively repetitive cycle of your whole life, this is a less conscious desire to secure the love that your mother was never able to give you. These relationships will always end in tears and disappointment as you are far more emotionally developed than the partners you will be pursuing, they will never be able to meet your need for communication and your real desire of being understood by someone.

Being a child of an emotionally unavailable parent will have significantly affected your self-esteem and this lack of self-worth may have lead you to make poor choices in your life or overcompensate to try and make up for your feelings of inadequacy.

Loneliness may have lingered for your whole life because you carry the feeling that if your mum doesn’t love you, know you and understand you, who will? There might have been times when you were scared to let people get to know the real you for fear that they will reject you. You may fear abandonment and this might confuse you as you might say “but I’ve never been abandoned by anyone”, or you might blame your fear of abandonment on your first partner who didn’t treat you well but really you were abandoned by your mother emotionally from the day you were born as this women was not equipped to deal with your emotional needs.

Growing up with an emotionally unavailable mother can be a bit like having a Nanny rather than a real mother. You may have wondered your whole life how you could possibly be so different than you mum and wish that you had the close bond you see other girls share with their mothers. Having awareness that your mother is emotionally underdeveloped is the first step to understanding that there was never really anything wrong with you.

It’s important to note that while your mother may have some of these features they will have their own unique personalities as well so they may not have all the characteristics of the two disorders mentioned in this article.

Understanding Leads to Growth

“How can I be so different to my mum?” the adult children of these women wonder. They wish that they had the close bond other people share with their mothers.

If this sounds like you, it’s important to appreciate that knowing that your mother is emotionally underdeveloped is the first step to understanding that there was never anything wrong with you at all.

Feel free to ask questions about this article and I will reply or make a youtube video addressing your question.

If you think you could benefit from talking to one of our experts about this, give us a call on 03332 209 743 for a free 15 minute session so we can help advise you.

About the author:

Dr. Becky Spelman is a leading UK Psychologist who works with a wide range of clients who have suffered from childhood emotional neglect.


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Bartholomew, Kim and Leonard M. Horowitz. “Attachment Styles Among Young adults: A Test of a Four-Category Model,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1991), vol.101 (2): 226-244.

Heller, S. R. (2016). Maternal Deprivation: The effects of the fundamental absence of love. Retrieved 2/29/2016 from,

McLeod, S. (2007).  Simpy Psychology. Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. Retrieved online 3/1/2016 from,

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