Some parents consistently don’t engage with their children in an emotionally attuned and mature way. They have trouble regulating their own emotions, and show little affection and empathy to their children. The consequence is that their children develop a variety of ways to cope with what is missing. Children of emotionally immature parents typically feel an emotional void and often feel insecure and lonely. When these children become adults, it is important for them to stop these using childhood coping strategies and develop more healthy, mature emotional and relational habits in order to become content and emotionally secure.
According to psychologist Lindsay Gibson, the two important ways children cope with emotionally immature parents is by imagining ‘healing fantasies’ and creating a ‘role-self’. To learn what is meant by ‘emotionally immature parents’, please see my article Healing from Emotionally Immature Parents.
How A Healing Fantasy Helps a Child Cope but Hinders as an Adult
A healing fantasy is a hopeful story, that as children, we tell ourselves because we believe it will make us truly happy one day. Children often think the cure for their unhappiness, loneliness and pain lies in changing themselves and those around them into something other than they really are. They imagine, ‘If only….I was more attractive,…. more athletic, smarter….more unselfish, then my parents would be more interested, attentive and loving.’
Some children cope with emotionally immature parents by imagining that future wealth and fame will give them the attention and love they are missing. While the healing fantasy gives the child optimism to cope in childhood, it can lead to disappointment later in life. Because it comes from a child’s mind, it is highly idealistic and far from being realistic or attainable.
As we grow into adults, we hang on to these fantasies and may secretly or unconsciously expect them to come true. For example, we think the people will change and care about us if we just persevere in doing things we think will get their approval, that we didn’t get from our parents. Or we believe that all our loneliness will be healed by our intimate partner who will never let us down. Children who worked hard pleasing their parent, to try get love that never came, often try to apply the same strategy to feel loved and become happy with their spouse.
We rarely recognize on our own when we repeat the same healing fantasy in adulthood. It often takes someone else to point this out for us. Often couples therapy reveals these fantasies and helps to address the way to find love and security in life.
How a Role-Self Helps a Child Cope but Hinders as an Adult
The other way many children cope with emotionally immature parents is by developing a ‘role self’. Since the parent does not see the ‘true and authentic self’ within the child, a child often plays a role to gain the attention, approval and affection of the parent. It is the only way to they can develop a relationship connection. These roles may be co-created within the family based on both child’s unconscious believes and the needs of the emotionally immature parent. For example, a child who believes that their needy parent would be lonely without them, takes on a care-giving role. Rather than getting involved in extra circular activities after school, the child always stays home to keep them company. Some examples of role-selves include pleaser, conflict mediator, entertainer/clown or pacifier.
The main problem with developing a role-self is that by subverting your authentic self, you become invisible or unknown. When you are not strongly centred in who you really are, then you will likely struggle with most relationships as adult. It will be too easy for you to slip into your role and not be yourself. This is especially true with your intimate relationship. If your intimate partner has trouble knowing who you really are, then how can they truly love and accept you?
Identify Your Healing Fantasy and Role-Self
In her book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, Lindsay Gibson suggests how you can discover how you coped as a child and whether you still use these strategies in your adult life.
To help you identify your own healing fantasy she suggests you take your time and write out your answers to the following:
- I wish other people were more ____________________________
- Why is it so hard for people to _____________________________
- For a change, I would love someone to treat me like ___________________
- Maybe one of these days I’ll find someone who will _____________________
- In an ideal world with good people, other people would __________________
To help you identify your own role-self write out your answers to the following:
- I try hard to be ___________________
- The main reason people like me is because I ________________
- Other people don’t appreciate how much I __________________
- I always have to be the one who ______________________
- I’ve tried to be the kind of person who _________________
After completing all ten of the sentences above, use the words and ideas from your responses to write two short descriptions: one for your healing fantasy and the other for your role-self.
¥ Next, write about what it has been like trying to get others to change and how it has felt to play the role-self you described.
- Do you still hold these fantasies and roles?
- Are you ready to explore and express your true individuality?
If you think you are still repeating old patterns and strategies that helped you cope as a child and that are now as an adult interfering in your relationship satisfaction with your friends and intimate partner, it may be time to address them. Couples therapy or individual psychotherapy may help you. The more self-aware we can be, the greater contentment we will find.