Do you have an ‘emotionally immature parent’? How a nine-year-old book found a new, younger audience

In an ideal world, adults would be more mature than their kids. They would be better at handling stress, resolving conflicts with others, or talking about their feelings. In the opening chapter of the book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, therapist Lindsay Gibson presents an unsettling alternative.

“What if,” she wrote, “some sensitive children come into the world and within a few years are more emotionally mature than their parents, who have been around for decades?”

Tolstoy wrote that every happy family is alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In Gibson’s book, all unhappy families share the same flaw: the emotionally immature parent. They shy away – or sprint – from their feelings. It’s difficult to be vulnerable with them. They rarely introspect about the reasons behind their behaviors, and are dismissive of the emotional needs of others. Gibson proposes that when these interactions happen over the course of a childhood, an adult (or an “adult child”) will be affected in such areas as emotional processing and intimate relationships.

The book was first published in 2015, but it has reached a new, younger audience, recently surpassing a million sales – it’s also a top Amazon bestseller in the category of parent-adult child relationships. In TikToks and Instagram reels, readers pluck out their favorite passages – and garner hundreds of thousands of likes.

Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents was first published in 2015, but it has reached a new, younger audience, recently surpassing a million sales. Photograph: New Harbinger Publications

The phrase “emotionally immature parent” has gained its own life outside the book, appearing in posts that offer advice, identify signs that you have such a parent and outline the consequences of having one. In one video skit, one person says to another: “I’m so sorry you grew up with parents who didn’t make time for you, so now as an adult you try to prove your worthiness of love by obsessing over work and achievements.”

Like other popular psychology books, Adult Children can be supremely general in places. Cases of parental misbehavior and abuse sit alongside less extreme interactions. For example, John, a 21-year-old, spends a lot of time with his parents, who were “tone-deaf when it came to respecting and fostering his autonomy”, Gibson wrote. Contrast this with another of the book’s examples, Rhonda. “I was with my family, but I didn’t feel like I was with them,” she told Gibson. “They were totally unavailable to me. I was too anxious to share anything with them.”

Emotional abuse and neglect are very real, and the way parents act does have an impact on children. Adult Children’s surging popularity reflects this truth, and something else too. In the era of “therapy speak”, people are increasingly making sense of themselves through psychological language. This can flatten the multidimensional parent–child dynamic. When parents and children emotionally misunderstand each other, is it always because of “immaturity” – or are there other factors? Is it sometimes relevant to consider different roles that emotions and psychology play for people from different generations and cultures?

What is an emotionally immature parent?

Gibson lives and works in Virginia Beach, where she maintains a small private practice, though her writing schedule takes up most of her time these days. Her voice is soothing and calm, her words unrushed. Often she would say my name when replying to a question; it made me feel listened to, considered. Gibson told me she had seen clients for about 15 years into her 35-year-long career when she started to notice a commonality. After hearing hundreds of people talk about the difficult people in their lives, she found herself thinking, “she’s describing behavior that you might expect to see in a 10-year-old”, said.

The American Psychological Association characterizes emotional immaturity as ‘a tendency to express emotions without restraint or disproportionately to the situation’, or having an emotional reaction that a child would have. Photograph: PeskyMonkey/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The American Psychological Association characterizes emotional immaturity as “a tendency to express emotions without restraint or disproportionately to the situation”, or having an emotional reaction that a child would have. It is a developmental term; a typical use might refer to a child whose emotion regulation or social interactions weren’t progressing as expected.

Gibson started to tell her clients that the way their parents acted reminded her of a child’s tantrum. Framing their behavior as immaturity or underdevelopment helped her clients understand what was going on, and stop blaming themselves, she said.

There are four kinds of emotionally immature parents, according to Gibson: driven parents, who try to perfect everyone around them; passive parents, who avoid all conflict; rejecting parents, who don’t seem to enjoy being with their child at all; and emotional parents, who have mood swings, are emotionally inconsistent and need others to stabilize them.

An adult child of emotionally immature parents might end up an internalizer, a people-pleaser who self-sacrifices their own needs to take care of others. Or they might become an externalizer, who is reactive, looks to others to self-soothe and can be emotionally disruptive.

Adult Children is a hot topic in subreddits like r/raisedbynarcissists or r/estrangedadultchild. Readers say they experienced profound moments of recognition. “I’m finally understanding so much about how I perceive other people’s feelings and my own, and how I act with others,” one person wrote.

“I knew my parents sucked, I knew they didn’t care and that they weren’t there for me at all. They put a roof over my head and clothes on my back and that was where things ended,” a reader said.

Are there other ways to think about the ‘emotionally immature parent’?

In 2021, Katy Waldman wrote about the general rise of therapy speak in the New Yorker. “We ‘just want to name’ a dynamic. We joke about our coping mechanisms, codependent relationships, and avoidant attachment styles.” Labels contain truth but they also give us a sense of security and certainty about what will happen, or why things are the way they are.

Framing a parent’s emotional style as immature is relatable, but in some cases risks missing out on a larger context. To speak very generally, older generations – boomers, generation X – have been found less likely to interrogate their mental states so closely, or have a rich arsenal of therapy-adjacent language.

A 2024 study on generational differences towards mental health attempted to explain why. “The silent generation, [people born between 1928 to 1945], instilled characteristics in baby boomers that encouraged them to be self-sufficient in providing for themselves and their families, in the potential wake of disaster,” the authors wrote.

If parents lack emotional skills, this may come from differences in upbringing and culture. In Permission to Come Home, clinical psychologist Jenny Wang’s book about mental health in Asian American families, she explained how some of the emotional disconnects between parents and their children arise from parents not having had the opportunity to cultivate emotions, or having grown up in situations where those skills were not prioritized – and could even be detrimental.

This reminded me of a client from Gibson’s book named Hannah, who wanted to feel closer to her “stern, hardworking mother”. One day, she asked her mother to tell her something about herself she had never shared. “This caught her mother off guard,” Gibson wrote. “First she looked like a deer in headlights, then she burst into tears and couldn’t speak. Hannah felt that she had simultaneously terrified and overwhelmed her mother with this innocent inquiry.”

“For many cultures or countries in Asia, there was war, poverty, deep historical trauma that our parents were contending with,” Wang said. “In those environments, it does not necessarily help to sit around and talk about suffering. It doesn’t support coping, or action in the immediate moment, especially if there’s urgency or safety concerns.”

This contrast can still be upsetting to a child of such parents, especially one who inhabits a cultural context where emotions are foregrounded. Yet, dubbing someone who speaks a different emotional language than you “immature” speaks to a narrow focus. “In calling your mother a narcissist when she isn’t, for example, you might be inadvertently dismissing other important aspects of your relationship that don’t clearly map to that definition,” Allie Volpe wrote in an article about therapy speak in Vox.

Parents, too, are ‘adult children’ reacting to the parenting they received. Photograph: Frank Herholdt/Getty Images

“Emotional and interactional styles can be cultural, no question,” Gibson said. But she added that culture can be separated out from the emotional relationship between parent and child. “We’re all taught certain cultural practices that we carry forward unthinkingly, and for that we can all be excused. But if someone tells us our behavior is hurting or angering them, and we continue to insist that we are right and entitled to treat them that way, then to me, that is emotional immaturity full-force.”

Did we always think of parenting from a psychological point of view?

Adult Children is “a book that only could have been written around this time”, said Naomi Hodgson, associate professor of education studies at Liverpool Hope University.

“All of this psychological and neuropsychological expertise is readily available to us now,” Hodgson said. “We can diagnose ourselves, diagnose our parents, diagnose our children – perhaps in ways that are not necessarily appropriate.”

Hodgson has been researching parenting, a term that didn’t exist until surprisingly recently. “Parenting” wasn’t added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary until 1958, and only came to wide use in the 1970s. Every aspect of our lives is now seen as something that can be developed or improved, and that includes raising children, Hodgson said.

The concept of the emotionally immature parent is catching on, but the “helicopter parent” – a term from 1990 about a parent who “swoops in to rescue them at the first sign of trouble or disappointment” – still reigns. Parents spend more time and money on their kids now than they ever have before, and “child-centered, time-intensive parenting”, has become the norm, according to a 2022 review.

This can have consequences too. Children whose parents are supremely involved in their lives can have more anxiety, while children who engage in independent activities like unsupervised play use that time to strengthen their emotional maturity.

Hodgson has studied parenting apps that outline best practices for children’s “stages”, “milestones” and “brain-building moments”. The rise of such parenting advice is part of a pivot to what she calls “the responsibilized parent”, who “sees the need for learning in order to be able to raise her children correctly, or according to the latest scientific findings”.

This way of talking about parenting characterizes the parent-child relationship as a one-way street: parents do something and it causes something to happen to their child. When paired with language of psychology, that sense of causality is unavoidable, creating a sense “that if you don’t do certain things by a particular age with your children, then potentially they’re going to become these adult children who are needing to heal themselves from what they didn’t get”, Hodgson said.

According to this model, if I feel lonely, maybe that’s because my mother rarely said I love you. But, zooming out, there could be other reasons. Maybe I have to work too many hours to pay my rent because of housing costs, and I don’t have time to spend with friends or develop hobbies.

Parents will make mistakes – when they do, they should say sorry, and explain what happened. Photograph: PhotoAlto/Michele Constantini/Getty Images

Lucy Foulkes, an academic psychologist at the University of Oxford, has said that the words we use and how we make sense of our identities and emotions matter, especially if that meaning-making is very rigid. In an interview I did with her in 2022, she said, “I was really fascinated by this idea that once you give something a name…and you label a person with that name, then that name and that concept kind of becomes a real entity in a way that it wasn’t before.”

When I asked Gibson if she ever felt that people were using her categories too generously online, she said that telling someone who relates to psychological terminology that they’re taking it too far would be acting in a similar way to an emotionally immature parent.

“When [someone] finds a description or a term that seems to explain something about themselves to themselves, as a therapist I have to support that, and be happy that they have found something that has helped to explain them to themselves,” she said. “And we can worry about the fine points of it and the degrees of it later, if we need to.”

What do you do once you’re aware of the ‘emotionally immature parent’?

In Adult Children, Gibson addresses how to handle an emotionally immature parent – for instance, how to accept it when a parent’s behavior won’t change or how to be detached while observing their behavior. Gibson has also written other books that explain in more detail what you should do after you realize your emotional interactions with others left you wanting. This includes tips on how to avoid “emotional takeovers” from parents by pushing back against their emotional emergencies, or knowing when to distance yourself from their demands or behaviors. These books have sold well, she told me, around 200,000 copies, but are not blockbuster hits like Adult Children.

When Sam, a 44-year-old from Chicago, read Adult Children, the discussion of how emotionally immature parents often come from similar situations themselves stood out. Parents, too, are “adult children” reacting to the parenting they received. Gibson acknowledges this: “Based on my observations and clinical experience, it seems likely that the parents of many of my clients were emotionally shut down as children.”

Sam saw some of the “emotionally immature” qualities reflected in himself, as well. The book ended up validating Sam’s decision to not have children, he said. I’d had a similar, slightly defensive, thought while reading the book. Adult Children’s focus on the child’s experience builds a tacit expectation that a parent should be emotionally mature all the time. Can anyone ever be emotionally mature enough to raise a child? I’m not yet sure if I want to have kids, but it adds a lot of pressure to the decision.

Some of the conclusions about parents are a little damning. “Such a parent can probably never fulfill your childhood vision of a loving parent,” Gibson wrote. “You can’t win your parent over, but you can save yourself.”

The popularity of the book ultimately represents a recognition of the limitations of the nuclear family. Sophie Lewis, author of Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, said we need new infrastructures where people’s needs are met in a much more distributed way.

“Does a grownup have to be somehow perfect at all times?” Lewis said. “Why are we in his situation in the first place, where too much is being asked of too few? It seems to me like these things become so high stakes because there is no distribution or sharing of the labor and responsibility.”

The British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott introduced the idea of the “good enough” mother in 1953. He wrote that even when mothers don’t meet all of their children’s needs, they can still be good enough that their children survive those mistakes unscathed. This was in some ways a response to Freudian notions that childhood events, even small ones, continued to haunt us into adulthood.

“A mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity,” Winnicott wrote. “The good-enough mother … starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.” For instance, an infant can gain from the experience of frustration, and learn to tolerate the results of it.

Despite what the TikToks might say, Gibson doesn’t expect parents to be perfect. She hopes that the book will help people have more realistic expectations of their parents, and deal with the limitations to the relationship. When I brought up Winnicott, and how I worried I wouldn’t be mature enough to be in charge of a child someday, she assuaged my fears. She said that being concerned about how we affect family members, regardless of different emotional repertoires, skills and language, is a promising sign.

In some ways, the way to handle it is quite simple. Parents will make mistakes – when they do, they should say sorry, and explain what happened. “The kid knows that even when things don’t go right, [they] can reach that parent,” she said. “If I express my feelings, that parent pays attention, that parent notices, and they will make amends or reconcile with me.”


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.