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The emotionally absent mother

Was your mother distant, preoccupied, or even demeaning? Childhood emotional neglect can leave invisible wounds.

We’ve all, to a lesser or greater extent, been disconnected from our true selves because of the environment we experienced growing up. And it’s only getting worse in some ways; I feel a shudder of dread when I think how it would feel to be raised by a parent that is continually distracted and engaged by their phone screen, for example.

As a developed world we live in a way that largely ignores our developmental needs; from being raised by disconnected caregivers to living in a society that places more importance on image, social media, and profitability over the health of our planet; our basic human needs are not a top priority. Let’s take the example of growing up with an emotionally absent mother and how that might have an impact on us.

It’s not necessarily obvious that someone is disconnected and emotionally absent; a mother may well look like she’s doing all the right things and doing a wonderful job, and is certainly likely to be doing her best; her child is clean, has nice clothes, sees other children, is well fed and is played with; but if she isn’t emotionally present her child is in effect alone with its feelings.

We are incredibly sensitive to how safe someone feels; think of someone you know or have known that you would feel safe being with if you were upset (it’s fine if that’s your therapist). Now think of someone that you wouldn’t go to if you were in need, because you know they wouldn’t have the capacity to stay calm and really listen to you; they might be well-meaning and try to ‘fix’ your problem but even that might feel intrusive and overpowering.

A mother is our first connection to the world. She is our place of attachment where we feel safe and a sense of belonging, as a part of her. This sense of attachment isn’t created just by having our physical needs met, or just through body contact such as hugging or hand holding. It is through the mother’s attunement and responsiveness to our unspoken needs, and her ability to co-regulate our emotions.

Co-regulation is the way that the nervous system of one person influences the nervous system of another; if you’ve had therapy yourself you might have experienced this through the emotional ‘holding’ of your therapist; that they can witness and be with your feelings while remaining calm, present and empathic themselves. So a present mother that can stay loving and attuned to her baby will eventually regulate the baby’s system to become calm like hers, and through this a baby learns that its’ emotions are not overwhelming and it can bear them, because its mother can.

Trauma is not what happens to us but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness ~ Peter Levine ~

However if they are born to a parent who because their own conditioning and trauma isn’t emotionally present, a young child has no choice than to dissociate from their feelings by disconnecting from their bodies. Nobody will even notice this has happened, but it is a recognised trauma response to an overwhelming experience. We ‘leave’ because it is the only survival mechanism left available to us.

About twenty years ago I went to a lecture by Sir Richard Bowlby, the son of renowned attachment theory expert Dr John Bowlby, that really stayed with me. He showed us a film of a baby being given to a nursery nurse that it didn’t know at a childcare centre. The baby started to cry and reach for it’s mother as it was handed over, and was obviously in distress. Then suddenly it just stopped crying and allowed itself to be taken.

It had dissociated and no-one had noticed, because there was nothing to notice. It was just a quiet baby.

I’m not saying that this happens with all babies and all nurseries; most today are much more aware of babies’ and children’s need for a gentle transition and encourage familiarity with their care givers. But it was a good example of how a baby copes with its overwhelming emotions when it isn’t attuned to. And it is likely we will all have had experiences like this to a greater or lesser extent. What’s important is how regularly we had to do this and over what period of time, so that eventually leaving our bodies or suppressing our emotions becomes an automatic response.

Safety is not the absence of threat…it is the presence of Connection ~ Dr Gabor Maté ~

Often the grown children of emotionally absent mothers can’t quite put a finger on what’s missing from their lives. When they think of their childhood they can remember being well looked after and having everything they needed. Often they can’t recall anyone being particularly unkind or cruel to them…it feels like they had a pretty good upbringing. It’s not as obvious as having an abusive or physically neglectful mother, which you would probably suspect had affected you.

But if you want to start to explore this for yourself, gently ask yourself how do you feel when you think about your own mother? Just to emphasise though that however your experience was, your mother is only a product of her own upbringing, there is no blame attached here.

  • growing up was your mother preoccupied, distant, or even demeaning?

  • do you want to be like your own mother or as different as possible?

  • imagine how it would feel to be enveloped in your mothers energy. Is this something you would like?

  • did her way of protecting you feel comforting or suffocating? Did it feel caring?

Having an emotionally absent mother is likely to have an affect on how connected you are as an adult to your own emotions. These are a few ways it might be showing up for you now;

  • trusting others is an issue in your life

  • you might either crave or avoid close connections

  • you are always on alert and fearful in a relationship and have problems with healthy boundaries

  • it’s hard for you to identify and express your needs and feelings, your focus is more on others needs

  • you are repeating the pattern by being attracted to emotionally unavailable friends and partners

Therapy with a skilled, person-centred and empathic therapist can certainly help with these difficulties. And as I spoke about in my previous post, another way to start reconnecting with your emotions is through beginning a daily mindfulness or meditation practice, and to start noticing how you feel in the present moment and journal about it; I’ll write about this more in another post.

The reason this works is because rather than ignoring our emotions because our mother couldn’t meet them/ found them ‘too much’/ was overwhelmed herself by them, that we do something different now, as an adult. That we start to make friends with them again, as beautiful expressions of our humanness, rather than something shameful or unacceptable about ourselves.

Thank you for reading 🙏



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