Emotionally detached children
Why You May Experience Emotional Detachment and What to Do About It
Emotional detachment is an inability or unwillingness to connect with other people on an emotional level. Being emotionally detached helps protect some people from unwanted drama, anxiety, or stress.
For others, detachment isn’t always voluntary. Instead, it’s the result of events that make the person unable to be open and honest about their emotions.
Below you’ll read about the different types of emotional detachment and learn when it’s a good thing and when it might be worrisome.
Emotional detachment describes when you or others disengage or disconnect from other people’s emotions. It may stem from an unwillingness or an inability to connect with others.
There are two general types. In some cases, you may develop emotional detachment as a response to a difficult or stressful situation. In other cases, it may result from an underlying psychological condition.
Emotional detachment can be helpful if you use it purposefully, such as by setting boundaries with certain people or groups. Boundaries can help you maintain a healthy distance from people who demand much of your emotional attention.
But emotional detachment can also be harmful when you can’t control it. You may feel “numbed” or “muted.” This is known as emotional blunting, and it’s typically a symptom or issue that you should consider working with a mental health professional to address.
Learn more about emotional blunting here.
People who are emotionally detached or removed may experience symptoms such as:
- difficulty creating or maintaining personal relationships
- a lack of attention, or appearing preoccupied when around others
- difficulty being loving or affectionate with a family member
- avoiding people, activities, or places because they’re associated with past trauma
- reduced ability to express emotion
- difficulty empathizing with another person’s feelings
- not easily sharing emotions or feelings
- difficulty committing to another person or a relationship
- not making another person a priority when they should be
Emotional detachment can slowly build over time, or it may occur more rapidly in response to an acute situation. Though everyone is different, some signs and symptoms to watch for include:
- inability to feel emotions or feeling empty
- losing interest in enjoyable activities
- becoming less involved in relationships
- showing little or no empathy toward others
- being harsh or unkind to others
If you suspect you may be developing emotional detachment, you should consider talking with your doctor. They can help identify your symptoms and recommend potential treatment options.
Emotional detachment may develop due to a variety of potential causes, which can include:
- constant exposure to bad or unpleasant news
- traumatic experience
- side effects of certain medications
- conditioning as a child due to parental or cultural expectations
Emotional detachment may be voluntary. Some people can choose to remain emotionally removed from a person or situation.
Other times, emotional detachment results from trauma, abuse, or a previous encounter. In these cases, previous events may make it difficult to be open and honest with a friend, loved one, or significant other.
Some people choose to proactively remove themselves from an emotional situation.
This might be an option if you have a family member or a colleague that you know upsets you greatly. You can choose not to engage with the person or persons. This will help you remain cool and keep calm when dealing with them.
In situations like this, emotional detachment is a bit like a protective measure. It helps you prepare for situations that may trigger a negative emotional response.
As a result of abuse
Sometimes, emotional detachment may result from traumatic events, such as childhood abuse or neglect. Children who live through abuse or neglect may develop emotional detachment as a means of survival.
Children require a lot of emotional connection from their parents or caregivers. If it’s not forthcoming, the children may stop expecting it. When that happens, they may begin to turn off their emotional receptors, as in the case of reactive attachment disorder (RAD). RAD is a condition in which children cannot form bonds with their parents or caregivers.
That can lead to depressed mood, inability to show or share emotions, and behavior problems.
Emotional detachment or “numbing” is frequently a symptom of other conditions. You may feel distant from your emotions at times if you have:
- post-traumatic stress disorder
- bipolar disorder
- major depressive disorder
- personality disorders
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a type of antidepressant. Some people who take this type of drug may experience emotional blunting or a switched-off emotional center, particularly at higher doses.
This period of emotional detachment may last as long as you take these medications. Doctors can help you find another alternative or help to find the right dosage if the medication affects you in this way.
Emotional detachment isn’t an official condition like bipolar disorder or depression. Instead, it’s often considered one element of a larger medical condition.
Conditions might include personality disorders or attachment disorders.
Emotional detachment could also be the result of acute trauma or abuse.
A healthcare professional may be able to see when you’re not emotionally available to others. They may also talk with you, a family member, or a significant other about your behaviors.
Understanding how you feel and act can help a provider recognize a pattern that could suggest this emotional issue.
Asperger’s and emotional detachment
Contrary to popular belief, people living with Asperger’s, which forms part of the Autism spectrum disorder, are not cut off from their emotions or the emotions of others.
In fact, experts indicate they may feel others’ emotions more intensely even if they do not show typical outward signs of emotional involvement, such as changes in affect or facial expressions. This can lead to them taking additional steps to avoid hurting others, even at their own expense.
Treatment for emotional detachment depends on the reason it’s occurring.
If your healthcare professional believes you’re experiencing problems with emotional attachment because of another condition, they may suggest treating that first.
These conditions might include depression, PTSD, or borderline personality disorder. Medication and therapy are often helpful for these conditions.
If the emotional detachment symptoms result from trauma, your doctor may recommend psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy. This treatment can help you learn to overcome the impacts of the abuse. You may also learn new ways to process experiences and anxieties that previously upset you and led to emotional detachment.
For some people, however, emotional distance isn’t problematic. In that case, you may not need to seek any treatment.
However, if problems with feeling or expressing emotions have caused issues in your personal life, you may want to seek out treatment or other support. A therapist or other mental health provider can provide treatment, though you may find that talking first to your primary care provider can help connect you with those who can help.
For some people, emotional detachment is a way of coping with overwhelming people or activities. You choose when to be involved and when to step away.
In other cases, however, numbing yourself to emotions and feelings may not be healthy. Indeed, frequently “turning off” your emotions may lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as an inability to show empathy or a fear of commitment.
People that live through trauma or abuse may find it difficult to express emotions. This may cause people to seek other, negative outlets for those feelings, such as drug or alcohol misuse, higher risk sexual behaviors, or other behaviors that can lead to involvement with law enforcement.
Emotional detachment occurs when people willingly or unwillingly turn off their connection with their emotions. This may be intentional, such as a defensive mechanism on emotionally draining people, or unintentional due to an underlying condition or medication side effect.
If you have difficulty processing emotions or you live with someone who does, you may want to consider seeking help from a mental health provider. They can offer support and treatment to help you understand how you process emotions and respond to others and activities.
How to Cope With an Emotionally Distant Child
Do you ever wonder what happened to your sweet, affectionate, “glad to be part of this family” younger child? Did your child enter adolescence with a sudden cloud of distance, brooding, and sullen behavior? Is she desperate to be as far away from your family as possible?
It’s one of the more heartbreaking aspects of parenting. Raising a child means living through the loss of personal involvement and influence that we enjoyed in their younger years.
Emotional Distance Can Be Healthy for Your Child
The teen years are marked by explorations of autonomy, independence, and identity outside the family system: Kids might want to spend more time in their rooms. They’re going to think their friends understand them a lot more than their parents do. They’re going to push their parents away. To parents, it can feel pretty horrible.
This change is not personal or unique to your child. Indeed, this is how your adolescent is learning to be an adult. Psychologists call it individuation and, although painful for parents, it is normal and healthy for your child.
As uncomfortable as it might be as a parent, your child’s distance from you is actually right on track: the teen years mark their transition into the adult world. Hopefully, they’ll take the skills you’ve helped them to learn into their lives as young adults.
Contact your pediatrician if you believe your child’s behavior changes are not normal. Depression, bullying, substance abuse, and other factors can also lead to sudden behavior changes.
Emotional Distance is Not an Excuse for Abuse
Remember that just because your child is stepping away from the relationship he had with you when he was younger doesn’t mean he’s allowed to be disrespectful. And he is not allowed to break the rules of the household. Healthy emotional distance means allowing and even encouraging independence while at the same time holding your child accountable for the rules and expectations of your home.
When living with the developmental needs of a teenager gets to you, remind yourself that your child’s needs for time with her friends, and time alone, are developmentally appropriate. Stay firm and clear in your expectations. And do your best to support her development as an individual.
Take Care of Yourself
Be sure to take care of yourself. For parents, the grief of losing a younger child to adulthood is real. Allow yourself to be sad, to grieve. And don’t be too hard on yourself if you are having trouble letting go. The transition to adulthood is a learning process for kids and parents alike.
For more help on this subject, check out James Lehman’s article on Sudden Changes In Children. He does a great job explaining individuation and gives some helpful tools while also discussing sudden behavior changes that might point to another serious issue.
This is not an easy part of parenting, for sure. But giving our kids space to find out who they are, within a safe and respectful environment, helps them become healthy, well-adjusted adults.
Wishing you the best.
Denise, Empowering Parents Coach
Related content: Parenting Teens: Parental Authority vs. Peer Pressure
"Cold" parents and their adult children
For healthy development, a child needs love, warmth and emotional contact with significant adults. But not all parents are able to give this to children. There can be many reasons for this: from mental illness and personality disorders to preoccupation with one's work or other affairs. Quite often, these are immature individuals who themselves suffered in the same way in childhood.
There are different types of cold parents: rejecting, emotionally withdrawn, self-centered, narcissistic, career fixated. But in any case, their children are desperately lacking in love, a sense of security and affection, which in the future can lead to serious psychological problems. Here are the most typical ones.
Relationship difficulties. Relationships that develop in childhood largely determine how we will build relationships with other people in adulthood. Those who have been loved and cared for are more likely to show these qualities themselves in life. And those who experienced abuse or rejection as a child tend to be defensive and overprotective of themselves.
Someone has difficulty establishing long-term relationships and therefore prefers short, unstable relationships. But I want to emphasize: this rule is not absolute, and children of emotionally cold parents will not necessarily have such problems. Some people manage to become much better than their parents were.
Fear of affection and love. Adolescents and children raised by emotionally cold parents are more likely to be afraid of becoming attached to someone, receiving and showing love.
If in childhood you did not receive love, warmth, care from an adult, most likely, your psyche will form protective mechanisms, due to which you will always keep a distance from other people. It is difficult for such people to believe that they can be happy and feel safe in a relationship. Unfortunately, this also complicates psychotherapeutic work with them.
Selfishness. The inability to share with others is closely related to lack of emotional attachment and immature behavior. At one time, I had a client, a 10-year-old boy who was very fond of playing computer games on the iPad. His mother, who experienced abuse as a child, told me that she would not allow her son to play.
Many parents do not allow their children to play until they have completed their homework and some chores around the house. But, to my surprise, my client's mother had very different motives. In the end, she admitted that it's all about the iPad - she spent a lot of money on it and wanted the gadget to look like new. That is why the boy was not allowed to touch him.
As a child, she had almost no personal belongings, which is why now a grown woman defended her "investment" so fiercely. Behind her selfishness one could see a long-term parent-child conflict. Later, when her son grew up and could already evaluate the behavior of his mother, so much resentment accumulated in his soul that he decided to go live with his father. Relationship with mother was damaged.
Tendency to dependency. When trying to cope with difficult experiences, a person may seek solace in alcohol or drugs in order to "forget" or "to drown out the pain." Unfortunately, such “self-help” usually becomes addictive, and everything goes downhill: relationships, work and other important areas of life for a person with addiction lose their value.
Problems with identity and self-control. One young client said to me in almost every session, “Do you think you would have a normal relationship if all the previous relationships in your life were in one way or another connected with violence and exploitation?” In such cases, I always emphasize how important it is for us to have a solid foundation associated with moral principles and a coherent identity.
If you do not have a clear understanding of who you are, then with a high probability you will be influenced by the crowd and let into your life anyone who will show even a drop of interest in you. Lack of identity can push you into unstable, superficial relationships that don't last. But if you know who you are, what you want, what is good for you, then you will be much more careful in choosing your inner circle.
Loss of hope, trust and joy. Those who grew up with an emotionally devastated parent live with a deep sense of loss and regret. Such a loss with a living parent is a truly tragic experience.
Look into the eyes, hear the voice and at the same time feel that mother or father is somewhere infinitely far away, understand that you cannot make contact with the person who gave you life… yes, it is tragic. And it leads to the fact that a person loses hope, trust and the ability to rejoice. And this can be followed by depression, suicidal intentions, self-harm, drug use.
About the author: Tamara Hill is a psychotherapist, certified trauma therapist, and family counselor.
No tenderness: what causes the emotional withdrawal of a mother from a child therapist, CEO and founder of the Clever Kids kindergarten school network, mother of 4 children
Unfortunately, the image, behavior, attitude of a mother to her child can cause mental disorders that prevent her from living a full life, enjoying life, relationships with people and her own children. How will the image of a detached mother affect children?
Aloof mother — what is she like
Did you have to feel like an unnecessary, not like that, not that, gray mouse as a child, because your mother never saw the real you, did not notice your dignity?
She rarely hugged and kissed you, but more often regretted or sighed that you did not justify her hopes, behave or look differently than she did not want?
Did your mother think that pity and comfort you when you were a child is not necessary?
Ignored, uninterested and/or rejected your feelings, thoughts, fears, interests or opinions?
Were you disappointed when you were a child and teenager?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, it is likely that you were raised by an aloof mother.
A detached mother may be physically present in the house, keep order and improve life, but the child does not have a meaningful relationship or emotional contact with her.
She is not interested in his feelings - it seems to her that in comparison with her childhood and what she experienced, she does everything that is required. She subconsciously fears or avoids being alone with the child, hugs him little, and if she spends time with her family, for example, at dinner, she is either busy on the phone, or tells her stories, or asks only what interests her.
At first glance, everything is in order in the family of the detached mother. She can flawlessly fulfill all parental duties: buy clothes for the child, feed, take her to various classes and circles. However, at the same time, communication on the part of the mother is devoid of any emotions, warmth.
- Getty Images
Why is this image popular today? Such a mother is ready to provide everything and in the best way, just not to turn on and not be around, not to be alone. She doesn't know how to change her behavior pattern because she was raised by a mother who was constantly obsessed with her career goals, relationship building, or addictions such as alcohol, drugs, eating disorders.
Daughters of mothers with alcohol addiction, even after being able to let go and forgive, often choose to be child-free now - they are afraid of responsibility and afraid to give the child emptiness.
Many people confuse emotionally distant mothers with those who work, develop their careers and do not stay at home all the time. In fact, those who spend 24 hours a day with a child can be emotionally removed from him.
If you yourself suffer from low self-esteem, feelings of inferiority as an adult, you find it difficult to trust people and often feel lonely and unwanted, your problems today may come from childhood - thanks to your mother. But this article is not about blaming her now, but about how to help yourself and not become what she was, which means not to harm your child.
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How indifference will affect children
For her, the external side is important - a well-groomed, polite child reciting a poem at a party, which he learned with a nanny. After that, everyone does their own thing. She withdraws when the child feels bad, or he misbehaves, shifts the problem to others. Feelings do not bother her in principle.
She will not scold for bad grades or punish for pranks, but she will not praise for good deeds or successes. Mom will not support, will not regret at times when her son or daughter feels bad. She just doesn't know how. At best, she will say that she was much worse as a child, so there is nothing to complain about. When the baby is very small, the methods of calming are unambiguous - let them shout out, do not accustom them to hands.
There is another option - the mother constantly reproaches the child. Recalls what had to be sacrificed for the sake of his birth, calls him a “mistake of youth”, overstates the requirements. As a result, the child perceives himself as superfluous, unnecessary. At the same time, the mother actively builds her personal life or enthusiastically builds a career, without thinking about the interests of the child, her participation in his life.
As a result, children grow up with a feeling of dislike, emptiness, an inferiority complex, uselessness, a feeling of loneliness.
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Influence on the girl
The daughter of a distant mother learns from early childhood that she is invisible, a burden and a nuisance. Such girls are often not confident in themselves, they are afraid to once again attract attention, they try to behave quietly, moving away from others. They are not able to be in the present, in the moment here and now. They hide in themselves, withdraw from communication, live in the world of their fantasies.
It is in families with a distant mother that women grow up with various mental disorders (bipolar, eating disorders).
These girls have many conflicts in their personal lives, it is difficult to build trusting relationships. Fear of loss often makes you push away a loved one, treat him and his feelings with disdain. The latter is also inherent in the sons of such mothers.
At the same time, the loss of a relationship is much more destructive for them than for other people. They often show a tendency to depression, suicidal tendencies are possible.
It is extremely important for such girls to see an alternative model of a woman-mother: warm, loving, caring. This model could be a grandmother, an aunt, or a teacher. Through such contact, the girl learns to understand and accept her femininity.
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Influence on the boy
The sons of distant mothers grow up in a constant attempt to attract attention. To do this, they try all available methods - from the desire to "become the best in everything" to constant pranks and hooliganism.
Over time, a man who is not confident in himself grows out of a child, who is constantly forced to prove to himself and others that he is worthy of love and attention.
In a relationship, such boys have a hard time going through breakups. They constantly show jealousy, require increased attention from a partner. They want to constantly see evidence that they are valued, they are needed.
How to get closer to your child
Even if you notice the features of a detached mother in yourself, do not blame yourself or your mother, do not panic and become discouraged. Not everything is lost! It's time to learn to give yourself and your child what you were deprived of as a child.
Try to notice the child's progress, praise him for not only his results and achievements, but for any reason, even if it seems insignificant and unimportant to you.
Learn to accept a child as he is, seeing and noting not only the virtues, explaining that all character traits and physical data are beautiful, all children are different.
When spending time with your child, talk less and listen to him more with full attention and inclusion, delve into what he says. If he starts sharing problems with you, that's already a success!
Support him, don't jump to conclusions, give your opinion when needed, ask how she/he sees the solution.