Emotionally Absent Mother? How to Heal Childhood Emotional Neglect
I'm delighted to share an interview with author and psychotherapist Jasmin Lee Cori today.
Every child needs loving connections with others in order to grow into a healthy, happy and well-functioning adult.
Ideally, a feeling of secure connection begins in the womb and is cultivated through infancy, childhood, and adolescence as well. Even in their pre-verbal years, children sense when connection isn’t forthcoming.
In response, they’ll adapt, but not necessarily in healthy ways. For many, this lack of connection leads to self-defeating emotional and behavioral patterns that continue to govern their lives long into adulthood, making happiness but a distant dream.
There are many different ways a lack of connection can come about in childhood. Having an emotionally absent mother is a common cause, which happens far more than you might imagine. Many adults may not even consider under-mothering the source of their troubled emotional patterns or unhealthy behaviors. Or they live in denial because it's too painful to face the truth about this dimension of emotional neglect.
Until I read The Emotionally Absent Mother, A Guide to Self-Healing and Getting the Love You Missed, I didn't comprehend that I had been under-mothered, even though it's obvious in so many ways. Because under-mothering may have effected you too, I’ve asked author and psychotherapist Jasmin Lee Cori to tell us more about what it means to live with an emotionally distant mother and how you can heal the injuries you sustained from insufficient mothering.
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Sandra: What is an ‘emotionally absent’ mother and why would a mother checkout emotionally?
Jasmin: 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. They don’t feel like Mother was interested or had a clue what was going on inside them. And tragically, when the children are desperate and asking for help, these Mothers generally come up empty-handed.
Why are they emotionally absent? For many reasons. Sometimes they are stretched too thin and don’t have it to do more than the bare minimum. More often they are emotionally numb, defended, or under-developed themselves. They aren’t attuned to their own inner world and not attuned to that of their children.
A significant slice of emotionally absent mothers don’t know better, essentially. They are just repeating the distant relationship they had with their own mothers. Some lost their mothers young and had little or no modeling of a mother at all.
In yet other cases they are caught in their own dramas, perhaps with an abusive partner, or in something like mental illness. They may be so absorbed in their own depression, narcissism, addiction, trauma, or other mental health conditions that they are unavailable for that reason.
Sandra: How pervasive is this lack of adequate mothering and how would you know you’ve missed out on this close parent-child relationship?
Jasmin: It’s outrageously pervasive, I want to say. I think of an old cartoon with a sign over a near-empty room that reads, Adult Children of Functional Families. Unfortunately, without a commitment to healing, the wounds of our ancestors simply get passed down.
How do you know you’ve experienced this kind of emotional neglect? One of the most consistent clues I know are the feelings that come up when you watch a movie of or see a mother who is really loving and attuned to her child. Often it brings tears and a sense of deep loneliness.
If you don’t remember feeling close to Mother, somehow identify with the “Motherless child” archetype, or don’t remember Mother very well at all, these are more clues.
I’ve put exercises in the book to help you identify where your mother fulfilled what I see as the functions of the Good Mother and where she went missing, what messages you got from her, and a chapter describing these mothers.
Sandra: How does growing up with an emotionally absent mother continue to affect people as adults?
Jasmin: There are many ways, and of course we are affected by important other factors, as well. A second parent, for example, or a caring grandparent, teacher, or other attachment figure.
Some of the common effects are feeling alone, feeling you don’t belong, you don’t have enough support, and feeling under-nurtured. Often we continue this under-nourished legacy in some way. Childhood emotional neglect also makes you more vulnerable to depression and anxiety, as well as addictions and low self-esteem. I catalogue these in the book, along with additional factors I see in those who were emotionally abused.
Sandra: That’s something you added to the second edition, isn’t it? Tell us what has changed in the new edition?
Jasmin: It felt important to me to also speak to emotional abuse and how emotional neglect and abuse are related. I say that most emotionally abusive parents are also emotionally absent and not attuned to their kids, so you have overlap there, but the real distinction is emotional abuse involves a desire to hurt the child. It is demeaning, humiliating, unfairly withholding or blaming or punishing children--although not physically hurting them. Many say--and a study by the American Psychological Association supports—emotional neglect and abuse are as damaging and sometimes worse than physical and sexual abuse.
But I’m straying from your question. Other additions to the second edition include more on the complexities of working with inner child parts, dealing with your Mother as an adult, and a Chapter titled What’s Wrong with Mother? that describes some of the common reasons Mothers fail us in these ways. I added another 65 pages to the second edition.
Sandra: What are some of the most important self-healing and self-mothering methods that can make a difference for someone who lacked appropriate mothering as a child?
Jamin: I really think developing a nurturing parent inside yourself is key. Otherwise we treat our young selves and their needs much as our parents treated us. (We may also desperately try to enroll others in becoming our caretakers.)
Developing this kind of secure attachment inside takes time and consistency. Many of the clients I’ve worked with have put a great deal of energy into becoming good parents to their children yet, at least initially, find obstacles to directing that energy to their own inner children. I talk about some of these obstacles in the book.
Personally, I’ve always found journaling extremely beneficial and I’ve done much of my dialoguing with inner parts in my journal. Learning to listen to and respond to these parts takes practice.
Of course supportive, healthy relationships with others is also healing. Having a partner, close friends, other attachment figures, even pets help us open up to loving and feeling loved.
I’ve a chapter on pro-actively going after needs that you identify as not having been met, a chapter on psychotherapy, and on connecting with “Good Mother energy.” There are lots of ways.
Sandra: What is your single-most important piece of advice for someone who grew up with an emotionally absent mother?
Jasmin: Stop asking why you were not enough. Stop looking for what’s wrong with you and see that you are like a plant that did not have good growing conditions and need more TLC because of that. Get serious about identifying those deficits in your early environment and making up for them now.
Often people don’t know it, but are blended with the wounded child inside and the thoughts and feelings of that child restrict them now. We need to learn to differentiate from this child, help heal this child, and build a strong adult self that is not caught in the old self-images and self-doubts.
Sandra: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Jasmin: Healing is possible. Yes, we may continue to have some fault lines, but we can “grow strong in the broken places” and contribute to this world. Give it your best. The world needs you.
Jasmin Lee Cori, MS, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in working with adults who experienced childhood abuse and neglect. She has worked in human service agencies and private practice, and taught psychology in colleges and professional schools. She is the author of numerous articles and five books, including Healing From Traumaand The Emotionally Absent Mother. You can find her at jasmincori.com
Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious! Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always. With love, Sandra