“Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents” by Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD

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Subtitle: Practical Tools to Establish Boundaries & Reclaim Your Emotional Autonomy

Recommended to me by: Reading Lindsay Gibson’s previous book

This book repeats some material on emotionally immature parents from the previous book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, in a way that is more focused on how the adult child feels rather than focusing on the parents. It develops more material on how to resist emotional takeovers and how to develop a more functional relationship with emotionally immature parents in adulthood.

The premise is to be sure of your own value, and relate from that place, rather than hoping the parents will recognize and nurture your value. There are some good detailed suggestions for how to build a trusting relationship with yourself. The process could take a long time, even with therapeutic support.

There were occasional mentions of creating more distance from emotionally immature parents, but for the most part this book focuses on staying in relationship. I would have liked to see more about danger signs that indicate it’s better to stay far away.

I’ve been mentioning this book to lots of clients. Recommended for great analysis and ideas for how to regain autonomy and heal from immature parenting.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents” by Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD

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Subtitle: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents

Lindsay Gibson tells it like it is. There is a lot of clear analysis of the ramifications of dealing with emotionally immature parents, without any waffling about, “Maybe the kid is the problem after all.” Emotionally immature parents are held responsible for falling down on the job.

“Emotionally immature parents fear genuine emotion and pull back from emotional closeness. They use coping mechanisms that resist reality rather than dealing with it. They don’t welcome self-reflection, so they rarely accept blame or apologize.”

“Understanding their emotional immaturity frees us from emotional loneliness as we realize their neglect wasn’t about us, but about them. When we see why they can’t be different, we can finally be free of our frustration with them, as well as our doubts about our own lovability.”

“If they don’t make a solid emotional connection with their child, the child will have a gaping hole where true security might have been.”

Two chapters cover characteristics of emotionally immature people in themselves and as parents. There are some interesting insights here, for example, “They have an inconsistent sense of time,” which leads to issues with accountability, responsibility, and planning. At the same time these chapters feel harsh and angry, very much “them” vs. “us.” Since we all behave in emotionally immature ways at times no matter how hard we try to be considerate, it makes for uncomfortable reading.

The book later notes that we naturally respond with anger at an attachment figure who is non-responsive or abandoning.

Four types of emotionally immature parents are described: Emotional/anxious, driven/perfectionist, passive/avoidant, rejecting/mean. These types are not revisited in later chapters.

Children of emotionally immature parents create healing fantasies about what will finally let them receive the connection, nurturing, and emotional responsiveness they crave. They also create a role-self which is their best effort to get what they need from difficult parents, rather than living as their true self.

Children of emotionally immature parents tend to be either internalizers or externalizers (locus of control, but without using that phrase). There is some lip service here to people combining both styles and balance being the goal, and at the same time a clear preference for internalizers as being more emotionally mature and capable of growth.

To heal, release self-defeating roles, for example being small and self-effacing in an effort to elicit a caring response. Acknowledge true thoughts, feelings, and opinions, whether or not you choose to share them with parents or others.

As an adult, avoid getting hooked by an emotionally immature parent through detached observation and maturity awareness (estimating people’s probable level of emotional maturity). If someone is showing signs of being emotionally immature:

  1. Express boundaries, feelings, etc. and then let it go
  2. Focus on the outcome, not the relationship
  3. Manage the relationship rather than engaging.

Emotionally immature parents may feel safer and respond better to this more distant approach – or not. It is still calmer and emotionally safer for the adult child to alter their expectations to better match the parent’s capacity and skills.

The books answers objections people may have to the maturity awareness approach, and then details how it feels to be in relationship with an emotionally mature person.

In this book’s example stories, on the positive side, the men and women seem like real people, not gendered stereotypes. In the second half of the book, there is some variety of names that includes different cultures. On the negative side, as far as I could tell, there were no same-sex couples nor trans nor non-binary people.

Lindsay Gibson clearly brings a wealth of thought, research, and experience to this book. There is a lot of great information here, and at the same time it can be uncomfortable to read. Recommended.

The publisher New Harbinger has a download available of all the exercises in the book (pdf) which give you a great summary of the content as well.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“shadow daughter” by harriet brown

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Subtitle: A Memoir of Estrangement

Recommended to me by: Body Impolitic

A powerful, lyrical book about Harriet Brown’s complicated relationship with her difficult mother, including estrangement, and about family estrangement in general. She describes her ambivalence and self-blame in the face of anecdotes demonstrating dramatic emotional abuse, as well as the long process of naming her own truth.

The book also covers estrangement in general, both the pressures against it and the reasons for it. She interviews and quotes from other people who have gone through estrangement, and researchers into the topic.

She brings in estranged parent forums with both clarity about their self-deception and defensiveness, and empathy as well. There is a sense of bending over backwards to be fair.

The lower case title and author name on the cover make me sad on Harriet Brown’s behalf. I wonder if they were her choice, or a marketer’s design.

I am fascinated by the way Harriet Brown continues to put a lot of effort into family relationships, despite the ruptures and judgements stemming from her estrangement with her mother. She skillfully navigates those tricky waters.

I read the book cover to cover in an evening. Highly recommended if you have had to walk away or strongly limit an important family relationship, or if you want to understand that process better.

More stories by Harriet Brown on her website.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Newcomers” by Helen Thorpe

book coverSubtitle: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom

Recommended to me by: My friend Linda K.

Helen Thorpe spent a year and a half observing and helping in an ELA (English Language Acquisition) class at South High School in Denver Colorado. Her journalist’s eye is both clear and compassionate as she watches a classroom of newly arrived teen refugees from around the world learn English basics.

I remember when ELA used to be called ESL, English as a Second Language, but it is an apt name change since some of these kids already speak three or four languages, and maybe read and write in three or four alphabets.

Both the school as a whole and the beginning ELA teacher Mr. Williams in particular are dedicated to welcoming kids from around the world and helping them succeed.

I was worried that the book would focus on the tragedy of young refugee lives, or look down on the kids, but the book celebrates them as strong, determined, resilient young people. Difficult circumstances and traumatic stories are described with a light touch, clearly and with compassion.

Helen Thorpe gets to know the kids by interacting with them in class (with the help of Google translate on their phones), interviewing them with hired translators, and visiting a few of them at home to talk with their parents. She also learns about the history of war and oppression that has caused these families (and some unaccompanied minors) to flee their homes, sometimes multiple times.

After the school year, she visits the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is still in crisis, and meets some relatives of one of the families she got to know.

The book was written in 2016. It shows both the dedication of the people who help refugees get oriented and settled in the US, and the worsening effect of Trump’s rhetoric on students who are harassed on city buses for wearing hijab or having dark skin. It ends with Trump’s election and the shock of knowing that refugees need help more than ever, but not having an incoming caseload because of Trump’s Muslim Ban.

Highly recommended! Learn about what refugees’ lives are really like, and how hard the lucky ones who make it into the US work to become established here, while enjoying getting to know this group of teens and the people around them.

Population Mountains – a way to visualize the population and surroundings of some of the cities the immigrants came from (not affiliated with the book).

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Nurturing Resilience” by Kathy L. Kain and Stephen J. Terrell

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Subtitle: Helping Clients Move Forward from Developmental Trauma, An Integrative Somatic Approach

Recommended to me by: Taking a class from Kathy Kain

I took a 3 day class from Kathy Kain last year and learned techniques that I use every day in my practice, so I was excited about this book. It turned out to be dry to read and only talked about a couple of techniques at the end, which I had already learned in the class. On the positive side, the extensive client examples include gay parents and genderqueer clients.

The first part introduces attachment, polyvagal theory, and neurological development. Interoception is perception of our internal state. Exteroception is perception of the external environment through vision, hearing, touch, etc. Neuroception is the perception of safety and threat. Interactions with parents and other caregivers help an infant make sense of incoming stimuli and assess safety vs. threat. Without playful and caring interactions, the infant develops a strong sense of what is a threat, but does not develop a sense of what feels safe.

They discuss the ACE study and the health effects of early trauma. The Window of Tolerance is the nervous system’s comfortable, functional, social state. Threats result in hyperarousal (fight or flight) and hypoarousal (freeze, immobility). Someone with a dysregulated nervous system has a very small window of tolerance. They may have a faux window of tolerance, where they manage to function despite being under physiological stress.

The second half of the book more directly discusses clinician interventions for clients with developmental trauma. The emphasis is on teaching the nervous system how to stay more regulated, and to offer co-regulation, where the client’s nervous system is steadied by the clinician’s regulation. The authors emphasize that developmental trauma is largely non-verbal, patterned in the body, so interventions need to address the body directly.

Interventions they discuss: gentle touch on the kidney area of the lower back, and helping the client practice noticing same/different around their triggers.

Recommended if you want a lot of information about developmental trauma, and don’t mind a somewhat uneven presentation.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Deepest Well” by Nadine Burke Harris, MD

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Subtitle: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity

Recommended to me by: listening to Nadine Burke Harris’s TED talk

This is a skillful blend of memoir and scientific information about the effects of trauma, presented for the layperson. Nadine Burke Harris shares how as a newly licensed doctor she founded a pediatric clinic in Bayview, the poorest section of San Francisco with the most at-risk patients, and how that clinic came to focus on trauma as the underlying cause of a lot of medical issues, especially for children. Later she founded the Center for Youth Wellness, also in San Francisco.

She does not dwell on the effects of being a Black woman, but she does not skip over them either. She notes the benefits of networking with other women and offering each other support. While marginalization and racism contribute to people’s load of trauma, trauma is not only a “poor, Black issue.” Privilege does not exempt people from trauma or its long-term effects.

There is a strong correlation between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and health issues caused by the body’s ongoing stress response. The stress response can be buffered by strong relationships with caring adults.

Nadine Burke Harris developed a screening tool that asks a parent about the number of a child’s ACEs, but does not ask them to disclose the stories involved. She advocates for this screening tool to be used everywhere, just as infants are now universally screened for hypothyroid and jaundice.

The treatments for a body dysregulated by trauma are sleep, mental health, healthy relationships, exercise, nutrition, and meditation. Schools that help children regulate their nervous systems rather than punishing them for “acting out” enjoy both a more peaceful atmosphere and higher success rates by every measure.

(While screening is catching on in medical offices, I hear from nurses that treatment is catching on less quickly, leaving them in the frustrating position of knowing that people’s issues are caused by trauma, but not having the time and resources to help them.)

Highly recommended both for the information about the effects on trauma, and the memoir of a groundbreaking scientist and doctor who is radically improving how we care for both children and adults affected by trauma.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Night Child” by Anna Quinn

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Recommended to me by: Katherine Macomber Millman

A powerful, heartbreaking book about a woman slowly remembering and coming to terms with the childhood abuse she endured.

It reminded me of Susan Palwick’s “Flying In Place” in the way her pain is visible to the people around her, and she receives a lot of skilled, kind help. For many people, the process is less visible and they receive less assistance.

Anna Quinn has skillfully fictionalized her memoir, with lots of present-time sensory details to balance the horror of remembered abuse. The focus is on recovery, not the abuse itself.

Highly recommended if you want to read about an emotionally intense healing process which clearly shows the lasting harm done by abuse and the hard work it takes to recover.

Anna Quinn’s blog post When Your Memoir Wants To Be A Novel

Available at Powell’s Books.

“8” by Amy Fusselman

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Recommended to me by: a client

This is a book about healing, rather than a book about trauma.

Amy Fusselman layers incidents with “her pedophile” among meditations about the nature of time, parenting, relationships, healing, bodywork, therapy, New York City cab rides, and writing in a coffee shop when celebrities walk by. She loops among the topics gracefully, like the figure skater she was as a girl.

Recommended for one person’s perspective on the effects of childhood sexual abuse, putting it in its (admittedly important) place among the rest of the events in a life. Recommended for touching on the topic of abuse forthrightly, and then going on to something else, rather than sinking into it more and more deeply. This is how healing works.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Childhood Disrupted” by Donna Jackson Nakazawa

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Subtitle: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal

Recommended to me by: a friend

Science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa carefully researches and clearly describes how Chronic Unpredictable Toxic Stress changes the growing brain of a child, pruning neurons and stunting growth in some areas. Because the toxic stress is unpredictable, the fight or flight response remains activated, bathing the body in an ongoing soup of inflammatory chemicals. She covers research that says girls’ brains are more susceptible, although I suspect correlation rather than causation at work there.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are linked as strongly with later auto-immune diseases and other health issues as smoking is linked with cancer, or unprotected sex is linked with pregnancy. Here is the original ACE study. You can go ahead and take the 10-question ACE questionnaire. There is also a resilience questionnaire with some factors that can shield a child from the negative effects of chronic unpredictable toxic stress.

The book contains many people’s stories, and some suggestions for healing as well. Fortunately the brain is plastic, and at least some of the negative effects can be reversed.

The briefly covered suggestions for healing are: take the ACE questionnaire and resilience questionnaire, write to heal, draw it, mindfulness meditation, tai chi and qigong, mindsight (self-awareness/empathy/integration), loving-kindness, forgiveness, mending the body/moving the body (yoga, trauma release exercises, bodywork), managing the mind through the gut, and only connect (supportive relationships).

Professional help is also recommended, with therapy, somatic experiencing, guided imagery and hypnosis, neurofeedback, and EMDR.

For parents who want to protect and help their children as best they can, suggestions include: manage your own “baggage”, look into your child’s eyes, validate and normalize their experience, apologize as needed, amplify the good feelings, name emotions, hug them, have safe and open conversations about what’s happening, bring more safe adults into their lives, teach them mindfulness.

Highly recommended book! The section on trauma’s specific effects was depressingly long, and had a lot of sense of inevitability in it. The “how to heal” section was shorter and less specific. I was both reassured and disappointed to see that I’m doing a lot of the recommendations already. Being on the right track is good, and I guess there’s no magic wand to speed up the process.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Emotionally Absent Mother” by Jasmin Lee Cori, MS, LPC

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Subtitle: a guide to self-healing and getting the love you missed

Recommended to me by: a client

This is a gently enlightening book. It talks about all the different roles a Good Mother plays (“yeah, yeah, I know”) and all the holes that result when those roles are missing (“yeah, yeah, I know”) … “Wait, those holes I’ve been managing all this time?!”

The ten facets of a Good Mother: source, place of attachment, first responder, modulator, nurturer, cheerleader, mentor, protector, home base.

The holes are left behind from missing one or more of these messages: I’m glad you’re here, I see you, you’re special to me, I respect you, I love you, your needs are important to me/I’m here for you, I’ll keep you safe, you can rest in me, I enjoy you/you brighten my heart.

The book has a clear, accessible discussion of attachment styles and attachment wounds. It was odd to see Disorganized Attachment passed over, possibly because this book is written for children of neglectful rather than abusive mothers.

Recommended healing techniques include psychotherapy, archetypes, romantic relationships, and inner child work. One suggested exercise is to trade safe, nonsexual holding with a friend. Just hold the other person for a set time, perhaps as long as 20 minutes, and then swap roles.

There is carefully inclusive language around “mothers and other caretakers (of any gender)”, although it is also clear that this is primarily about mothers.

I’ve recommended this book to a lot of clients in the last couple of weeks! I think it’s an enlightening read for anyone. Even if you had a great mother, odds are some of the people close to you didn’t, and this will help make sense of their experience.

Available at Powell’s Books.