How to Recover from an Emotionally Unavailable Mother
Understanding the special wounds inflicted by dismissal and unresponsiveness
Posted June 20, 2019 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
“I think I literally craved love and attention as a child. The more my mother withdrew, the more frantic I became. I became a troublemaker because I knew she would pay attention to me, even if it meant punishment. It sounds weird, but that’s what I did. Since I couldn’t get her love, I settled for her anger. At least in those moments, she was there.”
This was Natalie’s story, one which I told in my book, Daughter Detox, and her description of “craving” is well-taken; other women have described “hungering” for their mother’s love and doing what they could to make them emotionally present. Sometimes, that involved either feigning sickness or being sick:
“I was pretty young when I realized that my mother enjoyed playing nurse; it made her feel valuable in a way that I guess the ordinary, day-to-day of mothering didn’t. Some of my happiest childhood moments are intertwined with having bronchitis, believe it or not. But when I wasn’t sick, I was another box Mom had to check off on the endless to-do list she complained about constantly. For the most part, she ignored me.”
Spotting the emotionally unavailable mother
The children of these mothers are emotionally neglected, though that may be hard for them to recognize because their external needs aren’t just adequately met but, often, met with care; these mothers curate their lives carefully, with beautifully kept homes and nicely dressed children. While they may have fabulous rose bushes and be active in their communities, they pay no attention to their children’s emotional needs or their emotional selves, for that matter. These mothers may be avoidantly attached themselves or they may simply not like the demands of motherhood; that is how Alexis perceived her own mother:
“My mother was turned off by neediness and the needier you were, the less attention she paid to you. She saw crying as a sign of weakness and she’d turn on you for that. I learned young to ask for little because she was actually nicer when you didn’t make demands. My brother and I responded to her in the same way and it wasn’t until I was in my teens and got to see how my friends’ mothers acted that I realized how cold my mother was. I have had years of therapy and it’s still hard for me to ask for help or affection or anything else. I am 45 and as armored as ever.”
How an emotionally unavailable mother affects you
Unlike a controlling mother or one high in narcissistic traits who deliberately puts her child in the position of being a satellite circling her planet, the emotionally unavailable mother does it unintentionally; the truth is that she wants as little to do with her child except on a superficial level. Yearning for her mother’s love and attention is the hallmark of this daughter and she’ll deal with it by either cutting off her emotions and emotional needs both consciously and unconsciously or becoming subsumed by that yearning. Those who armor themselves suffer from trust issues, an inability to sustain connection, and trouble identifying feelings, and display a dismissive-avoidant or fearful-avoidant style of attachment. Those who are subsumed by their yearning keep trying to get their mothers’ attention, sometimes turning to unhealthy substitutes to fill the hole in their hearts.
Recognizing the emotional neglect she’s suffered is often a long road, as one daughter, 43, explained:
“When I used to hear the words ‘emotional neglect,’ I immediately thought of someone who was poor and living in a hovel because I thought that emotional neglect was part of not having enough stuff. But now I totally realize that you can be emotionally impoverished living in a gorgeous house with a swimming pool and tennis court. My mother never offered me a word of support or validation and it took me twenty years to realize that what I felt about my childhood was real and true. That you can be starved with food in the fridge and neglected with a closet full of clothes and your college tuition paid for. It took me a long time to believe myself.”
Puzzling it out
One of the conundrums for the daughter of the emotionally unavailable mother is puzzling through how her mother can be physically present and emotionally absent at once. For the young child, this is emotionally confusing and, as the child matures, it may stay that way and create a well of deep self-doubt. She’s likely to wonder whether there’s something wrong with her—Is she too needy or demanding? Is she asking for too much?—or she may wonder whether she’s just making it up. These questions can bedevil a daughter long into adulthood, as Lauren explained:
“A part of me wanted my mother to be abusive in ways that could be seen—screaming, yelling, or maybe even hitting me—but that never happened. On the surface, she seemed like a great mother and, trust me, the world thought so. But she never really listened to me or cared about me in any real way. She was walled off, unresponsive. I struggled for years, thinking it was my fault somehow. When I got married, I went into shock when I first encountered my husband’s family. I honestly thought his mother was putting on an act. But, over time, I came to understand that what I was seeing was love in action and genuine caring. I realized I wasn’t crazy after all.”
Taking steps toward healing
As I explain in my book Daughter Detox, discovery is the first step which entails recognizing your mother’s treatment and then beginning to see how you adapted to it. Behaviors that you’ve always thought were simply inborn parts of your personality often are revealed to be the product of trying to cope or muddle through the emotional environment of your family of origin. Depending on whether you responded to your mother’s lack of emotional availability by trying to storm the citadel (and having an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment) or by deciding you didn’t need her or anyone (by developing a dismissive-avoidant style of attachment), you will want to look at:
- How trusting others is an issue in your life
- The degree to which you either crave or disdain close connections
- Whether you tend to self-isolate and minimize the importance of relationships
- Whether you are always on alert and fearful in a relationship and have problems with healthy boundaries
- The degree to which you are emotionally intelligent and can identify and act on your feelings
- Whether you are repeating the pattern by being attracted to emotionally unavailable friends and romantic partners
Recovery is possible, though it takes time and effort; it’s best accomplished by working with a gifted therapist, but self-help can also support your efforts. The good news is that you don’t have to stay that little girl—the one yearning for that distant sun to throw some light on her. There is a way out of that childhood room.
Thanks to all of those who shared their stories with me over the years and who continue to help grow my understanding.
Streep, Peg. Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Île D'Éspoir Press, 2017.