Point of View

Were You Raised by a Four-Year-Old?

The Impact of Emotionally Immature Parents

Magazine Issue
July/August 2023
Lindsay Gibson

Over the past few months, several colleagues and clients from very different walks of life have encouraged me to read an eight-year-old book they’d recently discovered. With its quintessentially self-help book title, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents, I expected to find the standard pop-psychology offerings in it, along with the same old remedies. In other words, I expected to read about a universal problem, peruse generic worksheets about the ways it shows up in people’s lives, and be given steps to fix it. I imagined I’d encounter a rehashing of another tired psychotherapy trope: blame the parents.

I was pleasantly surprised to find something else entirely. Instead of giving us a formulaic how-to guide, the book’s author, Lindsay Gibson, examines parenting at its best and worst through the lens of attachment theory, neuroscience, family-system theories, and narrative therapy. Her take on the causes and contributors to immaturity in parents—and her exploration of the impact on children—felt fresh and insightful, speaking to me personally as well as professionally. Clearly, I’m not alone in finding this book informative and validating. It’s been consistently listed as the number one bestseller in the Parent and Adult Child category on Amazon.

My biggest challenge with this book, if you can even call it a challenge, was that I found the information it presented of such enormous value that I wanted to absorb all of it as completely as possible, and from multiple perspectives simultaneously. When I came across a particularly insightful chapter, I first read it as the child of an emotionally immature parent, then as a parent myself who doesn’t want to inflict damage on my own kids, then as a clinician who wants to help clients dealing with the issues the book lays out. The process was time-consuming, but it felt as if Gibson was giving me three books for the price of one.

Gibson, a former adjunct assistant professor for the Virginia Consortium Program in Clinical Psychology, has been a practicing clinical psychologist for more than 35 years. I was thrilled to talk with her about her work.

Ryan Howes: How did you become interested in emotionally immature parents?

Lindsay Gibson: My first book, Who You Were Meant To Be, focused on how constantly putting other people first out of guilt and loyalty can hold a person back from their own self-development. And I realized that a lot of my clients who were being held back in this way described their family members or partners in ways that reflected the basic behavioral patterns of three- and four-year-olds: the coping mechanisms, the affective instability, the disregard for other people’s inner lives and feelings were quite similar to what little kids do. That was a useful metaphor for my clients, who said, “Oh yeah, it’s just like that.” It helped them see these immature people in a much more realistic way, and it helped them begin to reclaim some of their own power vis-à-vis these people, particularly when they were parents.

RH: I imagine it’s tempting to describe these parents as having narcissistic or borderline qualities, but your book avoids diagnostic terms and focuses mostly on emotional immaturity. Talk about that choice.

Gibson: Nobody wants to call their loved one names. When therapists use diagnostic categories for the people their clients are intimately involved with, even if they agree with you, it usually doesn’t sit well. The general category of immaturity often seems more palatable to clients, and there are many more emotionally immature people than people who are diagnosable. The point isn’t “Does this person fit the diagnostic criteria?” but it’s “How do they treat you and what’s their capacity for healthy, intimate relationships?”

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RH: In your book, you talk about the challenges of responding to authority figures in our lives when they act in developmentally young ways. Can you talk about this?

Gibson: We all grow up with internalized parents who seem like demigods and seem to have more power than they actually do. Often, we feel less confident around parents who intimidated us when we were children. That old learning runs deep. I try to help clients see their parents in a new light, one that’s psychologically accurate. They can then begin seeing themselves as fully grown adults with psychological capacities and coping skills their parents lacked. That’s a real eye-opener to people.

With a lot of kids raised by immature parents, the child is put in a position where they help the parent maintain their emotional stability and self-esteem. The child becomes attuned to what the parent needs at an emotional level. To fulfill the parent’s needs, the child grows up fast in psychological maturity. When you’re dealing with this population later in life, you find this tragic scenario where they’re the ultimate prototypes of mature adults—they’re capable and mature caretakers who think about everything before they do it—but they get easily overwhelmed emotionally. Their self-esteem is often fragile because they never had a parent who was able to give them the time and attention they needed to feel safe in the world, to know, “I can reach out to other people for help.” They may suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues because they didn’t feel grounded in the emotional safety mature parents provide during childhood.

RH: What are the different types of immature parents?

Gibson: Emotionally immature people, first and foremost, are egocentric. They’re like four-year-olds in this sense. They may be fine in terms of their intellectual development and social skills, but in the realm of relationships and emotional intimacy, they’re limited. They have a hard time experiencing genuine empathy. They have a limited capacity for self-reflection. If there’s a problem in a relationship or in life, they don’t ask themselves, “Is there something I did to cause or contribute to this issue?” They look for someone to blame. Everything gets externalized.

That fear of intimacy shows up whenever someone needs the emotionally immature person to lower their defenses and relate from an open, vulnerable place. They’re not going to do that, because they’re highly defensive and afraid of intense emotion. Like four-year-olds, they get destabilized easily, and their stress tolerance is poor. To them, reality is “what I feel it is.”

If you’re trying to tell your emotionally immature mom about something upsetting she did, she’ll say, “Oh, I must be the worst mother ever,” or “You hate me,” because it feels like that to her. When someone jumps to black-and-white conclusions all the time based on their immediate emotional reactions, it’s hard to be honest with them or to work things out after a conflict. Their predilection for changing reality to match their feelings makes clear and vulnerable communication difficult and frustrating.

RH: You confront them, and they immediately fall on their sword.

Gibson: Whatever gets you off the subject and turns the conversation around so the focus is back on their needs and storyline.

All four types of emotionally immature parents are going to have the characteristics I just described, but they’re going to show up in different ways. The emotional parent is emotionally reactive. They may fly into rages. They may get pathologically incapacitated by depression or anxiety. Their emotions leak out all over the place. They’re demanding and difficult to be around. The whole family has to revolve around them and their moods. It’s hard for the kid and other family members.

Then there’s the rejecting parent. They don’t want to be bothered by anybody, including their kids. They pull back. They’re irritable. They make the child feel like they’re a nuisance, that they’re bothering them when they seek affection or attention. Basically, they’re cold. They give the child the feeling that they’re always doing something wrong and not measuring up. The kid can’t get any warm, attentive, or positive response from them.

And then there’s the most normal-seeming type in our culture: the driven parent. They’re perfectionistic and focused. They get a lot done. They accomplish things. They may get extra degrees while they’re raising their children, make sure their kids are enrolled in a range of extracurricular activities, push everybody to achieve as much as they can. Their kids are given every opportunity available to them. What these parents miss is the importance of sitting down on the bed, putting their arm around a child’s shoulder without an agenda, and just listening to them. They have a hard time making eye contact. They can’t turn their motor off.

The last type is the passive parent. This parent is the hardest to identify as being emotionally immature because they’re often the child’s favorite. They’re usually calm, nice, and more fun than other types of immature parents. They’re not spilling their emotions all over the place. They’re not rejecting. They may even be playful and good with children. But they don’t stand up to their emotionally immature coparents or spouses. In other words, they don’t protect their children. They don’t step in and advocate or set boundaries with the rejecting parent who’s emotionally hurting the child. They go along to get along. An emotionally mature parent might say, “Wow, I can’t stand to watch how my partner is treating my kid.” Passive types don’t say that because they don’t feel it. Given their egocentricity, if things are going okay for them, they feel that things must be going okay for everybody else, too.

A lot of people think their parent’s behavior must be “right,” and that they themselves are the problem in the relationship. I call this the healing fantasy. It leads people to think, “There must be a way to connect with my parent. I just haven’t found it yet.” In the book, I’m saying, “Look, here are the characteristics of emotional maturity. Here are the characteristics of emotional immaturity. You have these mature characteristics. Your parents don’t.” Understanding this can free up a person to develop a more accurate self-image.

RH: I can see how that would be mind-blowing to people because our parents are supposed to be more mature than we are—but somehow, you highlight the characteristics and effects of emotionally immature parents without making it a blame-the-parents book. There’s compassion and empathy for these parents, who have their own struggles.

Gibson: A lot of emotionally immature people have had a rough life. They’re not familiar or comfortable with emotional intimacy, largely because they didn’t receive it. They’re probably egocentric because it wasn’t safe for them to reach out and form deeper, closer relationships with their own caregivers. I have a lot of sympathy for them, but I don’t have sympathy for how they convince their kids of things that aren’t true in order to maintain their own stability. When somebody hijacks your sense of yourself, even if they don’t mean to, even if it’s just a side effect of their own crummy childhood, that’s serious business.

My mission is to help people see things accurately and recognize how they’re being treated so they can improve their relationships, but nothing can improve if they’re caught up in protecting their parents’ self-image.

RH: Can parents mature at some later point in life?

Gibson: The premise of Clifford Anderson’s book The Stages of Life is that we have a drive for growth that lasts throughout our life. I believe that’s true, but for growth to happen, self-reflection is key. You have to be able to ask, “Did I handle that well?” or “Did I have a role in that?” or “My daughter is mad at me; maybe I should look at how I treated her.” The ability to be self-reflective when it’s uncomfortable is crucial for change, but if you’re severely emotionally immature, you may not have that capacity.

RH: When parents can’t change or don’t see the need for it, their adult children may have no choice but to adjust their relationship with them or even cut them off.

Gibson: When that happens, it’s tragic for both sides, but the emotionally immature person has such a hard time letting other people be who they are that sometimes the only solution for the adult child is to break off contact. I don’t encourage estrangement, though, because you never know when someone will decide they need to change. And you’re probably going to grow more if you keep trying, keep observing, keep cultivating awareness about the people you grew up with.

RH: I’m reminded of the saying, “Eat the meat and throw away the bone.” Sometimes you just have to receive what you can from your parents and let go of trying to get what they can’t give you.

Gibson: That’s what I try to help people understand, but it’s not easy because we hold on to the healing fantasy that our emotionally immature parent will one day turn into the mom or dad we needed and make our childhoods right at last.

Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., ABPP is a Pasadena, California-based psychologist, musician, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” Learn more at ryanhowes.net.