Present but absent parenting? What is that, you say. Here are some thoughts on why sometimes just “being there” isn’t enough. Also, you can check out How to be a Present Parent Without Going Insane. Post contains affiliate links.
We will mess up.
Our children will mess up.
Everyone on earth messes up.
It is what it is, so this is not intended to make you feel guilty for being human. Instead, it is my goal to share some a surprising reason many adults find themselves in counseling, with roots going back to their childhood. I’ve sat in front of many a suffering adult in need of some healing (from God) and some tools and behavioral coping mechanisms (from us). These people were perfectly “normal” and came from perfectly “normal” families.
No trauma, tragedy, abuse or neglect.
And yet… in adulthood they have difficulties in their relationships. They have low self-worth and find it hard to stand up for or see the good in themselves. For many of these people, the current issues that brought them into counseling are symptoms of larger and deeper issues, and it is often rooted in a parent being present yet absent.
What Present but Absent Parenting Means
Present but absent is fairly self-explanatory. It means the parent is still in the home yet is unavailable in some way. You’ve heard the phrase “emotionally unavailable?” That’s this. If parents aren’t able to share from the heart or express love and affection to their child, this is being present but absent. The parent may meet the physical needs, but not other equally important ones.
Kids are thirsty for affirmation from their parents, whom they view as heroes, so if a child never gets praised or doesn’t feel accepted, they’ll feel lonely in a house full of people.
Examples of present but absent might be:
- a parent who never says “I love you“
- a parent who is around but unapproachable
- a parent who is always busy watching TV or working
- a parent who shuns physical affection
- a parent going through prolonged stress who is unable to engage
This is by no means exhaustive, nor does the occasional bad mood or zoned out evening make you an absent parent. When we say present but absent we are talking about consistent and persistent behavior that communicates to a child they are not worth their parents time. Most of the time parents do not consciously think this. However, the effects on the children will be the same. Children aren’t mind readers.
What Present But Absent Parenting Does
Children are made to feel loved, accepted and nurtured. Sure, life is hard and hard times builds strong character. Still, the home should provide shelter and protection from the big bad world. Or at least a place where children feel truly at rest. If there is a parent absent in their nurturing duties the child will feel rejected. A present but absent parent rejects almost just as much as an absent parent. In fact, it can be said that the rejection is constant with a present but absent parent.
Children crave attention and affirmation. Without attention, quality time, and kind words children will inevitably have self-worth issues. This may go one of two ways.
- Internalizing a low sense of self-worth that says “I’m not good enough.” They don’t feel smart, pretty, worthwhile, or lovable.
- Or they may swing the other way and mask insecurity by becoming overly confident, arrogant and aggressive to cover their painful feelings.
What Children Do In the Face of Present but Absent Parenting
In a nutshell, if parents don’t give their children the attention, love and acceptance the children will look for it elsewhere. Maybe they look to their peers for acceptance and support. This would be the best case scenario. Likely they look to members of the opposite sex to make them feel wanted and worthwhile.
In its extreme, this is why people join gangs or cults. Any sense of appreciation and belonging is better than none.
Fear of failure, fear of standing out, fear of being alone, etc. and because children don’t believe in themselves they don’t step out and try new things. Unfortunately this results in a lack of self-confidence and self-awareness that continue until the cycle is stopped.
If parents consistently don’t give children what they need the children will feel angry, betrayed and alone. They can even adopt truly dangerous behaviors like self-harming or drug abuse. These are more common than we’d like to think.
What Parents Can Do About It
The good news is this: all you have to do is really be there with your body and your heart.
You don’t have to be perfect.
You don’t have to always be paying close attention and share your life’s dreams over dinner.
You are allowed to have your days, moods or your own problems. The key is to be transparent, open, and present.
The other morning I was highly stressed over various things and my daughter was being very fussy and loud. I was annoyed and finally I yelled “Would you stop it!” and went into the other room and slammed the door.
I’m mature, what can I say?
My husband took her to the go-ahead-and-be-fussy-but-don’t-drag-us-into-it space and waited until we’d both calmed down. Afterward we hugged and I apologized for being fussy and yelling at her.
She understood I wasn’t mad at her, that my frustration wasn’t her fault, and I told her how much I loved her. Immediately after we were okay. No one is perfect and no one has to be. She was okay because she knows I love her, I accept her, and I value her. I pay attention to her and I listen.
Balance is key
Of course, sometimes we’ll need to zone out. Sometimes the whole family will sit in one room and do their own thing. That’s normal and that’s okay. We can’t and shouldn’t be afraid that every time we make a mistake we’re going to scar our children for life!
If we think our children are going through something, maybe we’ll be reminded of this post and put our book/phone/iPad/computer down. Perhaps when they’re looking to others for emotional validation we’ll remember deep down all they really want is total acceptance from us.
Our children just want us, and it is our privilege to share ourselves with them.
- Why am I an angry mom?
- How to be a calm mom
- The effects of rejection in childhood
- Why kids need to tell us how they really feel
- Can we require a good attitude without stifling our kids’ emotions?
I’ve created a free email series just for you! If you have a little one aged 1 to 8, this series will help transform your home environment. No, that is not a joke or false claim. You can let your kids express their emotions without raising back talkers who meltdown at the drop of a hat or throw a tantrum every time they are unhappy with something. After this free email series:
- your child will stop throwing tantrums for attention
- you’ll know how to validate and affirm your child’s emotions
- you’ll feel more in control of the atmosphere of your home and will be able to operate out of a place of love, not frustration
Click here to sign up for my free email series or simply click on the image below.
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