Stages of Grief For Having an Emotionally Unavailable Parent
Is childhood a painful memory for you? Or can you not remember all that much from your younger years? Difficulties with attachment quite often can be at the core of what brings an individual into therapy for the first time. Usually, these struggles show up as depression, experiencing panic attacks, poor self image, attempting to understand why he/she is having difficulties in their current or past relationships, or difficulties with parenting their own child. After further discussion, the core issue usually reverts back to a damaged relationship with an important figure, typically a parent or close relative.
It is sometimes hard for us to realize as adults, but the earliest relationships we have as a child are the foundation of our attachment. According to psychologist Mary Ainsworth, attachment is defined “as an affectional tie that one person or animal forms between himself and another specific one – a tie that binds them together in space and endures over time.”
But what if that tie is damaged? What if those earliest relationships did not foster security, love, independence, and validation? If that is the case, then one might develop difficulties later on in life. Children, too, suffer from attachment difficulties; however, once we enter adulthood, these patterns have already become deeply ingrained in us.
If someone grows up in an emotionally unavailable environment, they do not develop a sense of security that will enable them to feel comfortable with their partner. It is only when we can go back in time and revisit those painful interactions, then we can truly grieve what was. We have to grieve the parent we did not have and grieve the child we did not get to be. By grieving, we validate our experiences and our own feelings, thus setting the stage for healthy, positive change.
Grief can be challenging work. Here’s what you can expect:
- Denial – As children, we denied our feelings toward our parent(s). This was an act of survival intended to help us continue to grow into adolescence and adulthood. A child does not want to believe that their parent cannot be there for them. Denial preserves the child’s mental state so that he/she can continue to develop into the next phases of life.
- Anger – We experience intense anger and sometimes rages when we realize that our emotional needs were not met. We are angry at mom, or dad, or whomever we experienced the invalidation from. We are also angry at ourselves for denying our true feelings, even though it was an act of survival and strength.
- Bargaining – We hope and pray that our parent(s) can still change. We want to believe that they are and were capable of being there for us. We obsess over thoughts of “What if….” What if my parent can change? What if they can act differently? Once we are into adulthood, we continue to attempt interactions with that parent, hoping that this time, he/she will meet our expectations.
- Depression – Once we realize we have not and will not have the parent(s) we hoped for, we are overcome with sadness. It is a hard realization to acknowledge that the type of mother or father you wanted does not exist for you. We have to let go of the idea of the parent we did not have, let go of expectation and deal with the loss.
- Acceptance – This is the most crucial step toward healing. In order to heal from our trauma of emotional abandonment, we have to understand that our parent(s) has limited empathy and love to give. To continue to expect them to be someone that they are not is an exercise in futility. More likely than not, our parent experienced their own form of emotional invalidation. This is how the pattern continues. Understanding this can help to truly grasp that our parent(s) is incapable of giving the type of love and validation we long for. Then we can let go and move on. This will result in decreased bouts of anxiety and depression and help us set boundaries with our parent(s). This acceptance will then allow us to work on our current relationships for what they are and stop the patterns that emotional abandonment can cause.
EMDR, among other therapies, can be one of the very effective ways to overcome the effects of emotional trauma. To find out more on improving your relationships and uncovering pain from your past, contact Dana Carretta to schedule an appointment.
Dana Carretta is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and founder of Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling, PLLC, in Hartsdale, NY. She specializes in clinical psychotherapy to treat children, adolescents and adults with anxiety, behavior and trauma difficulties. Dana has also been a private psychotherapist at Mindful Psychotherapy, LLC, located in Norwalk, CT since 2013.