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A Woman Went Viral For Sharing "Hidden Clues" That Indicate You Grew Up With Emotionally Unavailable Parents

Even the "good enough" parent may be considered an emotionally unavailable parent.

If you scroll on TikTok or Instagram, you've probably come across thousands of therapy-type videos that discuss how our relationship with our parents affects us as adults, for better or for worse.

Woman holding a child with a pensive expression

These kinds of videos usually garner thousands of views. However, a recent video about what happens to someone when they grow up with emotionally unavailable parents hit above the two million mark.

Devon Caley, who is a master's-level therapist with a degree in clinical health psychology, begins the video by saying, "I grew up with emotionally unavailable parents. If I don't like the food that I order at a restaurant, I'm gonna imagine that you think that I'm really wasteful and ungrateful."

Devon in a car giving a thumbs-up with caption about liking or not liking the restaurant food she orders

In the clip, Devon further discusses the "symptoms" of growing up with emotionally unavailable parents: "I grew up with emotionally unavailable parents. If I didn't do something to earn your affection, I don't trust it. I grew up with emotionally unavailable parents. I'm going to completely socially isolate anytime I feel an uncomfortable emotion."

Devon in a car wearing a necklace and coat, smiling at the camera, with caption: "I don't know how to ask for help"

In the final section of the video, Devon said having emotionally unavailable parents can make people dissociate: "I grew up with emotionally unavailable parents. I dissociate a lot. Over-function. Over-function. I grew up with emotionally unavailable parents. I have mastered perfectionism so that you don't have to worry about any of my needs or me, just, really, at all. I grew up with emotionally unavailable parents. My dating history is *eye twitch.*"

Devon in a car, wearing a zip-up jacket and a necklace

Since this video resonated with so many people, Devon created a part-two video that discussed more behavioral traits of growing up with emotionally unavailable parents. "I grew up with emotionally unavailable parents. I'm going to continuously check to see if you're okay because I don't trust you to communicate directly with me," she began. "I grew up with emotionally unavailable parents. I'd much rather abandon or betray myself than leave that up to anyone else doing it. I grew up with emotionally unavailable parents. I feel guilt a lot because if I did something wrong, then I get to give myself the illusion of control."

Devon smiling at the camera with text overlay: "I have a really hard time setting boundaries"

After Devon posted these two videos on her Instagram feed, the comments came flooding in. For instance, someone left a comment on the first video saying how it's comforting to know they're not alone in this experience:

Social media comment: "I used to think I was different — this is the positive side of social media; it's comforting to know others have this same problem"

Whereas another person believes that Devon secretly knows their parents:

"Were you in my last therapy appointment?"

Since both of these videos resonated with so many people, BuzzFeed reached out to Devon to learn more about emotionally unavailable parents, how people can begin to work on this particular parental wound, and what current parents can do if they want to avoid becoming emotionally unavailable to their kids.

Devon, in a ribbed mock turtleneck, smiling with arms crossed

According to Devon, "emotionally unavailable" parents or caregivers include a spectrum of parents who are disconnected from their own emotions, who struggle with their own emotional regulation, and who struggle to be present in an emotionally intimate way. They may also be referred to as "emotionally immature" parents.

A frustrated adult and child in a living room, both holding their heads in their hands

For example, Devon said that a "good enough" parent may have been present in a child’s life and made sure all of their basic needs were met but may have had trouble addressing their child's individual emotional needs.

Devon added that these parenting behaviors can lead to long-standing patterns of emotional invalidation that a child can carry into adulthood. "This lack of emotional engagement and intimacy is called 'childhood emotional neglect' (CEN)," she said.

Child sitting on a bench holding a teddy bear, in a park setting, facing away from the camera

This is why parents' and caregivers' lack of emotional literacy might unintentionally be passed on to their children. "Individuals who experienced childhood emotional neglect may have memories of their parents loving them but also blaming them for their own stress, being passive-aggressive, or continually forcing them to prioritize their parents' needs," she explained.

Adult and child engage in conversation on a couch, expressing gestures of communication

Devon notes that she personally experienced this as well, which is why she created the video in the first place. "I had always thought I had a pretty normal, idealistic childhood," she added. "So if I can help anyone shortcut the realization and have a conversation [with someone] that I have rarely heard throughout my own healing, I want to help facilitate that dialogue and hold space for that."

If you feel that the above videos resonate deeply with you, Devon has provided some tips to help you navigate these difficult experiences and feelings:

Man writing in notebook on couch with laptop nearby

On the other hand, if you're a parent who may believe they have some emotionally unavailable qualities and want to work on it, Devon said to try holding space for your children's feelings rather than unintentionally dismissing or invalidating them by trying to get your children to change how they feel.

Woman and child embracing at a kitchen counter with a laptop open

For instance, Devon said you can let your child know you'll love them just the same, regardless of how they feel. "Imagine for a second when you were a child, and you were anxious, mad, scared, or sad, that someone had simply sat down next to you and said, 'It's okay that you’re feeling that way; it makes sense. And I’ll be right here with you until you’re done feeling that way — and then we can figure out what to do about it together,'" she said.

According to Devon, we can only meet other people as deeply as we are willing to meet ourselves. "The more you learn to tolerate your own discomfort, the more you can tolerate someone else’s discomfort too," she explained. "Being able to identify, sit with, and constructively communicate your emotions will change both you and your relationships."

This is because when you begin to challenge your own relationship with discomfort, your children will begin to see how you handle your emotions, which can also inform how they can manage their emotions. "Children learn through observing," Devon explained.

Two people having a cheerful conversation on a couch

Remember: It isn't about trying to be a perfect parent but, rather, learning and growing through the mistakes. "You are a human being, so no matter how much you know about emotions and regulating them, you’re going to show up imperfectly sometimes," she said. "I invite you to release the pressure to have the perfect words and the perfect gentle parenting interactions. Instead, just try communicating about what you’re feeling and why and see what changes."

At the end of the day, whether you're the parent who may be emotionally unavailable or the adult with emotionally unavailable parents, Devon encourages you not to compare your healing journey with anyone else's because everything makes sense in the context of your own experience. "If you move at a slower pace, that is completely okay; healing is not linear. You will revisit the same patterns or places time and time again, but each time comes from a new place of wisdom," she said. "Ending up in a familiar place does not mean you are not doing the work; it is a part of the process."

A daughter and mom hugging in the kitchen

You can follow Devon on Instagram and TikTok. Also, if you are interested in learning more about emotionally unavailable parents, Devon has provided a list of resources for you to use below:

Running on Empty by Jonice Webb, PhD 

Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay Gibson, PsyD

Attached by Amir Levine, MD, and Rachel S.F. Heller, MA

The Journey From Abandonment to Healing by Susan Anderson, LCSW 

Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab, MSW, LCSW 

No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness With the Internal Family Systems Model by Richard C. Schwartz, PhD

It’s Not Always Depression by Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW 

Recovery of Your Inner Child by Lucia Capacchione, PhD  

Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett, PhD

Homecoming: Healing Trauma to Reclaim Your Authentic Self by Thema Bryant, PhD 

@TheSecureRelationship on Instagram 

• The “I’m Sorry: How to Apologize and Why It Matters” two-part series on Brené Brown, PhD’s Unlocking Us podcast, featuring Harriet Lerner, PhD (and anything by Brené Brown generally, but this episode features a discussion about parent-child relationships). 

Do you have experience with emotionally unavailable parents? If you feel comfortable, share your story and/or how you're currently navigating this relationship in the Google Form or comments below.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline is 1-888-950-6264 (NAMI) and provides information and referral services; GoodTherapy.org is an association of mental health professionals from more than 25 countries who support efforts to reduce harm in therapy.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger as a result of domestic violence, call 911. For anonymous, confidential help, you can call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or chat with an advocate via the website.