Healing from a lack of emotional nurturing

This is written for adult children everywhere whose mothers were for some reason or another emotionally unavailable from their lives. This is not to blame or shame mothers. We all do the best that we can with the emotional resources that we have. This is to help us all to heal from a lack of nurturing. 


These are the mothers who simply could not nurture us in the way that we need to be nurtured. Perhaps your mother loved you in the only way that she knew how. But perhaps due to mental illness, intergenerational trauma wounding, addiction, lack of support or the many other reasons be it societal, biological or psychological our mothers weren’t there for us emotionally.  

Maybe your mother was there physically but she was not present in the way that you needed her to be. This can leave us feeling as though we are motherless. This can feel like a hollow gap where ‘something’ needs to be, but we can’t quite put our finger on it.

The home inside of Mother

Even before we come into the world, we have our ’home’ inside of our mother. What she feels, we feel. The cocktail of hormones that her body releases enters our bloodstream too. If our biological mother was stressed, then her body would be releasing the stress hormone cortisol, and we would feel that too.  When we are born, we have a biological drive to seek out nurturing for our survival. We have a need to be nurtured in order to thrive.  

The Latin derivative of nurture is ‘nutrire’ meaning to suckle. By nurture in the context of this article which is primarily aimed at the mother and child relationship I mean the mother’s ability to respond to our physical and emotional needs.  


John Bowlby coined the term attachment when he observed children in orphanages after World War Two. He noted that though children were fed and looked after in the sense that they were kept alive; food, medical care and shelter, they did not thrive. In order for our brain to have healthy development we need to have an attachment figure who can offer emotional warmth, care and love.  

As infants, we need to feel connected to a caring figure. We need to feel that there is attunement to a nurturing mother figure. This allows us to feel a secure attachment. To implicitly know and feel in our body, even before the age of memory and learning, that we are securely attached; that there is a caring figure who is attuned to our needs allows us to have healthy brain development.


What do we mean by attunement? When a mother is attuned to their baby it means that they try to understand their baby’s needs by looking to see if baby needs feeding, changing, holding and soothing. We might not always get this right as mothers but we endeavour to try to make our baby feel safe, warm and comfortable. 


In the ‘still face experiment’ a mother and child interact with each other normally – mother smiles and baby responds. The mother is then asked to display an emotionless, unsmiling face. We can see how distressed the baby becomes when this happens; baby reaches out to mother and makes attempts to have the mother respond to her. Though the mother is there physically it is as though she has ‘disappeared’ emotionally. We get a feel for the baby and how disturbing this is as the watcher (you can view this experiment on Youtube). The mother very quickly is asked to go back to being her normal self, smiling and playing with baby and we can see the baby relax and the relief. This is a powerful display of attunement in action. 

What happens when there is a lack of attunement and an insecure attachment?

Debra’s story

“I come from a line of women who were abused and suffered trauma. My grandmother had nine children to an abusive man.” Debra told me in our first session together. 

“This man physically beat his wife and all of those nine children. My mother was one of them. My mother didn’t tell me all of her stories, but from a young age, I acted as her therapist. My mother suffered from depression, OCD, agoraphobia and extreme anxiety. She would self-harm, attempt suicide and sit under heavy black clouds. I grew up in this environment.” Debra says all of this without displaying any emotion. 

“Who was there for you?” I asked her gently. 

“No-one. Food became my comfort blanket. It became my secret. I would binge in a daze, only focused on the taste I would eat and eat. During those times I didn’t need to think or feel.” 

I explained to Debra that since her mother had been emotionally unavailable, she had used food to comfort herself and to tune out of what she was feeling. She had not been shown or taught to emotionally regulate or to feel her feelings in a healthy way. 

Trauma can be defined as not what happened to you, but how you internalised the event or events. How you suffered internally. The word trauma also comes from the word wound. When you have a wound, you can either cover it up and any infection inside of the wound might fester and cause more pain.  

Debra had covered up her wounding and they had festered. She had coped in the only way that she knew how – by stuffing down her emotions with the help of food.

Debra’s mother had tried her best. As all mothers do. But her mother was not emotionally available most of the time as she was dealing with her own festering wounds. Debra’s mother was vulnerable and unable to cope with Debra’s own emotional needs. Debra had tried to gain affection and comfort through her mother in any way that she could. This was by spending hours by her mother, listening to traumatic stories and trying to be the ’helpful’ daughter. Debra had become what we term a ‘parentified child.’ The roles of mother and daughter had been reversed.


Through therapy, Debra began to learn to trust what and who felt safe to be around. Babies follow cues from their mother to tell them about what is safe in their environment and who can be trusted. When mothers are anxious and nervous, as Debra’s mother was, they unintentionally send out the signal to their children that the world is not safe, and that people are not to be trusted. As adult children they then struggle to follow their own cues of safety and find it difficult to ‘trust their instincts.’ 

Through therapy, Debra and I began to explore what she felt. She began to feel safe enough and to trust me to help her to feel all of the feelings, explore her lack of nurturing, to grieve and to let go of any hope that she would have the mother that her friends had. As she began to learn to self-regulate she began the slow process of learning to trust her own internal cues of safety. 

Once Debra had learned to and allowed herself to feel emotions, name them and give herself permission to express them we then began to work on boundary setting. 


Since Debra had learnt that gaining approval and acceptance from her mother was through ‘being there’ for her, she very rarely told anyone that she couldn’t help them if they asked. She was a doer, often putting herself at the bottom of the pile in order to do everything for everyone else. Debra desperately wanted to gain people’s acceptance of her. It took a long time for Debra to realise that she was important too and that it was ok to say no and to put herself first at times. 

All of this was a slow and steady process 

This vignette is an example of how we can heal from feeling that gaping hole within us. Having an emotionally unavailable mother feels painful until we understand how we can re-parent ourselves. Through compassion and with the help of a trusted therapist you too can heal. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23
Written by Samantha Flanagan, Anxiety Therapist (PGDIP, Registered member of BACP)
High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23

I am a member of BACP with a level 7, PGdip in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy. I am qualified to work with many issues which include but are not limited to: emotional abuse, relationships, trauma, anxiety, substance mis-use, developmental trauma, and attachment issues.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Trauma

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals