How an Emotionally Absent Mother Impacts Her Daughter's Life
Was Your Mom Emotionally Absent?
Did your mother believe that letting a baby "cry it out" was a sound parenting practice in order to prevent a spoiled child?
Did you feel invisible as a kid because your mom never saw the real you and didn't listen to your thoughts, concerns, or opinions?
Did she ignore, deny, or get frustrated by your feelings when you were a child and teen?
Do you now suffer from low self-esteem as an adult, finding it hard to trust people and often feeling numb and alone?
If you are nodding your head, you may have grown up with an emotionally absent mother and are struggling today because of it. By closely examining what transpired during your childhood, teens, and adulthood, you'll gain a greater understanding of why you wound up feeling insecure, closed off, and empty. With new insight, you can take steps to become more open and loving with yourself and others.
Mothers Who Don't Love
When I gave birth to my first child, my mother instructed me to let him "cry it out" rather than pick him up and attend to his needs. She boasted this is what she did with my siblings and me, letting us bawl until we were thoroughly exhausted and fell asleep. Doing otherwise, she explained, would surely spoil an infant.
When I rejected her advice and immediately went to my son's crib to pick him up, I was met with disapproval as my mother pouted like a thwarted child. But ignoring my baby's cries went against every maternal instinct in my body. This sensation made me wonder why a baby's cry didn't have the same effect on my own mom. How could she have heard the screams of my siblings and me and not felt propelled to soothe us? It broke my heart to think of myself as a baby, calling out from the crib and getting no response.
And even more: Wasn't that neglect during infancy just the beginning of a long and painful pattern that existed throughout my life? Don't all of us who grew up with detached moms feel that our inner world got abandoned? Even as adults, don't we still feel like we're crying out for attention but are consistently ignored? While we shouldn't become immobilized by our past, learning about its impact can help us develop self-awareness and a newfound strength.
Emotionally absent mothers come with some variations, but the common theme is that they are insensitive to the emotional experience of their children. It is especially confusing in those cases where they appear, on the outside, to be involved parents—perhaps invested in the kids’ education, providing financial resources, and the like—and yet the children or adult children, when they respond honestly, report they do not feel loved or even known in any real way.— Jasmin Lee Cori, author of "The Emotionally Absent Mother"
The Early Years: Not Getting Our Needs Met
We've all heard horrific stories about babies in orphanages who don't get picked up when they cry and became emotionally damaged as a result. They don't bond with their adopted parents, experience extreme fits of anger, and suffer from depression. They may mistreat the family pets, abuse siblings, or mutilate themselves. What about those of us who weren't in orphanages but had parents who let us cry it out rather than responding to our needs?
While most mothers have a fierce maternal instinct to sooth their babies when they cry, emotionally detached ones often don't. 50 years ago, my mother (like many others) followed the advice of John Watson, a behavioral psychologist who warned that showering an infant with attention would result in a spoiled, whiny, and overly dependent child. In 1928, he published The Psychological Care of Infant and Child in which he instructed mothers to withhold maternal affection. In fact, chapter three was titled "The Dangers of Too Much Mother Love"). Watson believed that holding, cuddling, and comforting only served to reinforce negative behaviors in youngsters. For example, he asserted that picking up a screaming baby rewarded it for crying and hugging a frightened toddler encouraged him to be timid.
Since then, we have learned that the "cry-it-out" method can kill a baby's brain cells. Still, not surprisingly, emotionally absent mothers were drawn to Watson's philosophy. It reinforced their reluctance to be demonstrative with their children. Mothers like my own decided that a close mother-child bond was a bad thing, and they left their children to suffer the negative consequences of that for years to come.
"Crying It Out" May Alter Brain Structure
Recent findings in neuroscience provide overwhelming evidence about the critical importance of responding to a baby's cries. Infants who are allowed to bawl for long periods of time have abnormally high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The strain they endure in the early months of life may alter the structure of their brains.
Dr. Darcia Narvaez addresses this in the Psychology Today article entitled "Dangers of 'Crying It Out.'" She writes,
“With neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for granted—that letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated persons who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation.”
As one would expect, emotionally absent mothers are less responsive to their babies' needs. They're less likely to cuddle with them, read to them, breastfeed them, or sing them lullabies. The lack of love and attention that these infants receive during the first 12 months can impact them for a lifetime.
Erik Erikson, a respected developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst of the 20th century, wrote extensively about the importance of a child's first year. He said that youngsters whose needs are met by attentive parents will develop a sense of trust in the world and a hopeful spirit. But those whose needs go unmet will become mistrustful and struggle with feelings of insecurity and worthlessness. For us daughters of emotionally absent mothers, the latter may sound all too familiar.
The Teen Years: Not Being Seen
When my mother was eight years old, her mom died and her father sent her to a Catholic boarding school run by nuns. She stayed there until she graduated from high school. That experience shaped her life and influenced the way she parented my three siblings and me. When we were kids, our basic needs were met—clothes, food, and shelter—but unconditional love and acceptance were missing. The four of us kids were interchangeable to her, all treated the same and never seen for our unique characteristics and interests.
She got angry and frustrated when we wanted emotional support, as if we were asking for something impossible. This denial of our feelings was especially hard on my sister and me because we were both shy and sensitive. As a child, I felt invisible, lonely, and unlovable. It all caught up with me during my teen years when I suffered from depression, gained weight, and had few friends.
Emotionally Absent Mothers Don't Provide a Mirror
In , Jasmin Lee Cori writes about the important roles that a mom plays in her daughter's life. One of the most significant is that of a mirror, reflecting who the daughter is: her strengths, talents, fears, and her hopes for the future. As a result of this maternal mirroring, a daughter develops a strong identity, becomes self-assured, and is eager to take on the world. Without a maternal mirror, daughters grow up feeling unseen and misunderstood. As a result, they're more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and a high degree of self-doubt. The Emotionally Absent Mother
When my sister and I were children, our mom never acknowledged that we were introverts even though we loved spending time alone, reading, drawing, and writing. Instead, she always insisted that we were popular, outgoing girls (despite all evidence to the contrary) because that's who she wanted us to be. As a result, I grew up believing that there was something terribly wrong with me and I needed to be fixed.
The Adult Years: Practicing Acceptance
When my son was diagnosed with autism, it was the most difficult period of my life. His diagnosis forced me to come to terms with having an emotionally absent mother—something I struggled with my entire life. The little girl inside of me stopped blaming herself—thinking she was ugly, stupid, and unlovable—and finally realized her mother was incapable of giving her the love and support she always wanted.
My mother had always let me know that my feelings didn't matter and, therefore, I didn't matter. When I turned to her for mom-to-mom comfort when my son got diagnosed, she reacted in her typical fashion: cold, angry, and annoyed. She shut me down, not wanting to hear about my worries or pain.
It was the pattern I'd known all my life, but this time I reacted differently. I saw how little concern she had for my son—the most precious and innocent little boy in the entire world—and I knew it wasn't about me. It had always been about her and her inability to connect on a deeper, more profound level with anyone. She was wounded just as I had been wounded.
From that day forward, I started reading all I could about emotionally absent mothers. I took notes, wrote in my journal, went on long walks, and shed buckets of tears. I stopped loathing myself and started treating myself with love and respect. The idea of self-care had never been a part of my existence until then. I started eating right, exercising, shopping for cute clothes, putting on makeup, and making myself a priority. Nothing my mother said or didn't say would ever affect me again. I was free from her and moving forward with a new-found determination that my sons would not have an emotionally absent mom like I had.
Emotional neglect can take many forms, from a parent having unrealistically high expectations or not listening attentively, to invalidating a child’s emotional experiences to the point he or she begins to feel self-doubt. When a parent is not emotionally attuned to a child, there is no mirror held up, no positive reflection being shared with the child. Developing a positive sense of self, then, becomes more challenging for the child.— Dhyan Summers, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
In this video, Dr. Jonice Webb discusses some of the difficulties that women face in relationships when they were reared by emotionally absent mothers.
But now, as an adult, you can choose to heal your emotional neglect. And when you do, you are setting yourself on a clear path to being happier and healthier and being a more connected, effective parent to your children.
Making the decision to heal your emotional neglect is like saying to many generations going back in your family line: “The buck stops here. I will not deliver this burden to my children."— Dr. Jonice Webb, author of "Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect"
How to Heal From a Mother's Emotional Rejection
Knowledge and understanding will help you outgrow and transcend the limitations of emotional neglect. Below are ideas of ways you can understand and take care of yourself better.
- Research the issue. Read as much as you can about emotional neglect and cold mother syndrome. You might start with the books and links I've provided in this article.
- Talk it out. Find sympathetic people to talk to. Confide in the people closest to you. Seek out other women who have similar experiences. If you can afford it, find a therapist to help you sort out your childhood and its repercussions on your adulthood.
- Write about it. Writing (talking to yourself) in a journal can really help. Putting your memories and emotions "on the page" can help you learn to identify and manage the issues.
- Make yourself a priority. Remember that your feelings matter just as much as anyone else’s. Adopt self-care routines and healthy self-soothing mechanisms. To avoid depletion, learn to help yourself before you try to help others.
- Learn how to recognize and express your needs. Many who grow up with cold or distant mothers have difficulty even knowing what they want, much less asking for it. But even if your mother never validated you as an individual, you can mother yourself by starting to identify and voice your own feelings, needs, and wants.
- Learn healthy self-soothing techniques. Learn to separate yourself from your emotions. Adopt breathing techniques, exercise, diet, and positive self-talk habits.
Did you have an emotionally absent mother?
If so, what was the hardest part for you?
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
Regarding your response about the mother of 4 girls: your answer was spot on! Her comment about never feeling a connection was in the larger context of how she feels I "put up walls" (not sure how/why an infant would do that) so it was most definitely not her taking ownership. Also, I'm not sure any of the reasons for her bonding not fitting very well. Is it possible my mother just didn't like me?
Yes. While the topic of parents who dislike their kids is largely taboo and rarely discussed, it's one that some daughters of emotionally absent mothers have wrestled with since childhood. This is especially true for those of us who were sensitive kids and wanted to bond with our moms in a deeper way but were constantly rebuffed. Because our moms were shut off from their own feelings, they got easily frustrated (and even angered) by our desire for connection and closeness. The expression “you can't give what you don't have” sums up our emotionally absent moms perfectly.
When I was a kid, my mother would frequently say to me in an irate, accusatory tone: “You're too sensitive!” Now, as an adult, I realize she didn't have the emotional intelligence and skill set to deal with my inner world. As a kid, though, I got the message that my feelings were a bother and should be concealed. When a mother rejects your feelings like that, it feels like a huge rejection of you.
Sometimes our mothers dislike us because we're not like them. Because we're different, we don't validate who they are and the choices they've made. Emotionally absent mothers often favor the offspring who mirror their attitudes and opinions, follow a similar life path and are easy-going and compliant. They stick close to these like-minded kids because that is where they feel comfortable and affirmed.Helpful 35
I have never felt warmth, received affection, or felt loved and understood by my mother. My three younger sisters have better relationships with her and enjoy spending time together (to which I am not usually invited). My mother recently admitted that she never felt a connection to me, even when I was an infant. I've always felt that she intentionally created distance between my sisters and me, and she excludes me from most family communications. Can you provide any insight?
I imagine your mother's comment stirred mixed emotions in you. You probably felt hurt but not surprised and, perhaps, relieved that she finally admitted what you always felt. I wonder what her goal was in admitting it now and if she plans to take ownership of the situation. Stating that and not following up with some explanation or insight seems cruel and unnecessary.
Her remark could be used as a springboard for discussion and healing between the two of you. However, as the daughter of an emotionally absent mother myself, I realize that our moms often have little to offer us and little understanding of why they acted the way they did. They can't deal with our desire for an emotional connection and get easily frustrated by our desire for one.
Your mom, though, cannot be clueless as to why she didn't bond with you. There must have been something significant going on in her life when you were a baby. Maybe, she was in a stressful relationship with your father. Maybe, she didn't want a baby. Maybe, she was feeling overly anxious and unprepared about caring for a child. Maybe, you were colicky and she felt like a failure trying to soothe you. She has the answers but maybe too self-protective to share them.
It sounds like you're the black sheep of your family as I am in mine. In the majority of cases, the black sheep is the most sensitive member in the bunch. As children, their feelings and behaviors call attention to the dysfunction in the family and parents often resent them for this. Sensitive black sheep say to the world through their actions: “Help, there's a problem here in our home environment and it needs to be fixed!”
I, for example, suffered from depression and anxiety as a child and teen. Because of it, I gained a lot of weight. The fat was an outer representation of my inner pain as I stuffed my feelings with food. Instead of dealing with my sadness, my mother was embarrassed by me being overweight, thinking it reflected badly on her. She worried more about what her friends at church and in the neighborhood thought than about my pain.
You may have been the sensitive one in your family who pointed out the dysfunction. Your mom didn't like that so she consciously or unconsciously excluded you and kept you out-of-the-loop.
You may want to read my article entitled, “5 Ways for Daughters to Heal From an Emotionally Absent Mother.”Helpful 33
My mother was emotionally absent to my two sisters and me but is very affectionate to her grandchildren. Is it possible that she has realized her behaviors?
Yes, and the grandchildren are so lucky to reap the benefits from it. It sounds like your mother was emotionally absent when you were a child because of her life circumstances, not her disposition. Therefore, now that things have changed, she can be warm and affectionate.
Some moms check out because they're simply too exhausted and too overwhelmed to deal with their children's inner world. They may struggle with depression, mental illness, or be profoundly unhappy in their marriages or jobs. They have enough energy to get through the day—cleaning the house, making meals, and getting everybody to and from school—but have nothing left over to connect with their kids emotionally. They're just too drained and depleted. It would be an interesting discussion to have with your mother if you think she'd be honest, open up, and have some insights about that period of her life. It might bring about some healing.
I hope you can enjoy her being affectionate with the grandchildren, and it's not causing you feelings of sadness and envy. I suspect it may hurt at times as you wish she could have been that way with you and your sisters. Those would be natural feelings to have but will only cause you heartache if they persist.
When thoughts about my childhood with an emotionally absent mom creep into my head, I like to recall the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”Helpful 23
Despite growing up with an emotionally absent mother, I'm a good mom to my kids except in one area. I struggle when they share their negative feelings and often shut them down. How can I stop doing this?
Since you didn't have good role modeling, listening compassionately to your children's emotional pain is a skill you'll need to develop with time and practice. If you keep shutting down their feelings, though, you won't have the opportunity to improve. Therefore, you need to recognize your own discomfort but control it so you can focus on them.
As daughters of emotionally absent mothers, dealing with our children's inner world can create anxiety for us. We feel ill-equipped. Their intense negative emotions can make us feel shaky at a time when they need us to be their rocks.
This happened to me recently when my teenage son said that he felt overwhelmed because his new job was nerve-racking. I immediately got anxious with pessimistic thoughts taking over: What if he quits his job because it's too hard? What if he gets fired? What if I have to tell friends and family that he's no longer employed? I'll feel like a failure as a mother!
I went to the same self-absorbed place that my mom always had when I was a kid. She had always focused on how my feelings were upsetting to her, making me feel guilty. I realized at a young age that she was not a safe place to go with any emotion other than the sunny ones. Our relationship, as a result, was superficial and stilted and still is today.
After my initial reaction, though, I recognized that my anxiety was taking over and I started to relax, breath, and listen. I was able to let my son open up about his job frustrations without inserting myself, without lecturing, and without interrupting. I was able to operate out of compassion and not fear.
Bishop T.D. Jakes said: “Be what you are missing to yourself.” I've made these words my mantra as the daughter of an emotionally absent mother. Since I missed out on a close, loving relationship with my mom, I take great care to nurture myself. I spend time in nature, journal every day, practice yoga, meditate, and enjoy a rich spiritual life. By investing in myself, I have the love, patience, and understanding to embrace my children's emotions in all their complexity.
Once you make yourself a priority, you'll have so much more to offer your children. When you're relaxed and at peace, you'll be able to acknowledge their feelings and not dismiss them.Helpful 2
My mom was and still is emotionally absent in my life. I cry and get very emotional after spending any time with her. As an adult now, I'm not sure how to move forward. How do I stop her from continuing to hurt me?
You've reached the point that many daughters of emotionally absent mothers come to when we must choose to minimize contact or go no contact. Only you can decide what's best for you given the history with your mom. If you decide to go no contact, though, please talk with a therapist first as it would have a much greater impact than you might suspect.
Even when it's the right decision for your mental and emotional well-being, choosing no contact is life-changing. You'll need professional help to move through it so you don't get depressed. You'll be confronted with an overwhelming realization: I've never had a warm and loving mother and I never will. The finality of that can be devastating as all hope ends for that nurturing mom you always wanted.
It's said in spirituality that we're done with something when it no longer affects us. By minimizing contact with your mom and connecting to something deeper, you can find peace of mind. Through praying, meditating, writing in a journal, and spending time in nature, you can get to a place of forgiveness and acceptance. That's where I am now, but it took many years.
I minimized contact with my mother by moving to another state. It was the best decision for my well-being and for the well-being of my marriage and family. My husband and sons still comment that I'm a different person in the days leading up to a visit from my mom. I get stressed out and easily irritated.
Fortunately, this happens only twice a year so the rest of the time they can enjoy the fun and easy-going me. The last thing in the world I'd want is for them to become victims of the dysfunctional relationship between my mother and me. My love for them pushed me to distance myself from her.
Whether you choose to go no contact or simply minimize contact, it's important to move forward from this place where you feel trapped and miserable. She has too much power over your emotions and you need to seize control. Once you do that, you'll feel a lot happier. I wish you the best.
You may want to read my article, “5 Ways for Daughters to Heal From an Emotionally Absent Mother”Helpful 19
© 2018 McKenna Meyers