Present but absent parenting? What is that… you say? Here are some thoughts on why sometimes just “being there” isn’t enough.
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, but absent.
What Present but Absent Means
This concept is fairly self-self-explanitory. It means the parent is still in the home, yet is unavailable. You may have heard the phrase “emotionally unavailable.”
The sad truth is, if parents aren’t able to share from the heart or express love and affection to their child… they are in the act of present but absent parenting.
“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.
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Examples of present but absent might be a parent who:
- never says “I love you“
- is around but unapproachable
- is always busy watching TV, working, or using a screen
- shuns physical affection
- going through prolonged stress who is unable to engage
When I refer to present but absent parenting, I am talking about consistent and persistent behavior. When a parent is consistently absent, this communicates to a child that they are not worth their parents time.
Years of persistant and consistent conditioning of the present but absent parent will yield phycological damage on young and impressionable minds.
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.
Don’t be mistaken, whether you tell your child they are a nuisance or you simply act like it, your child will be negatively affected.
What Absent Parenting Does
Children are made to feel loved, accepted and nurtured. There is trouble in the world… and one of the most important parts of parenting is providing shelter and protection.
Our job is to give protection from the Big Bad World until the child is equipped to take on life in a mature and emotionally sound way.
Part of this protection are the key elements of safety, security, and acceptance.
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.
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.
A present but absent parent rejects almost as much as an absent parent. In fact, it can feel worse for the child who is under constant rejection.
Effects of Long Term Present but Absent Parenitng
In a nutshell, if parents don’t give their children the necessary attention, love, and acceptance… they will look for it elsewhere.
As children mature, this can become a dangerous behavior.
There are many ways that the feeling of rejection from a present but absent parent can manifest itself...
Likely they look to members of the opposite sex to make them feel wanted and worthwhile.
Unfortunately, this can happen much earlier than you think!
In its extreme, this is why people join gangs or cults. Human beings are wired for connection and 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 situations of use and abuse. In turn, this confirms her suspicion she is not a person worthy of love.
It can be said that present but absent parenting can cause irreparable damage to the feelings, values, and lifestyle of children involved in homes where this is consistnat.
Low Self-Worth also Engenders Fear
The atmosphere of a home affected by present but absent parents can cause a rise in the following fears:
- the fear of failure…
- a fear of standing out…
- fear of being alone…
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-worth 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
As parents, we want what is best for our children. We can do this by striving each day to give them the protection and attention that they need!
Remember these important things:
- Be there with your whole body and your whole heart. Remember, your kids feel it when you’re disconnected.
- Make eye contact and talk “to” your kids, not just “at” them.
- Don’t forget the power of physical touch. Be sure to give hugs and allow contact as this is good for your kids!
You don’t have to be perfect. Your kid’s don’t need perfect, they just need you.
You are allowed to have your days, moods or your own problems. The key is to be transparent, open, and present.
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Balance is key
I am in no ways recommending that you spend every waking second giving- 100% of your attention to your children.
That would be near impossible and exhausting too!
Of course, sometimes parents need to zone out. I personally take some time every day to rest my mind and recharge my energy. When I don’t, I am grumpy and easily irritated.
It’s perfectly natural and “ok” to need need time alone to recharge and refresh. This just makes you normal!
With a healthy balance, your children will learn when its “mom’s time to be alone” and honor that.
We can’t and shouldn’t be afraid to say “no” or “not right now” to our kids. Every time we make a mistake or tell our children “no” we are not 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.
Warning signs that we’ve fallen into the trap of the present but absent parent:
Now that we agree that our kids need security and attention and have looked at balancing our time… let’s evaluate our own lives with these warning signs.
You may have fallen into present but absent parenting if you…
- Have NO screen time limits. You or your kids watch screens during meals or when visiting with family/friends.
- Can’t remember the last time you asked your children questions and actually listened to their responses.
- Don’t immediately give consequences to their negative behaviors. You may say something like: “I can’t believe you’re acting that way” and then ignore them.
- Feel like you are unworthy to be their mom and think of yourself less than able to parent them. Remember, they don’t need perfect- they just need you.
- Are unable to look eye to eye or speak truthfully to your kids. Eye to eye contact and physical touch- It’s good for their brains!
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It’s in the Day-to-Day
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.
And they need to know we’re available.