Something missing – 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.
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Growing up with a mother who is a quiet Borderline (Borderline Waif’s) mother or mother who is has Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be incredibly difficult for a child as your mum will be emotionally underdeveloped. Quiet Borderlines are different to the typical Borderline as their “Acting in” behaviours can be hard to spot. ASD can also be difficult to pick up on particularly when it is mild. 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. Girls with mum’s who are quiet Borderlines or ASD can find themselves very lonely, as your mother may not want to play or interact with you if something doesn’t interest her. If a mother likes to paint then she may happily spend hours teaching her young daughter how to do this but may not take the time to find out the things that really excite and interest her little girl.
Hugs and mum’s intuition
Physical intimacy with Mum may also be limited, there will be some physical touch as mum will have to carry her baby and young children in her arms until they reach a certain age. Hugs may only come when you have tears streaming down your face or are really screaming in pain; the less obvious times when you need care because of some 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. Quiet Borderline mother’s won’t notice the more subtle signs of something being wrong, this can seriously affect their daughters 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 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. Keeping emotions bottled up in this way is not helpful but you have no other option, as your emotions will not be responded to; and if you try and express them, you will not be understood. You may have a father who is a little bit warmer when it comes to things like hugs 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. If you mum has borderline traits she is likely to go for a partner who is quite immature in their emotional development also.
There might have been times when you tried to hug your mum and she turned away or that she was surprised that you wanted to hug her. Your mum may not like physical touch as much as you and will have some odd behaviours that are hard for you to understand.
You might find that your mum has some sensory issues that may lead her to dislike certain noises, environments, foods and many other things. She will not be able to deal with social situations very well and you may notice that she gets upset, cries or gets very anxious in situations, which you perceive as being relatively easy to manage. Your mother may be a bit of a hermit, wear some odd clothing, and may not take the usual pride in her appearance that women typically take. This might lead you to feel some shame about your mum and might make you concerned about what others might think of her. Your mother may have even experienced some rejection from her own family for being different. Your mother might be very childlike in ways and not able to guide you in ways that aren’t purely practical, you might be stuck with talking to her about just a few topics such as your job (a concrete thing she can understand) and her limited special interest as people with ASD can get obsessed with one activity or passion rather than having a balanced range of interests.
The things she didn’t teach me
Emotionally underdeveloped mother’s may miss many important things that they should teach their daughters; even obvious things like personal hygiene teaching may be missed out on. Personal hygiene can be so complicated for the ASD mothers because of her sensory issues, therefore showering and bathing can be a difficult process, ASD mum’s may give personal hygiene an absolute minimum focus and pass on this minimum attention attitude to her kids, leaving them to discover for themselves that showering needs to be increased in teenage years. Puberty changes might be a topic that is completely avoided or an emotionally underdeveloped mum might be more comfortable buying her teen a book so they can read the information themselves rather than discussing a topic which might bring up awkward questions. Some girls with emotionally unavailable Mum’s have told me that they went to their Dad when they had their first period rather than try and approach their mum, other have said that they approaches their mum’s who responded coldly “well I bought you the stuff you know what to do”. This of course will give you the message that it’s never ok to talk to your mum about sex or other intimate issues and you will learn to keep your thoughts on these topics to yourself also and suppress any emotions that go with it.
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 girls 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 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 daughter that she loves her or misses her as she will assume that her daughter already knows this, if she has said it once she will think that this will be enough for her daughter to know this to be a fact and she will not need to hear if again for her whole life.
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.
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 daughter 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
Growing up with an emotionally unavailable mother can be a bit like having a nanny rather than a real mother. “How can I be so different to my mum?” the adult daughters of these women wonder. They wish that they had the close bond other girls share with their mums.
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 really anything wrong with you. Note that women who are emotionally underdeveloped are also their own people. While they may have some of the features described here, they also have their own unique personalities and may not display all the characteristics discussed in this article.
Feel free to ask questions about this article and I will reply or make a youtube video addressing your question.