12 definite signs you grew up with an emotionally unavailable parent

We sometimes include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate disclosure.

We all carry bits and pieces of our childhoods with us as we grow.

Some of us have had pretty great ones, while others had a few bumps along the way.

If you’re here, chances are you felt like you missed out on something big as a kid.

Maybe, when your pals were sharing about their tight family bonds or deep heart-to-hearts with their folks, you felt a little left out.

Sound familiar?

Well, you might have had what we call an ’emotionally unavailable parent.’

This doesn’t mean they were bad parents. It just means they might have had some tough stuff to deal with themselves.

And hey, this article isn’t about playing the blame game. It’s about helping you figure out your past and how it’s shaping your present.

Let’s dive into these 12 signs that might bring back a few memories.

1. They Struggled to Express Love

The first sign on our list is all about love, or rather, the lack of it.

Now, we’re not talking about the grand, movie-style declarations of love. We’re talking about those small but meaningful expressions of affection.

Did you often feel like your parent was holding back when it came to saying “I love you” or giving you a warm, comforting hug?

Maybe they showered you with gifts and provided for you materially but struggled when it came to expressing their love in a more emotional, personal way.

That’s what we mean by an emotionally unavailable parent.

Remember, everyone has a different way of expressing love. But if your parent rarely showed affection or struggled with emotional intimacy, it might be a sign they were emotionally unavailable.

It doesn’t mean they didn’t love you; they might just not have known how to show it.

2. They Rarely Showed Interest in Your Life

Remember all those times when you were bursting with excitement to share your day at school, your new friend, or your little achievements, but your parent seemed distant or uninterested?

Having an emotionally unavailable parent often means feeling like you’re talking to a brick wall.

They might have been physically present – sitting right across the dinner table, driving you to school, or even watching your football game – but mentally and emotionally, they seemed miles away.

If your parent rarely asked about your day, your dreams, or your feelings, it might have felt like they didn’t really care.

But that’s not necessarily true. They might have just struggled with emotional engagement or didn’t know how to express their interest.

3. They Avoided Tough Conversations

Growing up, I remember cringing every time I had to approach my dad with a problem. It was like trying to navigate a minefield blindfolded.

For instance, when I was dealing with bullying at school, I wanted to talk to him about it.

But every time I brought it up, he’d quickly change the topic or make some vague comment like “You need to stand up for yourself” and leave it at that.

With an emotionally unavailable parent, tough conversations are often swept under the carpet. They might make light of your problems, dismiss them, or avoid them altogether.

This doesn’t mean they don’t care about you; they might just find it hard to deal with emotional issues or conflict.

4. They Were Inconsistent with Their Emotions

Did your parent swing wildly from aloofness to intense emotional outbursts? One minute they’re the life of the party, and the next, they’re the Grinch who stole Christmas.

Interestingly enough, this kind of behavior isn’t unusual for emotionally unavailable parents. It’s often a result of them not knowing how to handle or express their feelings.

Inconsistent emotional behavior can be a coping mechanism for people who are uncomfortable with sharing or expressing their true feelings.

Emotionally unavailable parents may have mood swings or unpredictable emotional responses because they struggle with emotional self-regulation – that is, the ability to manage and respond to an emotional experience in a socially acceptable way.

Related: If you recognize these 12 signs, you’re the black sheep in the family

5. They Were Rarely Available When It Mattered Most

Rolling into number five: availability, or rather, the lack thereof.

Do you remember those moments when you really needed your parent there, but they were nowhere to be found?

Maybe it was when you had your first heartbreak or didn’t make the soccer team, and all you needed was a shoulder to cry on.

Having an emotionally unavailable parent can often feel like sailing in stormy seas without a compass.

They may have been physically present in your life, but when it came to being emotionally available during the pivotal moments, they were often absent.

It’s not that they didn’t care. In fact, it could have been quite the opposite.

They might have felt so much for you that they didn’t know how to deal with it themselves.

It’s a tough thing to realize and even tougher to accept, but understanding this can help us make sense of our past and navigate our future relationships more effectively.

Recognizing these signs isn’t easy, but you’re doing great. Let’s keep going and see what else we might uncover.

6. They Often Seemed Detached or Preoccupied

Have you ever felt like your parent was there, but not really there? Let me explain what I mean.

Growing up, I recall my mom always seemed to be preoccupied with something.

Whether it was work, her hobbies, or just her thoughts, it often felt like there was an invisible wall between us.

Even during family dinners or movie nights, she seemed distant, as if her mind was somewhere else.

This kind of detachment is common in emotionally unavailable parents. It doesn’t mean they didn’t love or care about us. It might have just been their way of coping with their own emotional struggles.

If this sounds like something you experienced growing up, know that you’re not alone. Many of us have walked in those shoes and come out stronger on the other side.

7. They Rarely Shared About Their Own Feelings or Experiences

Did it ever feel like your parent was an enigma? Almost like they were wearing a mask, hiding their true feelings and experiences.

Growing up, you might have known the basic facts about your parent – their job, their favorite color, or the kind of music they liked.

But when it came to their emotions, their dreams, or their fears – those pages in the book were always left blank.

Emotionally unavailable parents often have a hard time opening up about their own feelings or personal experiences.

It’s like they’ve built an emotional fortress around themselves, making it difficult for anyone, including their children, to get in.

This lack of emotional sharing can leave us feeling disconnected and confused.

But remember, it doesn’t mean they didn’t care about you – they might have just been dealing with their own internal battles.

8. They Often Focused on the Negative

Did your parent often seem to zero in on what was going wrong, instead of celebrating what was going right?

Maybe they were quick to point out your mistakes, but slow to acknowledge your achievements.

Or perhaps they tended to dwell on the bad stuff, like failed tasks or poor grades, rather than celebrating the good ones.

Some people focus on the negative as a defense mechanism. It’s their way of preparing for the worst or protecting themselves from disappointment.

For an emotionally unavailable parent, focusing on the negative might have been their way of coping with their own insecurities or fears.

Related: If you recognize these 12 signs, you’re the black sheep in the family

9. They Were Unpredictable with Rules and Discipline

Unpredictability, especially when it comes to rules and discipline.

Growing up, I remember never really knowing where I stood with my dad. One day, coming home a little late from playing soccer would be no big deal.

The next, it would land me in a world of trouble. The rules of the house seemed to change with his mood, making it feel like I was always walking on eggshells.

An emotionally unavailable parent can be unpredictable in setting rules or meting out discipline. One moment they’re lenient and the next, they’re strict.

This inconsistency can create a confusing and unstable environment for a child.

If this sounds like your childhood, know that you’re not alone and it’s not your fault. It’s just one more sign of having an emotionally unavailable parent. 

10. They Rarely Showed Vulnerability

Did your parent always seem to have an armor on, never letting their guard down or showing any signs of weakness?

In many cases, emotionally unavailable parents have a tough time showing vulnerability.

They might have believed they always had to appear strong, or maybe they were just uncomfortable showing any form of weakness.

But remember, everyone has vulnerabilities; it’s part of being human. It’s not about blaming them, but understanding that their inability to show vulnerability may have made it harder for you to connect with them on a deeper level.

11. They Often Invalidated Your Feelings

Coming in at eleven: invalidation of feelings. Ever felt like your emotions were dismissed or minimized? Like when you were upset about something and your parent told you to “stop being so sensitive” or “get over it”?

Invalidating someone’s feelings is a common trait of emotionally unavailable parents.

It’s not that they don’t care about how you feel; they might just not know how to respond appropriately to your emotions.

This can make you feel unheard and misunderstood, which can be really tough.

12. They Struggled with Empathy

Did your parent find it difficult to put themselves in your shoes and understand your feelings?

Empathy requires emotional availability, which can be a struggle for these parents. They might have found it hard to relate to your experiences or emotions, leaving you feeling alone in dealing with your problems.

This stuff is hard to swallow, but recognizing these signs brings us closer to understanding ourselves and our pasts better. Remember, this isn’t about blame – it’s about understanding and growth.


I understand that reading this article and recognizing these signs in your own upbringing can bring a mix of emotions to the surface.

The realization that one or both of your parents were emotionally unavailable is not an easy one to process.

It can lead to feelings of emptiness, confusion, or even anger.

But in this moment of vulnerability, it’s crucial to remember that you are not alone, and the past does not define your worth or your capacity to give and receive love.

Emotionally unavailable parents might have missed opportunities to connect, to share in your joys and sorrows, but this absence of emotional engagement doesn’t diminish the deep, inherent love they harbored for you.

Parents, like all of us, are imperfect beings. They carry their own baggage, wounds, and unmet emotional needs, which sometimes prevent them from being the supportive, empathetic figures we needed them to be.

Your experiences, feelings, and emotions are valid. The lack of emotional connection or support you may have felt growing up isn’t a reflection of your worthiness but rather an indication of your parent’s own struggles and limitations.

They may have been battling their own demons, trapped in cycles of emotional unavailability that were handed down to them from their own parents.

It’s a cycle, not an isolated incident, and it’s one that can be broken.

It’s okay to grieve the emotional connection you craved and may not have received. It’s a necessary step towards healing, understanding, and ultimately forging a path of emotional well-being and healthy relationships.

You have the power and the strength to transcend your upbringing. Your past doesn’t dictate your future, and the love, understanding, and connection you seek can be attained and fostered.

Understanding that your parents may have been emotionally unavailable is not about harboring resentment or blame but about fostering understanding, compassion, and healing.

They may not have known how to express their love in the ways you needed, but it doesn’t mean that love was absent.

Acceptance of this can be a powerful step towards healing and forging new, healthy emotional connections.

You are worthy of love, understanding, and emotional connection. The journey ahead, though fraught with challenges, is also ripe with possibilities for healing, growth, and the forging of deep, meaningful relationships.

You are not alone in this journey, and support, understanding, and love await you as you step into a future defined not by the past but by the boundless potential of the present and future.

You are not the echoes of an emotionally unavailable parent; you are a symphony of potential, strength, and resilience, ready to compose a future rich in emotional connection and love.


Did you like my article? Like me on Facebook to see more articles like this in your feed.

Tina Fey

I'm Tina Fey, the founder of the blog Love Connection. I've extremely passionate about sharing relationship advice. I've studied psychology and have my Masters in marital, family, and relationship counseling. I hope with all my heart to help you improve your relationships, and I hope that even if one thing I write helps you, it means more to me than just about anything else in the world. Check out my blog Love Connection, and if you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter

9 signs you’re in a relationship with a chronic complainer

6 classic tactics manipulative people use to gain the upper hand