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Recognizing Emotional Immaturity [Part 1]: Dealing With The Emotionally Immature Muslim Parent

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emotionally immature

Dealing with emotionally immature parents is a topic that is often unaddressed in the masjid, and yet is a pervasive problem in the Muslim community. Out-of-touch khateebs tip-toe around the emotional sensitivities of entitled parents quoting Qur’anic ayaat about birr al-walidayn, or being dutiful to parents, without also simultaneously addressing the emotional needs of their adult children who report a vastly different view. 

What is Emotional Maturity?

Emotional maturity means having the self-control to manage emotions and work to understand them. An emotionally mature individual doesn’t view emotions as a weakness, instead, they value them without hiding or pretending not to have them. 

Emotionally mature people observe their thoughts and feelings in order to effectively manage, communicate, and cope with a wide variety of situations and difficult emotions. They are able to tolerate stress and regulate their emotions without becoming overwhelmed. Not only is an emotionally mature person able to understand deeply what they are feeling, but they are able to recognize these emotions in others paving the way for empathy. 

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The human brain keeps developing into our late 20s, at which point most people start making better decisions and become more comfortable addressing and acknowledging their faults. However, if a parent never resolves traumas or issues from their childhood, they may remain stuck in a state of arrested development.

The problem with emotionally immature parents according to Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD in the book Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents, is that “It’s not just actual abuse that’s harmful. The whole parenting approach of these parents is emotionally unhealthy, creating a climate of anxiety and untrustworthiness between parent and child. They treat children in such superficial, coercive, and judgmental ways that they undermine their children’s ability to trust their own thoughts and feelings, thereby restricting the development of their children’s intuition, self-guidance, efficacy, and autonomy.”

Emotionally Immature Muslim Parents

In many Muslim authoritarian cultures, disagreeing or having a difference of opinion with one’s parents is viewed as both a disrespect of cultural norms and disobedience of Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) commandments. When children are taught to treat their parents with an almost god-like reverence, challenging the all-knowing or always-right parent becomes difficult. The adult child is quickly labeled as being ”selfish”, “negative”, “westernized”, “feminist”, lacking in faith or manners, or having mental health problems. A general culture of shame, conformity, and silence does not reward the individual for sharing their version of the truth; instead, a person is rewarded for how closely they adhere to the expectations of the authority figures around them, first and foremost being their parents. 

Many Muslim children of authoritarian parents weren’t trained to trust their own judgment or intuition. Rather, they were trained to become an extension of their entitled parent, thinking and feeling as they do, striving to become like them and mirror their emotionally immature worldview. Emotionally mature parents give their children the room to do things differently because they want their children to surpass them, in order to better the world at large. Children of emotionally immature parents, however, feel ashamed to be different, making it near impossible to challenge distorted ideologies without first becoming self-sufficient, and paving their own path. These parents use religion to guilt and shame their children by overemphasizing Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) punishment or wrath for upsetting their parents or for not being emotionally available and prioritizing their needs and wants. Parents may push their children to exhaustion so much that the children feel there is no other choice but to distance themselves. In these difficult moments, instead of deeply reflecting on their own actions, they tell their children they are selfish or ungrateful, and remind them that children are constantly indebted to their parents because they gave birth to them and provided them with their physical and financial needs.

This emotional riba, or never-ending emotional indebtedness, keeps children emotionally stunted and spiritually arrested for years to come. Many adult children are unable to crawl out of their own self-doubt and insecurities. They struggle with their faith, their relationships, and their identity. By the time the parent realizes their own shortcomings, it may be too late, the child may be estranged from the family or has been led astray. These parents desperately reach out to therapists and imams to “fix” their child, but there is no quick fix for years of emotional damage. 

What is it like to be raised by an emotionally immature parent?

Being raised by an emotionally unstable or domineering parent may cause the child to be passive and shut down, disregarding their own thoughts and feelings in place of their parents. The parent is the center of their world, and what they say, do, and feel is of the utmost importance because reality hinges on their approval. Because there is no room for anyone else’s experiences, a great sense of emotional loneliness due to a rejection of their self is often the result. To them, you come second. Everything is about them. They are not looking for a mutually satisfying relationship. They cannot give your needs priority. This often leaves you feeling insecure and unimportant.

Emotionally immature parents often relate to others through enmeshment, meaning that personal boundaries are permeable and unclear. They expect you to feel their feelings and be able to mindread their emotional and physical needs. If you don’t, they become angry or withdrawn and say things like “I shouldn’t have to tell you”, or “a mother or father shouldn’t have to ask”. You must be constantly attuned to their needs while rejecting or sidelining your own. 

Having a Mature Worldview

As a therapist, I frequently see adult children having the most pain when discussing their relationship with their parents. Rather than expecting to go into a time machine and make it right, their children want their pain to be acknowledged. Even if they understand the difficult situations their parents were in, they want to help them heal so they can have a healthier relationship with what time is left. What often helps, is being able to process the adult child’s grief about not having a secure attachment with their parents, and helping them redefine the relationship based on reality, not on healing fantasies. I remind my clients that by talking about our parent’s shortcomings we are not blaming, shaming, or dismissing their efforts. Instead, we are looking at the big picture to find a more compassionate and inclusive view. One that helps us to both empathize with our parents, but also set the appropriate limits enabling us to manage our responsibilities to both ourselves and others with ihsan.

The Origins of Emotional Immaturity 

Our parents have experienced their own hardships, whether it was the loss of a parent, abuse or neglect within the family, immigration, poverty, discrimination, war, or illness. Any emotion as a result of these traumas was seen as weakness and was not discussed or processed. Showing any kind of vulnerability was an invitation to more oppression. In relationships, you were either dominant or submissive and this clarified each person’s role. Children were seen and not heard, and parenting methods were focused on a child’s obedience, not their own emotional security or individuality. The truth revolved around the most powerful members of the family. Either you belong in the family and submitted to their version of the truth and were offered resources, care, and protection, or you were outcasted because you chose to think, feel, or make choices differently, and were forced to survive on your own.

Many did not have close relationships with their own parents so they had to develop tough defenses early in life to survive their own emotional loneliness. In such an emotionally scarce environment, each family member developed different methods to secure their share of love and attention whether that was by becoming the favorite, being perfect, playing the victim, being demanding or manipulative, or creating chaos. Those children who did not succeed in competing for resources learned to suppress their feelings and as adults were taught to satisfy themselves with spiritual messages of self-sacrifice and selflessness, leaving them to dream of rewards in the hereafter.

How does being raised by an emotionally unavailable parent affect an adult?

  • Chronic emotional loneliness and ineffective ways of coping
      1. A child may learn to become overly self-sufficient by covering up their deepest needs. They may mature too quickly, become sexually active, or become compulsive helpers who sacrifice their own needs, leading to exhaustion and burnout.
      2. Children may mimic their parent’s emotional immaturity in order to maintain emotional closeness with their parents.
  • Repeating the same patterns in adult relationships
      1. Expecting their partner to play the role of their mother or father, leading to an unequal power balance and unrealistic expectations.
      2. Unconsciously choosing partners who are emotionally immature and display the same behavioral patterns as their own parents.
      3. Maintaining emotional immaturity and feeling helpless, overly dependent, or insecure.
  • Feeling guilty for being unhappy
      1. Believing that feeling unhappy especially when others aren’t means they are at fault and need to fix themselves.
      2. Feeling responsible to make others happy, and keep them happy at all times.
  • Feeling trapped in caretaker roles with parents
      1. Being so preoccupied with the caretaker role that it becomes their identity.
      2. Feeling guilty if they are not constantly paying attention to the needs and wants of their parents, and prioritizing them over their responsibilities towards themselves, their spouse, and children. 
  • Not trusting their own instincts
      1. Frequently questioning the validity of their own senses and not trusting their own judgment.
      2. Constantly seeking the approval of others or expecting others to validate their feelings. 
  • Lacking self-confidence due to parental rejection
      1. Learning to expect that others will also reject them.
      2. Learning to be shy and conflicted about seeking attention.
      3. Learning to suppress their own needs, creating more emotional loneliness.
  • Immature spirituality or unrealistic ideas of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)
    1. Seeing Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) exclusively as a punisher or rescuer, or as unavailable.
    2. Misinterpreting verses based on their own emotionally immature understanding.
    3. Cherry-picking verses that support their current emotions and ignoring others.
    4. Feeling the need to make Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) happy always and being fearful of losing His love.
    5. Feeling angry at Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) for not taking care of them.
    6. Feeling ashamed of themselves, seeing themselves as sinners deserving of Hell.

A lack of emotional intimacy creates emotional loneliness in both children and adults. Attentive and reliable emotional relationships are the basis of a child’s sense of security. Unfortunately, emotionally immature parents are too uncomfortable with closeness to give their children the deep emotional connection they need. Parental neglect and rejection in childhood can negatively affect self-confidence and relationships in adulthood. As people repeat old, frustrating patterns they blame themselves and others for not being happy. The best way to avoid repeating the past is to understand how your parent’s emotional immaturity has affected you. 

Recovering by Acknowledging (and not Avoiding) Reality 

Many adults prefer avoiding reality by using substances, numbing their feelings, or dumping their feelings and responsibilities on others. Without acknowledging reality, we cannot recover and develop emotionally and spiritually enriched lives. Avoidance only delays the self-development necessary to have complex and mature interactions with our deen and with our environment.

Adult children benefit from understanding the effects of being raised by an emotionally immature parent because it helps them learn about how they can fill in the gaps and be there for their own children in ways that were not possible for their own parents. They unlearn unhelpful parenting methods and learn how to care for themselves and others simultaneously. Adult children can learn to manage their expectations with their emotionally immature parents and be more efficient with their time and efforts.

It may be difficult, but you can have a relationship with the emotionally immature people in your life, they may not change, but you can. Recovery is possible, and with the help of an experienced mental health professional and sincere dua’ to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), we can mature and feel empowered to live our lives from a place of self-connection, self-understanding, and a deep spiritual connection. Our parents gave us the love that they knew. We can honor them for that and at the same time cease to give them unwarranted power over our emotional well-being.  

[In part 2, we will discuss how to recover and maintain relationships with emotionally immature people]

 

Related:

Obedience To Parents And Its Limits – MuslimMatters.org

Girls and Sexuality: Understanding What Parents and Muslim Communities Can Do For Their Daughters – MuslimMatters.org

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Anika Munshi is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is passionate about working with Muslims and the various challenges they face living in the West all within a traditional Islamic paradigm. Anika believes that God is at the center of our existence, and healing requires aligning our heart and mind towards God. Anika also works as a graphic designer serving Muslim businesses and organizations and incorporates traditional Islamic aesthetics to create modern forms of visual dawah.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Abdullah

    May 22, 2023 at 9:40 PM

    A brilliant article on a rarely acknowledged issue. Barakallahu feek.

    A suggestion: please add a trigger warning. This is not any less serious than emotional or sexual abuse, perhaps even deeper.

  2. Truth

    May 23, 2023 at 11:48 AM

    It is a taboo to criticize parents, especially in the subcontinent, so toxic parents get away with physically and emotionally abusive behaviour.

    Article published recently on MM.

    Obedience To Parents And Its Limits.

    https://muslimmatters.org/2023/03/03/obedience-to-parents-and-its-limits/

    Ustadh Nauman Ali Khan on Toxic Parents

    https://youtube.com/shorts/kA3pNKpGdMg?feature=share

  3. Batman

    May 23, 2023 at 12:26 PM

    While Islam emphasizes kindness and gratitude to parents due to their sacrifices, it does not give parents the right to treat children like their personal property. One major problem is that children normalise abusive, dominating, and controlling behaviour by parents, and the children of these parents grow up and treat their children in the same manner, because they think that is how normal parenting is, and the cycle of abuse continues. In many societies, forced marriages are normalised, because the adult son/daughter is expected to be grateful and obedient, even when forced marriage is clearly prohibited in Islam. Islam gives every individual the right to choose their spouse. Controlling behaviour by parents is normalised to the extent that parents think it is normal to interfere in their children’s marriages. Just look at the number of divorces caused due to the interference of in-laws, especially mothers-in-law. It is not surprising that most children today don’t want to live with their parents.

  4. Truth

    May 23, 2023 at 6:20 PM

    I’m surprised there is not a single article on MM on toxic mothers-in-law.

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