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The Effects of Emotionally Distant Parents On The Child.

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Clearly, the child has both physical and emotional needs that the parents have a responsibility to meet. Both are obviously of vital importance. Often, however, a child may be well provided for in a material sense, but utterly deprived of emotional nurturance; this can be regarded as a form of child abuse. This places the child in a state of psychological conflict, even turmoil.  He may be grateful on the one hand (for having his material needs to be met), but angry and hurt on the other (due to emotional deprivation). So what are the effects on the child that result from him not having his emotional needs met, or, as occurred in my own particular case, not having one’s emotional needs met AND being expected to meet the emotional needs of the parent (i.e, the child is compelled to act as his parent’s parent)? First, let’s look at some of the child’s most important emotional needs :


needs to receive love/affection and attention – needs to have personal feelings and emotions respected – needs to be free of burdensome adult responsibilities / spontaneously enjoy self/play in a care-free manner – needs to be encouraged and helped to develop a sense of self-worth – needs behavior to be guided by compassionate discipline which does not cause physical or emotional damage – needs to be protected, as far as is reasonably possible and desirable (some knocks in childhood are clearly unavoidable and can provide valuable learning experiences)

This is not a definitive list, but, I think, covers the main areas. Both verbal and tacit (non-verbal) messages from parents are absorbed by the child, like water into a sponge, both consciously and unconsciously, and have an enormous impact on his self-image and identity.  

If, however, the child is essentially emotionally abandoned, family roles become confused and blurred; indeed, if the child is expected to provide for the emotional needs of the parent, role-reversal can occur. Not only does this place the child under immense psychological strain, but it also deprives him of a parental role model. The child is then likely to develop a very shaky and uncertain self-image and low self-esteem as he has learned that his own psychological well-being is of no importance, or, at the very best, comes a poor second to that of the parent.




The adult who has experienced a childhood such as described above is likely to repress, or shut off from, his emotions as he has learned they will be dismissed as unimportant ( due to the fact that they were invalidated by the parent). There can be a sense of emotional numbness, or of being ’emotionally dead’. Such people are likely to be very poor at expressing, or even identifying, their emotions as they were unable to assimilate an ’emotional language’ as they grew up.

The loneliness and emotional deprivation they suffered in youth will frequently lead them to deny their own needs as adults. If the child was expected to fulfill the parent’s emotional needs in youth,  at the expense of his own, he is also likely to carry a heavy weight of guilt into adulthood, as well as a deep sense of inadequacy.

This is because he was given an impossible task which was thus impossible to succeed at: to be his / her parent’s parent. Psychological scars inflicted in such ways may be very severe, leading to much anger and pain in adulthood, in which case an appropriate form of therapy should be given serious consideration.

‘Avoidant’ Parenting And Its Possible Effects

We have seen from other posts that I have published on this site that we develop different kinds of attachment styles as we grow up which depend upon how stable and secure our early life relationship with our primary caretaker (usually the mother) was.

In simplified terms, if this early life relationship WAS secure and stable we are likely to develop a SECURE ATTACHMENT STYLE as we get older and pass through adolescence to adulthood; however, if it WAS NOT, we are likely to develop an INSECURE ATTACHMENT STYLE which persists throughout our lives (in the absence of effective therapeutic intervention). There exist three main types of insecure attachment styles which are :


You can read more about insecure attachment and how to overcome it here; however, in this article, I want to concentrate on adult individuals who have developed an ‘avoidant attachment style’ and how this is likely to affect their interaction with their own offspring.

Those with an ‘avoidant attachment style’ tend not to regard emotional closeness within their relationships as being of a special kind of importance.

They may well eschew close friendships and intimate relationships, and, in general, prefer not to be emotionally dependent on others. Furthermore, they tend to be cut off from their emotions and mistrustful of others.  

How Might An ‘Avoidant Attachment Style’ Affect The Individual’s Interactions With Their Child?


Despite the above considerations, some people who have an ‘avoidant attachment style’ do get married and have children. But how do they treat these children? In general terms, they may keep their children ‘at arm’s length’, emotionally speaking.

Indeed, I remember my own relationship with my father during adolescence and beyond – it was rather as if we were two magnets with similar poles: whenever I tried to get emotionally close to him he backed away and distanced himself, seemingly repelled by forces beyond his control. Parents with an ‘avoidant attachment style’ may utilize various strategies (consciously or unconsciously) to keep a ‘safe emotional distance between themselves and their offspring.

For example, they may constantly criticize their child over insignificant, trivial, and trifling matters. I recall such a perpetual torrent of such criticisms emanating from my father: I would, for example, be corrected, with tiresome regularity, for my ‘bad table manners’  (eating too fast, talking with mouth fall, failure to hold the fork correctly, failure to hold the knife correctly, failure to keep elbows off the table, making too much noise swallowing…) ad infinitum.

These criticisms represented my father’s only verbal interaction with me at the meal table; he was either criticizing me or there was a tense silence between us.

Sometimes the stress of these mealtimes would induce in me the symptoms of mild hyperventilation which would, in turn, provoke the all but inevitable criticism from my father that I was ‘making rather a lot of unnecessary noise with my heavy and labored breathing.’ (delivered in a witheringly condescending, and mildly disgusted, tone).

Of course, there are myriad other petty, critical observations the creative, ‘avoidant’ parent can manufacture. The ‘avoidant’ parent, too, will tend to express little or no affection towards the child, either physically or verbally. And, any such expressions that they do attempt are likely to come across as stilted, artificial, and hollow.

Attachment Disorders Get Passed Down The Generations :


Just as ‘avoidant’ parents have developed their maladaptive attachment style as a result of their early life insecure attachments to their own parents, the children of ‘avoidant’ parents are at risk of themselves developing a maladaptive attachment style which, further down the line, will inevitably adversely affect their own children and so on and on…In this way, insecure/maladaptive attachment styles may be passed down through several generations unless this relentless cycle is broken by effective therapeutic intervention.


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).      

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