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Thursday, 21 Aug 2014

Cold Mother Syndrome: Understanding You Have an Emotionally Distant Mother

By Dr. Becky Spelman

Dealing with family issues, especially concerning an emotionally unavailable parent, is actually more common than you think. Over 50% of our clients have problems related to this, even if it was unknown to them before attending therapy.

Sad and lonely hispanic girl

Being raised by an emotionally unavailable mother can be extremely troublesome for the development of a child’s social skills, due to the lack of practice they have in giving and receiving love. And while emotionally absent mothers can still provide practical support, they often give the impression that they aren’t fully present. This causes their child to become doubtful what kind of response they will or in fact, should receive. As such, the strong maternal influence that serves as the example of how they should conduct themselves just isn’t there. If this describes the dynamic with mother, you may, at times, have found yourself feeling isolated and lonely. This is because while your mother may have the capacity to provide for your physical needs, she does not have the emotional intelligence to fulfil your emotional ones. In this sense, your mother is narcissistic in nature. Her primary concern is getting her needs met before anyone else’s, and although an emotionally absent mother can show love intermittently, it is often because it will serve their own agenda.


Most mothers are able to intuit their children’s emotions and respond appropriately with the proper support, whether it be a reassuring smile or look of concern when their child is expressing unease. Emotionally unavailable mothers don’t pick up on these subtle cues for attention, and if they do, lack the empathy to communicate on this level. Over time, as their children mature, encountering challenges in which they need reassurance, it can have a severe impact on their emotional well-being. In very early childhood, the problem isn’t quite as apparent, as new-born babies are inclined to cry until they have got their needs met. However, once cognitive development begins, and verbal communication becomes the norm by age five, and onwards, the patterns of emotional neglect begin to take root. As a child notices they will often receive either no response or an inconsistent one when engaging with their mother, they learn to keep their emotions to themselves. If this describes your own upbringing, the hope is that you may have been lucky enough to have a father with whom you could relate to, emotionally. However, given the way relationships between two people are formed, both your parents will likely share a somewhat similar level of emotional intelligence. Given that like tends to attract like, if you have a mother who’s emotionally unavailable, it’s probable she may have unconsciously sought out the same qualities in her partner (your father).


If you’re forced into suppressing your emotions from a young age, due to an emotionally unavailable mother, it can often lead to the onset of mental health issues such as eating disorders and various addictions. It isn’t uncommon for these behaviours to develop from around the age of twelve or thirteen with the switching out of one bad habit for another as you progress into adulthood. One of the most well-documented paths is the adoption of restricted eating patterns, which, over time, can lead to becoming a full-blown workaholic later on in life to distract from unwanted emotions. Even the experience of boredom, which might otherwise be thought of as harmless to the average person, can be seen as something that must be shut out, completely. One of the other big challenges for those who’ve suppressed their emotions is love or sex addiction, which unconsciously serves as the means for the emotionally neglected child to experience the closeness they never felt growing up.


Anxiety tends to be the result of a combination of factors, including a lack of confidence, which in itself is borne out of the limitations your mother might have placed upon you in childhood. And no matter how skilled you become at suppressing your emotions, it is almost impossible for you to shut out the effects, completely. Due to your impressionable nature as a child, you may likely have internalised the negative voice of your mother, which has stayed with you long into adulthood, second-guessing your every decision, causing you to doubt your self-worth and contributing to your ongoing feeling of anxiety. This can be directly attributed to not being able to express your feelings earlier on in life and thereby develop the emotional intelligence, which would allow to you think and act with more confidence around others.


Besides the internal issues, the biggest problem that comes from being raised by an emotionally unavailable mother is the effect it has on intimate relationships. Because there is such an intense longing to feel the love that was denied them as a child, people who are brought up in these circumstances often look to form these bonds as quickly as possible. However, these partnerships can be fraught with difficulty, as they usually result in the pairing of two people who don’t have the emotional capacity to communicate effectively. And just as the emotionally underdeveloped mother will look for someone of a similar character to herself, so too will her offspring find themselves doing the same. The ongoing cycle of seeking romantic partners that are ultimately unable to fulfil their needs risks becoming a recurring theme unless they’re able to break free of their conditioning. These relationships are often short-lived and turbulent affairs, which invariably do more harm than good for the emotional well-being of either person involved.

Conversely, as well as desperately seeking love, the opposite can also hold true. Having felt such an absence of love your entire life, you may have come to accept loneliness. Your thinking might have led you to reason that since your mother doesn’t want to know you, and doesn’t love or understand you then who else possibly could? This sense of uncertainty can lead to a distinct lack of trust in others, especially when it comes to the formation of relationships. You may have had the thought occur to you many times that if you allow people to get too close, then you risk the rejection you were subjected to as a child. You may experience the fear of abandonment, which you attribute to a failed relationship in adulthood when in actuality, the real cause of that feeling is rooted in the lack of emotional support you received from your mother as a child.


You may have looked at the relationship your friend’s mothers have with them and wonder how yours could be so different. Growing up with an emotionally unavailaible mother can be more akin to having a babysitter than any kind of meaningful connection. But as hard as it may be not to focus on yourself, the first step to recovery is having the awareness that your mother isn’t vindictive, but is simply emotionally undeveloped. There is every chance the reason she lacks in empathy is due to experiencing a similar relationship with her mother and is just as much a victim of her upbringing as you.

It’s also important to bear in mind that while your mother might display some of the character traits we’ve covered, she will have her own unique personality, meaning that she may not show all the signs of the two disorders mentioned in the opening passages. If you find that to be true, it doesn’t mean you have any less of a reason to seek a resolution to your situation, only that your circumstances are uniquely your own, just as everyone else’s will be who’re dealing with the same issue.

If any of the situations above sound like your own experiences, remember that there is nothing wrong with what you say, think, or how you act. You have simply found yourself in a relationship that has forced you to adopt an opinion of yourself that is not in keeping with who you really are.

If you have any questions about what has been covered in this article, feel free to ask questions, and I’ll help settle any confusion you may have about this condition.

About the author:

Dr Becky Spelman is a leading UK Psychologist who’s had great success helping clients overcome the emotional neglect they’ve suffered as a child.

If you’d like to have a FREE 15-MINUTE CONSULTATION with one of our Psychologists about any emotional issues related to your childhood, we’d be happy to offer you some advice regarding your situation. Book here.


Baumeister, Roy and Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Bad is Stronger than Good,” Review of General Psychology(2001), vol.5, no.4, 323-370.

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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