5 Ways for Daughters to Heal From an Emotionally Absent Mother
Realizing Your Mom Was Emotionally Absent
When they have children, many women discover a deeper connection to their own moms. We may feel tremendous gratitude for all they did for us and a newfound appreciation for the patience, effort, and loving care it took to nurse us, potty train us, help us with our math homework, guide us through the awkward preteen years, and let us make our own stupid mistakes as young adults.
For many of us, though, motherhood makes us realize how much we missed out on during our own childhoods. We may finally become aware of the many ways our lives were negatively affected by the absence of that profound emotional bond between mom and daughter.
An emotionally absent mother is not fully present and especially not to the emotional life of the child. She may be depressed, stretched too thin and exhausted, or perhaps a bit numb. Many of these mothers were severely undermothered themselves and have no idea what a close parent-child relationship looks like. They are doing the outer things they think a mother should do, but have no clue how very big the job of mothering is.— Jasmin Lee Cori, author of "The Emotionally Absent Mother"
The Lasting Effects of an Emotionally Unavailable Mother
When my husband and I were going through the long and painful process of getting our 3-year-old son diagnosed with autism, I started to have flashbacks of my growing-up years. Before, I had placed those dreadful days in a dark corner of my mental closet and moved on with my life. But my mother's lack of compassion and understanding about my son stirred up unpleasant memories from—and realizations about—my past.
Not only was she unsympathetic to the heartache I was going through, but she was actually downright hostile and dismissive of my feelings. She couldn't relate on any level to the intense emotions I was experiencing. More than any other time in my life I needed a mommy, but she steadfastly refused to act like one...or, perhaps, she just didn't have it in her and never had.
When I began fully feeling the absence of my mother's love, I was overwhelmed by my son's diagnosis and a new baby. I didn't have time or money to attend therapy. Thank goodness my friend told me about Jasmin Lee Cori's This book led me to reflect upon my childhood instead of just blocking it from my mind like I had been doing. I read it at a snail's pace—needing to thoroughly digest one page at a time, ponder its content, and journal about it. The Emotionally Absent Mother.
Cori explains that many daughters of emotionally absent mothers spend their entire childhood trying to win their mom's love and approval instead of focusing on themselves. As a result, they grow up not knowing who they are, what they want from life, or even what they enjoy doing. They might feel empty, alone, and aimless, which often leads to anxiety or depression.
This perfectly described my own situation. Every page of Cori's book spoke to my experiences growing up with a mother who performed all the outward behaviors of a "good mom"—cooking our meals, cleaning the house, and driving us to school—yet doing nothing to care for our inner universes (responding to our emotions, empathizing with our struggles, or comforting us when we were blue). As I read, I often needed to put the book down for days or even weeks because it made me so emotional. When I finally finished reading and absorbing it all, I set five goals for myself that proved immensely helpful on my road to understanding, healing, and forgiving.
Here are the five things I did to heal.
5 Ways for Daughters to Heal From an Emotionally Absent Mother
- Find a mother figure.
- Mother yourself.
- Examine and forgive.
- Make your home child-centered.
- Give yourself permission to feel everything.
Each of these routes towards healing is explained and described fully below.
1. Find a Mother Figure
We wound ourselves when we only look for mothering from one person—our biological moms. The mother archetype is a universal role, someone who's nurturing, caring, unselfish, and emotionally open. If our own moms don't fulfill that description, it's essential we find someone who does: female or male, older or younger, a person who'll be there for the long haul or just for the immediate situation.
My son's occupational therapist, Nora, became my maternal figure. Although she isn't much older than I am, she was a wiser and more experienced figure who gently guided me through the autism maze. Because her teenage son had Asperger's, she spoke not only from a professional perspective but from a personal one and always with genuine kindness and concern.
While her primary job was to help my son, she never left me out of the equation. She made sure I was taking good care of myself—going to a support group for parents of children on the spectrum and having fun with my husband and baby. She reminded me to enjoy my son as a wonderful, unique kid and not just one with autism. I'm no longer in touch with Nora but remain grateful that she mothered me during this difficult period.
A Word of Caution: In my search for a mother figure, I took a number of missteps. In Why We Repeatedly Choose the Wrong Relationships, Julia Flood, a licensed psychotherapist, cautions that we tend to be drawn to the familiar and go toward the devil we know. I kept trying to form friendships with women who were closed-off like my mother. I was trying to win them over and change them, just like I'd done with my mom as a child. Once I identified this pattern, I was able to stop it and start pursuing relationships with people who were emotionally available and desiring of an open, honest, and reciprocal connection.
2. Mother Yourself
I didn't treat myself well, and it was catching up to me. I didn't eat right, make time for exercise, spend time with friends, or have hobbies. I didn't feel like I deserved good treatment—not from others, and not from myself. I knew changing that belief was central to improving my life.
In elementary school, I was the ragamuffin girl whose hair needed a good brushing. In middle school, I was the one with the frumpy clothes who needed someone to teach her about style. In high school, I was the pimply teen who needed to visit a dermatologist. I never had anyone mentor me, advocate for me, champion me, be my cheerleader, or mother me. I finally decided to do all those things for myself.
Today, I don't let malicious voices in my head tear me down until I can barely function. I'm kind and gentle to myself, making time for activities that bring me peace and joy. I talk to myself like a mother talks to a child: "You've worked long enough. You're tired now and need to sleep...You need to slow down and eat a healthy meal. Nothing is more important than that."
I begin many mornings by writing a note to myself from my ideal imaginary mother. She tells me how much she loves me and how proud she is of what I've accomplished. She encourages me to treat myself with kindness throughout the day.
I remember hearing Iyanla Vanzant, the life coach and television personality, tell women to put themselves first and to "keep your cup full." I had heard nothing of that sort while growing up, but found out quickly how right Vanzant was. It's empowering to finally have someone looking out for me...especially when it's me. I no longer feel so completely drained. I look forward to every day and have so much more to offer.
3. Examine and Forgive
Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But for those of us with painful memories, it's often difficult to re-visit our traumatic pasts. When I started to look at how my mom's childhood related to my own, though, the puzzle pieces started to fit and a clear, cohesive image appeared. I realized that not only did I need to forgive my mother, but that she deserved my forgiveness.
My grandparents conceived my mother to save their unhappy marriage. When their first daughter died, they contemplated divorce. They ultimately chose, however, to have another child, my mother, in the hopes of saving their union. It didn't work. My grandmother began to drink, eventually dying from cirrhosis of the liver. My mom got sent away to boarding school. She never had a mother figure in her life again and never experienced what it was like to live in a family until she had kids of her own.
It's no wonder that she struggled to connect to her children on an emotional level. She was still preoccupied with the suffering of her own childhood (and still is today, well into her 70s). She saw her mom's alcoholism as an act of rejection. She commented, “she chose booze over me.”
My mom never took the time to learn about alcohol addiction, attend an Al-Anon meeting, or find answers in therapy. She didn't have a mother. She didn't mother herself. So how could she mother her children? With that insight, it was easy to forgive.
4. Make Your Home Child-Centered
According to Jasmin Lee Cori, many children who grew up with emotionally absent mothers didn't have child-centered homes. She says, “These parents didn’t supervise kids, they didn’t talk to their kids, they didn’t touch their kids, and they weren’t there when their kids came to them for help.”
In my family, our mother always had more important things to do than mothering. Her career (ironically as an elementary school teacher) was always put ahead of us kids. We'd sit at the dinner table, and she'd tell story after story about the students in her class but never asked about our days.
As a parent, I've made a conscious effort to create a child-centered home. I don't burden them with adult issues like my mother did with me. She confided in me all her marital problems, work struggles, and financial concerns. I would never even think of doing that with my own kids.
A Note About Play: I hated playing with my sons at first and even resented it. My mother had never reduced herself to our level when my siblings and I were young. Therefore, I didn't know how to immerse myself into a child's imaginative world and felt ridiculous trying. Yet, the more I did it, the more fun it became and the more I delighted in living for the moment, escaping to a fantasy world, and connecting with my sons. As such, playing with them became surprisingly helpful in my healing process.
5. Give Yourself Permission to Feel Everything
As a child, my mother denied my feelings again and again. If I said, “I feel sad,” she'd lecture me on why that couldn't possibly be true. Because she had an alcoholic mother who had died, she thought my life was perfect and I had no right to feel anything but sheer contentment. That's when I started to stuff my emotions with food. As an adult, I concealed my feelings with anti-depressants, leading to a robotic existence.
by Dr. Jonice Webb is another book that I recommend for daughters of emotionally absent mothers, especially those who struggle with identifying and expressing their emotions. Dr. Webb says that mothers who discount a daughter's emotions during childhood create enormous problems for their daughters in adulthood. Running on Empty
The daughter thinks: My feelings don't matter so I must not matter. She learns at an impressionable age to bottle up her emotions. Then, as an adult, she cannot tap into those feelings when she needs them. Dr. Webb writes, "When your emotions are blocked off, your body feels it. Something vital is missing. You sense this deeply, and it does not feel good....You are emotionally numb."
After getting off anti-depressants, I decided to feel every emotion for the first time in my life. It was scary because I thought my husband and kids would turn their backs on me. I thought they would tell me that my feelings were wrong just like my mom had, but they didn't. They accepted them and, therefore, accepted me.
I also started writing down my feelings and experiences as the daughter of an emotionally absent mother. Through the process of putting pen to paper, I made sense of what happened to me and how it shaped my life. Writing things down helped me organize my thoughts. I realized that I didn't always need other people to understand my history and validate my emotions; I could find peace just by putting the words on the page and that discovery was truly transformative.
In this video, Dr. Jonice Webb offers a hopeful message for those who grew up with emotionally absent mothers.
How Do I Know If I've Been Emotionally Neglected?
Emotional neglect is a relationship pattern in which one person's emotional needs are repeatedly ignored, invalidated, belittled, or even mocked by a significant other. It occurs when a person fails to provide the emotional support they should, given their relationship to the other. The term encompasses, among other things, a spouse's failure to attend to their partner's emotional needs and parent's failure to provide the attention and affection their child needs to thrive.
What is parental emotional neglect?
Parental emotional neglect is when a parent fails to recognize, understand, or empathize with their child's emotions. It is one of the four types of neglect: physical, medical, educational, and emotional.
Is emotional neglect a form of child abuse?
Although they sometimes go hand in hand, emotional neglect is not exactly the same thing as emotional abuse. Emotional neglect is an act of omission—of failing to see, recognize, or validate a child's emotions and omitting to do things to nurture a child's emotional health—while emotional abuse involves actively doing things that are hurtful or traumatizing (like taunting, name-calling, or gaslighting).
Emotional neglect can hurt a child just as much as physical or emotional abuse can, however. Although there are no bruises or scars, even if a child's physical needs (food, medicine, clothing, shelter) are provided for, a lack of emotional affection, attention, and validation will have many psychological effects that carry over to adulthood.
How do you know if you suffered emotional neglect as a child?
Because there are no bruises or scars, recognizing the signs of emotional neglect is not easy. Not only will the neglect be invisible to others, but it might also be hidden from the person who suffered the neglect, and sometimes the truth and full repercussions of emotional neglect won't be felt until much later. Symptoms may only begin to appear in adulthood. For example, I didn't begin to understand the damage that had been done to me emotionally until I had children of my own.
Not only will emotional neglect be invisible to others, but it might also be hidden from the person who endured it. Sometimes, the truth and repercussions of emotional neglect won't be felt until much later.
Signs You Were Emotionally Neglected in Childhood
- You feel numb or cut off from your emotions. You might not know how you really feel at all. You often don't have a strong sense of who you are, what you like, or what you want.
- Instead of knowing how you feel, you just feel hollow, empty, or numb.
- You often feel disconnected and cut off from others, like you are all alone in the world. You may feel lonely even when surrounded by others.
- You may feel emotionally depleted, like you have nothing left to give.
- You have a hard time objectively assessing your own strengths and weaknesses. You especially don't recognize your own best qualities.
- You don't feel like you're worthy of love, attention, or care—from yourself or from others.
- You feel like you don’t belong, even with your closest friends and family.
- You feel lost, unseen, invisible, and alienated. You often feel like like you are on the outside of life, looking in.
- You may have difficulty trusting in or relying upon others.
- You are extremely sensitive to rejection.
- You can't pinpoint any abuse that happened in your childhood, but you still feel like something was missing. Maybe you tell yourself that your childhood was "normal" and berate yourself for not feeling stronger and happier now.
- You are a perfectionist, and nothing you do is ever good enough. You judge yourself harshly and often feel disappointed with or angry at yourself.
- You have a hard time saying how you feel or putting your feelings into words. Even your happy feelings may be hard to define.
- You may believe that you are deeply and irredeemably flawed. You think that if you let others see the truth inside, it will repel them, so you have to hide.
- When you get upset, it's hard to self-soothe. Your emotions feel too big, too violent, too scary, and too out-of-control.
- You have a hard time asking for or receiving help.
- You might feel like you are different from other people, like something is deeply wrong with you...you don't know what it is, but you think it's all your fault.
If these statements sound familiar, it's possible you experienced emotional neglect in childhood. The emotionally neglected often can't pinpoint any childhood incident or memory that helps them identify what was really happening under the surface of things, so they blame themselves. If it was your father who was emotionally distant, you might like to read Fatherless Daughters: How Growing Up Without a Dad Affects Women. If you'd like to know more about the lasting effects of emotional neglect on a daughter, read How an Emotionally Absent Mother Impacts Her Daughter's Life.
Did you have an emotionally absent mother?
If so, what helped you to heal?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
My mom was emotionally absent, and I didn't want to be like her when I became a mom. I've done really well with my kids, but I get frustrated dealing with their emotions. How can I do better?
It's understandable that you, the daughter of an emotionally absent mother, would struggle to deal with your children's feelings despite your best intentions. Growing up without a role model to show you how to do things correctly, you're left to your own devices. When you were a child, your emotional world was not attended to, and now you may perceive your children's intense feelings as scary and threatening. You may wrongly interpret their anger or sadness as saying: “Mom, you're doing a lousy job and I'm unhappy about it.”
It's so wonderful, though, that you recognize your weakness in this area and want to improve. Now you need to cut yourself some slack and become more methodical in your approach. I, too, found myself reacting without patience and empathy when my sons were expressing their emotions. Sometimes it was simply because I was tired but other times it was because of the emotional neglect I experienced as a kid.
I found myself wanting to fix my children's problems and move forward as quickly as possible with no emotional messiness. That was my legacy as the daughter of an emotionally absent mother. Therefore, I decided to become more deliberate, slow down, and follow these three critical steps:
1. Let them have their feelings.
Feelings are neither good nor bad; they are. Help your children identify their feelings and name them (sad, frustrated, angry). Help them figure out why they're having these feelings (I'm angry because I lost at Monopoly...I'm frustrated because we didn't have pizza for dinner...I'm sad because I didn't get invited to the birthday party). Be their guide as they explore their feelings. Let them cry if they need to cry. Don't try to suppress their emotions. Help them find ways to deal with their feelings in a constructive way: punching a pillow, going outside, waling the dog, exercising, talking to a friend, writing in a journal, taking a bath, etc.
2. Don't get defensive.
Keep in mind that their feelings are their own. Get your ego out of the equation and don't make it about you. Step back from the situation. Don't take their strong emotions as a condemnation of your mothering. This is about them getting to know more about their emotions and themselves. It's normal, natural, and healthy.
3. Listen and don't try to fix things.
What one of the biggest complaints wives have about their husbands is that they immediately jump into solving the problem rather than listening and empathizing. As daughters of emotionally absent mothers, we can be guilty of this as well. We're uncomfortable with the raw emotions. We want them to go away and everything to return to normal. When we do this, however, we give our kids the wrong message. We communicate that feelings are undesirable, so it's best to bottle them up inside and then suffer all the negative physical and emotional consequences of doing so. As a daughter of emotionally absent mothers, this is the last message we want to pass along to our kids!
Our moms didn't listen to us when we were children and didn't pick up on our feelings. There was no emotional bond. Now it's our opportunity to do better with our kids and not pass the emotional neglect to the next generation. It may not come naturally to us, but we can do it because we're aware and highly motivated.Helpful 58
Do you have any more book recommendations? I finished the one mentioned in your article, and I need to read more on the subject as part of my healing process.
After I read "The Emotionally Absent Mother," I was eager to move forward like you probably are. I didn't want to get stuck in the victim role, constantly re-hashing my childhood. I had spent enough time doing that, so I read books that helped me make my life better in the here and now. I read Jasmin Lee Cori's follow-up, "The Emotionally Absent Mother: A Guide to Self-Healing and Getting the Love You Missed," and "Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers" by Dr. Karyl McBride.
Both books helped me understand how growing up with an emotionally distant mom shaped my childhood, causing me so much shame and self-doubt. I had blamed myself for my terrible childhood, thinking I was a failure as a kid and teen. These books helped me realize that I was not to blame, and I could finally start to nurture and love that wounded little girl inside of me. I began taking good care of myself for the first time in my life: losing weight, exercising, and eating well. Before that, I just didn't like myself enough to bother.Helpful 34
I want to start by thanking you for sharing your story. I felt I was reading about myself and it's nice to know i'm not crazy. I'd like to know if you had any trouble when you first had your child. I am scared of becoming a mom for fear of being a bad one. Did you have other resources to share on that aspect of your experience?
You're so fortunate to be aware of this now while contemplating motherhood. As I said in my article, I didn't know I was the daughter of an emotionally absent mother until after having my son and struggling through his autism diagnosis. If I had known sooner, I would have saved myself so much heartache and frustration. I never would have expected my mom to act any differently than she always had in emotionally rife situations--cold, angry, and detached--and I would have moved away from her long before starting a family of my own.
Don't think for one minute that your mother will act differently as a grandmother to your kids than she did as a mother to you. I was hoping my mom would connect to my sons on an emotional level and be a special someone in their lives: giving them hugs and kisses, playing board games with them, taking them to the park, talking with them, doing cooking and art projects with them. But, it was insane of me to think that because she had never done those things with my siblings and me. Hope springs eternal, though, and I wanted so badly to have a second chance with her through my sons. People are consistent, though, and my mom acted as a grandmother just as she had as a parent. I didn't want to go through that pain again so I distanced myself from her (emotionally and geographically). Without a doubt, it was the best decision for me, my marriage, and my kids.
I'm so glad I sheltered my sons from my mom because they haven't been damaged by her. That just see her as a passive-aggressive old lady. My two nieces, though, are now young adults and grew up with their grandmother near them. They have no bond with her and hate how she nitpicks their appearance—their hair color, their clothes, their skin, their weight—just as she had done to me and their mom while growing up. Unlike me and my sister, though, they fight back and don't let her crush their spirit!
I think you would be an awesome mom if you deal with these issues before becoming pregnant. Without a doubt, parenting has been a challenge for me because of my son's autism but also because of my childhood. Yet, being a mother has given me a chance to build the family of my dreams in which there's a lot of fun, laughter, and camaraderie.
"Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect" by Jonice Webb helped me realize why I was feeling so tired and drained as a parent. I thought it was only because I was doing too much as a mom, wife, and teacher (which was true), but it was also caused by being the daughter of an emotionally absent mother. Understanding that allowed me to bring more joy and vitality into my life through meditating, volunteering, exercising, having hobbies, and allowing myself downtime. Now I always have things to look forward to that keep me living in the present and not dwelling on the past. My life is a lot more fun now than it has ever been.
Good luck to you on that life-altering decision. It's a big one!Helpful 21
How can I get my emotionally absent mother to be a better grandparent to my kids?
You can't. Moreover, you and your kids will be better off when you finally accept who your mother is. While it's wonderful for our children when they have loving and involved grandparents, they can do just fine in life without them. What they need to thrive are devoted parents and a support system made up of extended family and close friends. It's you who's pained by your mother's disinterest, not your kids. They're only negatively impacted if you make it a big deal. They feel hurt because you're hurt.
Expecting our emotionally absent mothers to be emotionally engaged grandmothers is unrealistic and sets us up for disappointment. It's a misguided attempt to re-do our childhoods and try to fix them, turning our detached moms into attentive ones. It won't work, though, because our moms are still the same people they've always been. We owe it to our kids to accept the situation as is, modeling for them that we can't change others, only ourselves. We need to be fully present for their childhoods and not stuck in the past trying to re-do ours.
Michael Singer writes about what he dubs our “inner thorns” in “The Untethered Soul.” When we have an intensely negative reaction, we're experiencing an inner thorn moment (typically, a hurt from childhood). When your mother reacts in a detached way with your kids, it triggers the anguish you felt as a youngster. Yet, if you calmly recognize that and say to yourself “my inner thorn has just been set off, “ you'll stay in control and have peace. Believe me, I do this all the time when my mother visits and it helps me stay sane!Helpful 5
My 15-year-old (step)daughter finally got to move in with us. Her mother has been plain cruel. Along with therapy, are there any books you think a mature 15-year-old could read and benefit from?
First, let me commend you for being so sensitive and compassionate about your stepdaughter's situation. Her therapist would be a much better source for book recommendations than I would. The books I recommend to daughters of emotionally absent mothers are for adult women and explore heavy-duty themes that aren't appropriate for teens. When I read those books, they wiped me out emotionally.
I would suggest, though, that you consider family therapy as you make this big transition. It would be valuable for all of you to have a skilled facilitator in the room as you maneuver this new living arrangement. When a teen is in therapy by herself, she gets the message that she's alone in dealing with these issues. Family therapy gives her the support she needs and shows her how powerful the group dynamic is.
I would imagine that you, her father, and other siblings need support in this new arrangement as well. Discussing these issues now can prevent problems in the future. If her mother would come into the therapy as well, it could be extremely beneficial. Even if the two of them can no longer live together, perhaps they could salvage something of their mother-daughter bond.
My 17-year-old niece recently read “Express Yourself: A Teen Girl's Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are” by Emily Roberts, a psychotherapist. Her mother (my sister) was the daughter of an emotionally absent mother, so my niece is coping with that legacy. She was struggling with depression and anxiety and was cutting herself. Like her mother and me when we were teens, she had bottled up her feelings and didn't have the skills to articulate her thoughts. She said this book (along with therapy) helped her find her voice and get some much-needed relief from her emotional pain.Helpful 12
© 2016 McKenna Meyers