Being in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable person means having to constantly struggle to deal with an evasive partner. We all know that getting an avoidant partner to open up about his or her feelings can feel like a Herculean task. But emotional unavailability is more than just having a problem navigating one’s emotions. Emotional unavailable people can also come across as angry, arrogant, overly critical, control freaks, and perfectionists.
Contrary to popular belief, emotionally unavailability is not just about being unable to emotionally attune to your partner. Few people know that this term was first used by a team of researchers to describe a mother’s receptiveness and prompt and accurate response to her child’s emotional cues, irrespective of whether her child’s behavior was driven by positive or negative emotions.
Studies on emotional unavailability can be traced back to John Bowlby’s attachment theory which seeks to understand how communication influences the parent-child bond. Decades of research have found that parents’ emotional availability influences children’s emotional security. We now know that :
- Emotionally-secure children display less behavior problems. A child who is able to manage difficult emotions is better able to manage emotion-provoking situations in a socially appropriate way.
- Emotionally-secure children perform better academically. Several studies have shown that your child’s emotional intelligence is decisive in his academic performance. For example, while an emotionally intelligent child is more likely to ask for help in the face of obstacles, a child who has a hard time managing his emotions is bound to act in an inappropriate manner when he encounters difficult situations (aggressive behavior, meltdowns, inappropriate behavior, etc).
- Emotionally-secure children have a greater sense of self.
- Emotionally-secure children are more responsive.
- Emotionally-secure children go on to become emotionally-secure adolescents and adults.
- Emotionally-secure children are less likely to suffer from mental problems.
The good news is that every parent can learn to interpret his or her child’s cues.
Here are eight things you can start doing today to become an emotionally available parent
1. Create a genuine affective climate
An emotionally available parent is a sensitive parent who is capable of creating a genuine affective environment. Being genuinely affective means ensuring that both verbal and non-verbal expressions are aligned. For instance, positive messages spoken in an angry voice can act as a barrier to the development of your child’s emotional competence.
2. Providing an appropriate structure increases your emotional availability
An emotionally available parent is able to foster her child’s autonomy while remaining physically and emotionally present. This means being able to provide a framework that allows your child to experiment and act independently but within set limits.
Providing a framework also means letting your child know inappropriate behavior and the consequences associated with that behavior.
3. Help your child navigate difficult emotions
Talking to your child about different emotions and helping her understand both her emotions and those of others helps teach her that emotions are a normal part of life. Take advantage of the fact that emotions are everywhere to start the conversation around emotions. Age-appropriate tools such as The Emotions Kit propose numerous resources you can use to help your child navigate difficult emotions.
4. Practicing non-hostility helps improve emotional availability in parent-child relationships
Hostility is not just about being openly hostile to your child or responding to her with open hostility. It is also about hidden forms of hostility, and these may be spoken or acted out.
Hostility installs a climate of fear within the home. Emotionally available parents refrain from showing either open or covert hostility to their kids. Signs of hostility may include how one speaks (constantly yelling or using an angry voice) or signs of anger. Mark Cummings says that even parents’ “background anger”, i.e., anger that is not directed to the child but to other people within the child’s environment, can negatively affects her development.
How to adopt a non-hostile position
- Hit your “pause button” before you react. Your pause button can be anything that works for you – counting to ten, taking three deep breaths, leaving the room for a few seconds. Disconnecting from an emotion-provoking situation reduces your chances of acting in the heat of the moment.
- Sort out your issues first. Why do certain specific situations drive you up the wall? Be willing to honestly reflect on yourself to understand what drives your reaction to your child’s behavior.
5. Facing your emotions head-on enhances your emotional availability
Many people still hold the childhood belief that emotions are best kept silent. What we often fail to foresee is that avoiding emotions makes it harder to deal with the underlying issues. We now know that allowing yourself to fully experience your emotions makes it easier to deal with them. Fully experiencing your emotions may also mean working to uncover what drives them:
- What behavior do you take personally?
- What drives your anger?
- What do you get sad about?
- What are you touchy about?
Remember that talking about your feelings with your child and about how you deal with emotion-provoking situations is a great way to help him develop his emotional intelligence.
6. Avoid intrusive behavior
One of the characteristics of emotionally available parents is their non-intrusiveness. This means avoiding over-parenting and over-protecting your child. When you keep doing tasks your child can do for himself, you teach him to be dependent on you. You also prevent him from developing a sense of accountability.
We now know that encouraging your child to participate in household chores is good for him. Research has shown that children who participate in chores are more self-reliant, more responsible, more accountable, and generally happier. Here are over 70 age-appropriate visual chore cards for kids from ages 2 to 16 to motivate your child to start and keep doing chores.
Being non-intrusive means being aware of your child’s abilities and level of development and offering responses that take those abilities into account. Non-intrusiveness also means respecting your child’s wishes. Here is a simple example: if you child requests you to stop tickling him, continuing to do so may be perceived as intrusive.
7. Be less critical of your child
It is easy to see your child’s shortcomings when you look for them. It is also easy to see his awesomeness when you look for it. Being overly critical acts as an obstacle to creating an affective environment and makes your child feel unworthy. A better plan is to focus on his positive aspects without overlooking dangerous or inappropriate behavior.
Seeing your child in a positive light strengthens his sense of self and improves his behavior. Here is a FREE PRINTABLE of positive words every kid needs to hear.
8. DO NOT place the burden of your feelings on your child
When you are shaking in rage and ready to pull your hair out because there’s simply no way to make your child listen, you alone are responsible for how you react to your emotions. Your child does not make you angry, YOU get angry: there’s a huge difference.
Blaming your child for your feelings reflects your inability to admit that each and every one of us is responsible for how we feel and react to difficult situations. It also teaches him that blaming others for our reactions is an unacceptable way to deal with emotion-provoking situations.
The thing to remember is that when you’re emotionally available, you increase the chances of raising an emotionally intelligent child.