I did not want to become my mother: emotionally needy, intrusive, manipulative and confusing in her back-handed expression of approval. To say that she was an emotionally needy parent is an understatement.
It took me many years to understand this lesson: Deeply caring parents help us feel safe, but emotionally needy parents are capable of crippling us.
Naturally, there’s a difference between parents who need us as they grow older and parents whose need for involvement in our lives seems positively parasitic, putting their emotional well-being before our own. Imagine yourself as the child trying to process the world, understand your place in it, and eventually spread your wings. If not allowed to make decisions, to own your accomplishments, to feel good about your independence, to learn from your mistakes – isn’t it inevitable that your development will be stunted?
Parenting Solo Can Be Precarious
As a single mother, basically a solo mother as it turns out, I knew myself to be in a precarious position – not only logistically and financially, but emotionally. When it came to my two children, I paid particular attention to expectations and boundaries. I was determined not to burden them with my worries, not to transform them into my “little friends,” and not to rely too heavily on them for their solace, their support, or my sense of self-worth.
Certainly, I was friendly with my children, but I was the parent – not the pal.
Absolutely, there were times when I failed to keep my grief, my anger, or my stress to myself.
And several instances come to mind when I was sick and my boys had to take care of me. Fortunately, those occasions were few. More frequent were the instances when I was overcome with a sense of loss, betrayal, or fear for our survival. And yes, loneliness came into play as well. My mother’s sudden passing was a terrible time for me (our relationship was in a more challenging place than usual), and an exceptionally difficult period of financial worry was another.
My elder son in particular was mature beyond his years, and frequently offered the prepubescent (and later, adolescent) voice of reason, able to reassure yours truly simply by virtue of being who he is. Not only did that melt my heart, but he reminded me how much he and his brother deserved a fully functioning, healthy adult as a parent.
Children Comforting Their Parents
When children comfort their parents – whatever the reason – if we’re lucky, their love and support perform as I just described. They highlight the importance of our role, and that we should be the ones who carry the load of worry. Our children should not be put in the position of bearing the psychological stresses of caring for us.
At the same time, as children grow more mature, to hide the realities of life is not doing them any favors. My sons have seen firsthand the insidious nature of hardship that can hit out of nowhere, the importance of supportive community, and the value of hard work. Still, I worry that they saw too much of me in too raw an emotional state at certain points. I can only hope they do not feel that their childhoods were unduly compromised as a result.
Most importantly, I will make a distinction between asking for, expecting, guilting and demanding assistance from one’s children versus those same children acting from a place of empathy and familial belonging. I am familiar with all four of the former, as my very needy mother subjected me to all of them throughout my childhood, my teenage years, and to the extent she was able, my adulthood.
Parents Expecting Their Children to Support Them
I am often struck by examples of children repaying their parents when they grow up and “make good.” The sort of examples I am talking about are celebrities who came up from very modest beginnings, who recognize parental struggle, and take care of their parents financially as soon as they are able. That’s a loving and reasonable thing to expect, isn’t it?
But what about the rest of us – those of us who raise “regular kids” that we hope will live decently and happily with families of their own? What should we expect – and not just in terms of financial assistance (if needed), but their involvement in our lives in terms of emotional support?
I am now officially an Empty Nester, though my college student spends considerable time at home (when he can), and I find myself reflecting on my changing relationship with both my sons. I also note the ways in which other Empty Nest parents relate to their young adult children, and I consider the way my mother approached reliance on me (especially) for whatever felt missing in action in her emotional life.
Having had an emotionally needy mother growing up, my tendency no doubt inclines the other way: I ask little of my sons and feel they do not owe me anything.
I say that, but of course I appreciate everything they give back: caring, humor, the occasional hug, friendship, and possibly, some day, elements of care-taking that I cannot now predict.
Understanding the Emotionally Needy Parent
My emotionally needy mother exhibited classic signs of narcissism, cast herself as victim in a wide range of scenarios, wanted to know about and if possible direct the decisions in my life (at an age when I was more than capable of doing so), claimed credit for my accomplishments, was masterful with the Guilt Trip, and in general – little that I could do or say was sufficient to please her – a problem in its own right.
The need for reassurance, affection, and attention was, to me, a bottomless pit, and I felt depleted (and resentful) as she expected me to fill it.
So what makes any person emotionally needy – and not simply when it comes to one’s romantic partner? Is it neglect or abuse in his or her own childhood? Is there an event that shreds belief in oneself, leaving an absence of self-worth that creates a vacuum for others to fill?
When we recognize the signs of emotional neediness in our parents, then what? Can we somehow manage to hold up a mirror so they can alter their behavior, if not the need itself? Do they become so toxic that our only recourse is to take distance and reduce the instances that remain destructive, even in our adulthood?
Need, Guilt Trips, Emotional Abuse
Whatever the cause, we routinely discuss the topic of emotionally needy partners, and we dissect the excessive involvement of helicopter parents. However, the online information concerning emotionally needy parents is, relatively speaking, “light.”
Is it too ambiguous a topic? Is it too vast? Do we lump emotionally needy parents into the “narcissist” bucket and leave it at that? Do we stick to issues around parent-child attachment that solely focus on children when they are very young?
The emotionally needy mother or father may act out in abusive ways (verbal abuse comes to mind); likewise, he or she may be passive-aggressive. Or, as was the case with my own mother, emotional need may appear in constant guilt-tripping, which doesn’t preclude the other behaviors. Guilt trips, it’s worth noting, are deftly accomplished as much through silences, facial expressions and tone of voice, as through language.
But the parent who suffers from esteem issues or some other deep well of unhappiness, thus taking whatever they can from the child, is a different scenario from the parent in crisis, the parent who is ill, or the elder parent.
I look to my relationship partner for one illustration. His mother, a widow, is elderly though strong. But with Alzheimer’s, her short-term memory is severely compromised and she goes through periods of needing a great deal of reassurance. That reassurance comes in the form of several phone conversations a day, visits whenever possible, and plenty of humor. And her son’s delivery of what she needs – out of love and a sense of responsibility – speaks volumes of who he is, and how well she has raised him.
Their Need, Our Need: Who “Wins?”
In my example above, there is no competition, no comparison, no zero sum game at work. This is not emotional need as appropriation, but as a practical element of growing older.
In the example of my mother’s incessant need for attention (and more), I took a variety of paths at different stages. As a child, I withdrew. As a teenager, even more so. As a young adult, once I was able to put miles between us, I moved several states away. I was coming to understand that her level of need was strangling me. My emotional survival depended on sufficient distance so that her “guilting” would be less toxic and boundaries, more enforceable.
Looking to my own Empty Nest parenting, I realize that I sometimes err on the “not intrusive enough” side. Both my sons have told me I should feel free to get in touch more often.
Looking to others I know, I see everything across the board – parents whose approach resembles mine, parents who enjoy wonderful relationships with their adult kids (who live nearby), and those who put their need (for being needed) before all else, convinced their continued helicoptering is essential.
Of course, just as we might say in a relationship that one person’s emotional neediness is another’s “just right” – that is, a matter of style or perception – so too could we say that of emotionally needy parents. If the children are happy and healthy, if they do not feel burdened by the parents, then all is (presumably) well.