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.
I’ve sat face to face in front of many adults who were crying their eyes out.
Adults who felt very damaged and unloved.
As I was to find out, this was fairly common. And there is a surprising reason these adults found themselves in counseling, with roots going back to their childhood.
They needed healing, tools, and positive coping mechanisms. They were also perfectly “normal” and came from perfectly “normal” families.
By that I mean, no trauma, tragedy, abuse or neglect.
And yet… in adulthood they had difficulties in relationships. They had low self-worth, non-existent boundaries, and negative view of themselves.
For many of these people, the current issues that brought them into counseling were symptoms of a larger and deeper issue, and it was rooted in a parent being Present Yet Absent.
What Present but Absent Means
Present but absent is fairly self-explanatory. It means the parent is still in the home yet is unavailable. 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 present but absent parent may meet their child’s 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, even 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, working, or using a screen
- a parent who shuns physical affection
- a parent going through prolonged stress who is unable to engage
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, but children have great intuition and are able to pick up their parents’ moods and feelings. Whether you tell your child they are a nuisance or you simply act like it, the effects on the child will be similar.
What Present But Absent Parenting Does
Children are made to feel loved, accepted and nurtured. There is trouble in the world and part of parenting is providing shelter and protection from the Big Bad World until the child is equipped to take on life himself.
At the least, it should be a place where children feel truly at rest. If a parent is present but absent in their nurturing duties, the child will feel rejected on a regular basis. And if it’s within the home, it’s an inescapable feeling.
A present but absent parent rejects almost 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 won’t develop a healthy sense of self-worth. This can go one of two ways.
- The child internalizes a low sense of self-worth that says “I’m not good enough.” They don’t feel smart, attractive, worthwhile, or lovable.
- The child swings the other way and masks insecurity by becoming overly confident, arrogant and perhaps 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 necessary attention, love and acceptance, they 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. And this can happen much earlier than you think.
In its extreme, this is why people join gangs or cults. Because human beings are wired for connection, any sense of appreciation and belonging is better than none.
Those with low self-worth will develop habits that are self-fulfilling. For example, a girl who doesn’t see her own value makes choices that lend her to being used. This, then, confirms her suspicion she is not a person worthy of love.
Low self-worth also engenders fear.
Fear of failure, fear of standing out, and fear of being alone, among others. Because children of present but absent parents don’t believe in themselves, they’re scared to step out and try new things. Unfortunately this results in a lack of self-confidence and self-awareness that continues until the cycle is stopped.
If parents consistently fail to meet their children’s needs, they’ll feel angry, betrayed and alone. These emotions lead to 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.
Balance is key
Of course, sometimes parents need to zone out. Parents may need time alone to recharge and refresh. That’s normal and that’s okay.
We can’t and shouldn’t be afraid that every time we make a mistake or tell our children “no” we’re going to scar our children for life.
We can maintain our own boundaries and still raise children who feel loved, connected, and supported by us.
How to Avoid the Trap of Being a Present But Absent Parent:
- Have no screen time limits. During those times (meals, for example) turn your phone off and put it in another room.
- Make a habit of asking your child questions and really listening to their responses.
- Don’t immediately give consequences to their negative behaviors, do some investigating and see if something deeper is at work.
- Apologize humbly to your kids if you mess up.
- Give children eye contact and physical touch. It’s good for their brains.
Children don’t need grand gestures to feel loved. It is the small daily moments where we can give them our love and acceptance. Children are still simple and their needs are self-evident.
They need to know we care.
They need to know they belong.
They need to know we’re available.
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- your child will stop throwing tantrums for attention
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