This article was co-authored by Tracy Carver, PhD. Dr. Tracy Carver is an award-winning Licensed Psychologist based in Austin, Texas. Dr. Carver specializes in counseling for issues related to self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and psychedelic integration. She holds a BS in Psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University, an MA in Educational Psychology, and a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from The University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Carver also completed an internship in Clinical Psychology through Harvard University Medical School. She was voted one of the Best Mental Health Professionals in Austin for four years in a row by Austin Fit Magazine. Dr. Carver has been featured in Austin Monthly, Austin Woman Magazine, Life in Travis Heights, and KVUE (the Austin affiliate for ABC News).
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If you’ve developed a good relationship with your therapist, it can be hard to cope when they go on vacation. You might feel abandoned, uncared-for, or resentful – and the person who usually talks with you about your feelings isn’t around to help! But though it might not ever be your favorite time of the year, your therapist’s vacation can actually benefit you by giving you a chance to practice the skills you’ve learned in therapy. You can make coping with your therapist’s absence easier by preparing for it ahead of time, finding alternate ways to deal with your emotions, and practicing good self-care over the break.
Therapists are just people. They go through struggles, have family issues, and need a break just like everyone else.
But, when you’re going through a difficult time or look forward to your sessions to get you through the week, it’s hard to think of your therapist as having “their own life.”
So, what can you do if your therapist is away? Maybe they’re on vacation or dealing with a family emergency. They might even just be sick for a few days and need to rest. You don’t need to panic or assume the worst.
Instead, you can combine some things you’ve already learned throughout therapy with some healthy coping skills. Doing so will help you navigate the time apart. It may even help you realize that you’re stronger than you give yourself credit for.
Let’s look at a few ideas you can use that will make a positive difference while your therapist is away.
Talk to Your Therapist About It
Your therapist isn’t going to abandon you in any way. If they’re going on vacation, they’ll likely tell you about it ahead of time. If they’re dealing with any type of emergency, they might still contact you themselves or have a member of their staff do it.
Either way, if you’re nervous about them spending time away, talk to them about it. They can provide the reassurance you’re looking for. You might also consider asking if they offer telehealth services. That might not be an option every time. But, if you’re really struggling and they understand your situation, they may make an exception.
Ask for Suggestions
When you’re discussing your therapist’s absence, ask if they have any suggestions about someone you can see while they’re gone. It takes time to build a relationship with a therapist. But, talking to someone—especially someone your therapist trusts—can make a difference, rather than spending an extended period of time missing therapy completely.
If you’re nervous about working with a different therapist, try meeting with them during your last session with your current one. It can help to be in a familiar, comfortable space, and they’ll get to see how you and your therapist interact with each other.
Talk About Potential Life Stressors
You can feel better about your therapist being gone if you’re prepared with resources beforehand.
During your last session before they leave, bring up any concerns you might have. Ask what you should do if you’re faced with any life stressors or triggers while they’re away. Ideally, you’ll be able to use some skills you’ve already been working on.
But asking for practical, effective solutions while they are gone can offer you peace of mind and make you feel more comfortable in their absence. It can be helpful to make a list of their suggestions, so you can look at them whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed or triggered.
If you have a mental health emergency while your therapist is away, it’s also a good idea to talk to them about a plan of action. They will likely direct you to someone in the practice you can reach out to. If you’re having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, you can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and uneasy when your therapist is away, especially for an extended period of time.
But you’re not alone. It’s a wonderful opportunity to put the things you’ve learned into practice while still working with someone else or finding support in another way. Believe in yourself and your ability to cope, and you might have an easier time navigating the waters than you initially thought.
Understanding the special wounds inflicted by dismissal and unresponsiveness
“I think I literally craved love and attention as a child. The more my mother withdrew, the more frantic I became. I became a troublemaker because I knew she would pay attention to me, even if it meant punishment. It sounds weird, but that’s what I did. Since I couldn’t get her love, I settled for her anger. At least in those moments, she was there.”
This was Natalie’s story, one which I told in my book, Daughter Detox, and her description of “craving” is well-taken; other women have described “hungering” for their mother’s love and doing what they could to make them emotionally present. Sometimes, that involved either feigning sickness or being sick:
“I was pretty young when I realized that my mother enjoyed playing nurse; it made her feel valuable in a way that I guess the ordinary, day-to-day of mothering didn’t. Some of my happiest childhood moments are intertwined with having bronchitis, believe it or not. But when I wasn’t sick, I was another box Mom had to check off on the endless to-do list she complained about constantly. For the most part, she ignored me.”
Spotting the emotionally unavailable mother
The children of these mothers are emotionally neglected, though that may be hard for them to recognize because their external needs aren’t just adequately met but, often, met with care; these mothers curate their lives carefully, with beautifully kept homes and nicely dressed children. While they may have fabulous rose bushes and be active in their communities, they pay no attention to their children’s emotional needs or their emotional selves, for that matter. These mothers may be avoidantly attached themselves or they may simply not like the demands of motherhood; that is how Alexis perceived her own mother:
“My mother was turned off by neediness and the needier you were, the less attention she paid to you. She saw crying as a sign of weakness and she’d turn on you for that. I learned young to ask for little because she was actually nicer when you didn’t make demands. My brother and I responded to her in the same way and it wasn’t until I was in my teens and got to see how my friends’ mothers acted that I realized how cold my mother was. I have had years of therapy and it’s still hard for me to ask for help or affection or anything else. I am 45 and as armored as ever.”
How an emotionally unavailable mother affects you
Unlike a controlling mother or one high in narcissistic traits who deliberately puts her child in the position of being a satellite circling her planet, the emotionally unavailable mother does it unintentionally; the truth is that she wants as little to do with her child except on a superficial level. Yearning for her mother’s love and attention is the hallmark of this daughter and she’ll deal with it by either cutting off her emotions and emotional needs both consciously and unconsciously or becoming subsumed by that yearning. Those who armor themselves suffer from trust issues, an inability to sustain connection, and trouble identifying feelings, and display a dismissive-avoidant or fearful-avoidant style of attachment. Those who are subsumed by their yearning keep trying to get their mothers’ attention, sometimes turning to unhealthy substitutes to fill the hole in their hearts.
Recognizing the emotional neglect she’s suffered is often a long road, as one daughter, 43, explained:
“When I used to hear the words ‘emotional neglect,’ I immediately thought of someone who was poor and living in a hovel because I thought that emotional neglect was part of not having enough stuff. But now I totally realize that you can be emotionally impoverished living in a gorgeous house with a swimming pool and tennis court. My mother never offered me a word of support or validation and it took me twenty years to realize that what I felt about my childhood was real and true. That you can be starved with food in the fridge and neglected with a closet full of clothes and your college tuition paid for. It took me a long time to believe myself.”
Puzzling it out
One of the conundrums for the daughter of the emotionally unavailable mother is puzzling through how her mother can be physically present and emotionally absent at once. For the young child, this is emotionally confusing and, as the child matures, it may stay that way and create a well of deep self-doubt. She’s likely to wonder whether there’s something wrong with her—Is she too needy or demanding? Is she asking for too much?—or she may wonder whether she’s just making it up. These questions can bedevil a daughter long into adulthood, as Lauren explained:
“A part of me wanted my mother to be abusive in ways that could be seen—screaming, yelling, or maybe even hitting me—but that never happened. On the surface, she seemed like a great mother and, trust me, the world thought so. But she never really listened to me or cared about me in any real way. She was walled off, unresponsive. I struggled for years, thinking it was my fault somehow. When I got married, I went into shock when I first encountered my husband’s family. I honestly thought his mother was putting on an act. But, over time, I came to understand that what I was seeing was love in action and genuine caring. I realized I wasn’t crazy after all.”
Taking steps toward healing
As I explain in my book Daughter Detox, discovery is the first step which entails recognizing your mother’s treatment and then beginning to see how you adapted to it. Behaviors that you’ve always thought were simply inborn parts of your personality often are revealed to be the product of trying to cope or muddle through the emotional environment of your family of origin. Depending on whether you responded to your mother’s lack of emotional availability by trying to storm the citadel (and having an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment) or by deciding you didn’t need her or anyone (by developing a dismissive-avoidant style of attachment), you will want to look at:
- How trusting others is an issue in your life
- The degree to which you either crave or disdain close connections
- Whether you tend to self-isolate and minimize the importance of relationships
- Whether you are always on alert and fearful in a relationship and have problems with healthy boundaries
- The degree to which you are emotionally intelligent and can identify and act on your feelings
- Whether you are repeating the pattern by being attracted to emotionally unavailable friends and romantic partners
Recovery is possible, though it takes time and effort; it’s best accomplished by working with a gifted therapist, but self-help can also support your efforts. The good news is that you don’t have to stay that little girl—the one yearning for that distant sun to throw some light on her. There is a way out of that childhood room.
Thanks to all of those who shared their stories with me over the years and who continue to help grow my understanding.
Streep, Peg. Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Île D’Éspoir Press, 2017.
*** Now Available: Attachment to Your Therapist: A Conversation. This series of posts in expanded E-Book form, on Amazon.***
Kori’s beloved therapist is retiring. “Emotionally, well, it feels heart breaking. It obviously triggers many things. I think some of the hardest things are old messages of never depend or count on anyone because you will be left.” She continues: “And feelings of insignificance. I realize that I am a client. I have never shared with my therapist how much she means to me (that would break every rule!). But seeing them walk away and knowing that I just have to be okay with it. That I have to be okay with never seeing or hearing from her again. Knowing that I have to lose a lot. (Prior to this therapist I had never experienced someone so attuned. If felt so odd at first and now it feels terrifying to know that I may never experience it again.)”
I’m so sorry to hear of your pain and anguish. You and several other readers have brought up the difficult subject of termination when you are strongly attached to a good therapist. Thank you for sharing your feelings in as much detail as you have. A big part of the answer is that it just hurts, and if I go on to say more, it is not to minimize the pain that you are going through.
The next thing that jumps out is that, “I have never shared with my therapist how much she means to me” There is no rule that you should not tell your therapist about your feelings, in fact, to the contrary it is extremely important and therapeutic to do just that. Sometimes therapists hold back from telling you about their feelings, but this is not a symmetrical relationship. Your job is to talk about all your feelings because that is how they can heal or be transformed, and grief is one of the most important feelings that you can deal with. By the way, therapists are human, too, and usually do get attached to patients. Saying good bye may not be as traumatic to a therapist, but it can still be sad and painful.
Many readers have talked about the shame that often goes with strong attachment to your therapist. Shame is a sad consequence of trauma. There is no reason to feel ashamed of caring about a person who has been very helpful to you. The reason for the shame is usually that, long ago, a child yearned for closeness with someone who could not or would not give it. Faced with repeated rejection, we naturally internalize the value that to yearn is bad. The conscience then generates feelings of shame every time we find ourselves having longing feelings. (See my post on getting over shame.)
Then there are the reactions like thinking you can never count on anyone. That, too sounds like a defense from long ago against rejection. It is natural to have those thoughts, but the reason for talking about them is that, by bringing them out in the open, you can see that they are not appropriate to the present, and that acting on those kinds of feelings, for example, stopping therapy before you are done, would be a tragedy.
In the end, this is what therapists call “termination.” It is a chance to experience feelings about separations and losses that may not have had a chance to come up before. What is important about going through the process of termination is taking the opportunity to work through all those feelings till they are healed and put in perspective. Only then will you be as ready as you ever will, to say good bye.
See the next post in this series: Will I Ever Get Over My Attachment?
Last update: 23 April, 2016
We all know how complicated it can be to define the term “family.” Is it defined as only those with whom we share blood? Or those people we have freely chosen and with whom we have built positive and significant bonds ?
Talking about family can sometimes reopen certain wounds , let downs, or resentments. And, without a doubt, one of the most complicated figures is that of the “absent father”.
The absent father is not only a physical void of someone who was not present in our lives, but can also refer to cases in which the father, although physically present, either doesn’t know how or doesn’t want to take on his role. It is a psychological absence that creates a diverse set of emotional wounds in a child.
It is very possible that you are familiar with these kinds of situations, either from firsthand experience, or from observing it taking place in the life of a friend.
Sometimes, when we ask someone to tell us about their family , they don’t hesitate to tell us a thousand stories about their mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc… However, when it comes time to talk about their father, their smile becomes strained and they fall silent. They shrug their shoulders and haltingly say…“Well, I don’t know… my dad was… he was just my dad. He was there, nothing more.”
We don’t mean to say that this kind of emotional gap is a characteristic exclusively found in fathers. It can also be found with mothers . However, it is much more frequently found that, when it is time to talk about this kind of harmful experience, it is the father figure who tends to be absent.
The father who is emotionally absent, but physically present
Growing up without a father, a mother, or any kind of role model figure in childhood due to a traumatic event is something that will follow a person throughout their life. This kind of childhood can leave internal and emotional scars that the person must do their best to endure.
However, growing up with a father figure that, despite being physically there, is unable to fully provide affection or recognition, creates a void in the heart of a child who is trying to learn how to build their world.
Some people say that the bulk of the responsibility for how we are raised, how we are cared for, and how we are educated, is the responsibility of the mother. We are not going to deny the importance of her role in forming an healthy bond with her child. That bond will give the child security in each and every one of the steps it takes.
However, the father is also very important. That is an undeniable truth. What happens when at the core of a family there is only an absent father who does not establish any kind of relationship with his children?
A child’s brain is very active. In their day to day life, they need more than anything positive reinforcement to be able to grow in a healthy and mature way.
An absent father creates inconsistencies, gaps, and difficulty in treatment. A child will wait and hope for affection, communication , and daily interaction which will open them to the world through their father. However, when the father is absent emotionally, the child is faced with a wall.
Empty and distant treatment generates anxiety in children. They don’t know how to adjust. They develop expectations that are never fulfilled. When they are older and become more aware, they tend to compare other children’s parents with their own. They notice that the fathers of their friends act differently than their father.
Your therapist tells you she is taking a two week vacation. You think it won’t be that bad, but then she tells you that because she’s coming back on a Wednesday and you usually come on Tuesdays, you’re really going to be missing three weeks of therapy. You sit there in her office, in your place of security, in complete shock. What are you going to do?
This exact scenario happened to me this past month.
I have been seeing my current therapist for almost three years now. She knows me more than I know myself. She has seen me at my best, she has seen me at my worst. She has seen me in times when I was thriving and she has seen me when all I wanted to do was go to sleep forever. Needless to say, I rely on her a lot. I am extremely attached to her — some may say almost too attached to her.
And now I wasn’t going to see her for three weeks.
It may seem silly to say, but those few weeks felt like years. I was trying to tell myself I was OK, that I could do it without her. Some days I felt confident, like I never needed a therapist in the first place. But then there were the bad days, the days that overpowered the confident ones. They were the days when all I wanted to do was cry. I felt so alone. I knew I had no one to turn to. Yes I had friends, but without my therapist I felt like I was on my own. I knew she still existed, I knew she still cared about me. But with me, if someone is not physically there telling me that it’ll all be OK, then I don’t honestly believe it to be true.
Therapists deserve vacations. They deserve to take time for themselves, because the nature of their work can be very emotionally taxing.
Here are a few things to get you through your therapist’s vacation:
1. Surround yourself with friends.
Friends are not therapists but, if you surround yourself with good people, they can really help you in times of distress. Have someone you can call — whether it be to go to Starbucks for coffee or just for a drive. Being physically alone is often not a good idea when you feel like you are in crisis.
2. Take up a new hobby!
If your friends are not available, having something to do when you feel down is golden. One example you can try is picking up an adult coloring book! That may seem childish, but they are targeted towards adults — with intricate designs that can keep you busy for hours. Indulge and buy yourself some fancy markers too. You won’t regret it.
3. Watch funny Youtube videos!
Even when I am really sad, I can’t help but laugh while watching “The Ellen Show.” That’s only one example. Find something you like and go with it.
4. Write down your feelings.
Pretend you are talking to your therapist. If you are in a crisis, write down what is bothering you and prepare to bring it to your next session. Sometimes this can help alleviate the feelings of loneliness.
It seems so difficult — I know it firsthand — but it is indeed possible to get through a period without your therapist. But if you have the right tools, you will make it out on the other side unscathed.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741 .
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Some teenagers struggle with abandonment issues because they had an absent mother or father during childhood 2. Others face abandonment issues because their parents got divorced and one parent, either by choice or by law, has little or nothing to do with them 2.
Some teenagers struggle with abandonment issues because they had an absent mother or father during childhood 2. Others face abandonment issues because their parents got divorced and one parent, either by choice or by law, has little or nothing to do with them 2. Even though a teenager isn’t responsible for her parent’s decisions, abandonment can be a heavy emotional burden to carry. The teen might feel that the problems are her fault. Teens who struggle with depression or long-term abandonment issues should consult with medical professionals 2.
Fear is a common abandonment concern for teenagers who have parents who died, left as a result of divorce or were never active in their lives. A teenager might worry that he won’t have anyone to take care of him. He might fear that he and his siblings will get split up, and he will be forced to live in a separate household. Even in adulthood, a person who experienced abandonment as a child or teen might continue to fear that every significant person in his life will eventually die or abandon him, according to GoodTherapy.org 1.
Teens who feel abandoned often experience anger because they can’t understand why someone would leave them. Even if a parent passed away, a teen might still feel rejected and abandoned. Most teens are dependent on their parent’s financial and emotional support, so they might feel angry if they experience financial hardship and have to change their standard of living due to death or divorce. Some teens are forced to leave their homes and relocate if their surviving parent or caregiver can’t keep up with current expenses. In some cases, the surviving parent has to work longer hours and is no longer physically or emotionally available to comfort the hurting teen.
Teens often face long-term anxiety issues when they feel abandoned by one or both parents. Feelings of apprehension and anxiety can affect every relationship, intimate, social, business or school-related, according to GoodTherapy.org 1. A teenager might avoid getting close to peers or family members because he doesn’t want to risk being abandoned by them too. Alternatively, he might avoid social gatherings or school-related activities because he’s anxious about building friendships and doesn’t want others to know he has experienced abandonment.
Five stages take place when someone experiences abandonment — shattering, withdrawal, internalizing, rage and lifting — says psychotherapist Susan Anderson in New Living Magazine 2. Teenagers often feel that their whole world is spinning upside down and withdraw from social settings. They might internalize their fears, anxieties and frustrations because they feel ashamed or alone. When a remaining parent, caregiver, school counselor or medical professional helps a teenager see that there is still hope, the teen can begin to recover and “lift” out of the pit of despair. New and rekindled friendships can help the teen realize that there are people who won’t abandon her.
I want to reestablish our connection, but she won’t even acknowledge me at family events.
My oldest daughter (from my first marriage) hasn’t wanted a relationship with me for more than 25 years. I remarried about 28 years ago and have two children, both daughters, with my current wife. My oldest daughter was a bridesmaid at the second wedding and seemed accepting of the new family dynamic. Her mother had also remarried, a few years earlier.
My daughter is now 48 years old, and her sisters are 27 and 28. Although we have encountered one another at extended-family events (christenings, graduations, her brothers’ weddings, etc.), she does not acknowledge me, my wife, or her sisters. I want to reestablish a connection, and my younger daughters are disappointed that she doesn’t want to get to know them.
Over the years, I have tried various overtures to reconcile: I’ve been sending Christmas and birthday cards every year, and once or twice I’ve written notes inquiring about her life and interests and concerns—but no response.
I’m 70 years old now and a cancer survivor, and I hurt every day about this situation. I so want to have her back in my life, connecting with her sisters. What can I do?
Being estranged from your daughter is understandably painful—your love for her comes across in your letter—and you should know that many parents are living with a similar kind of heartbreak. If you want to reconnect with your daughter, though, you’ll need to get curious about her pain—the pain that has made the idea of contact with you so hard for her.
I don’t know how your divorce and subsequent remarriage affected your daughter, but in ways you may not have realized, she got hurt. Although she was a bridesmaid at your wedding and “seemed accepting” of the situation, there’s a good chance that her feelings ran deeper. Often in these situations, parents want so badly for their kids to be okay with what’s going on (because, let’s face it, for you, your new marriage was a happy event) that they don’t see what’s happening beneath the surface with their children. Your daughter likely tried, in her college-age way, to let you know she was upset about something, and if she didn’t feel heard then, you’re going to have to hear her now.
To hear her, you’ll need to acknowledge that the two of you have what therapists call separate realities. Parents, for example, tend to believe that they acted in the best interests of their children, while the children may feel that their parents failed to do just that. Both “realities” are valid because they’re simply two perspectives on the same situation. Separate realities are a normal part of any relationship—including between spouses or siblings or friends—and relationships go more smoothly when each person can see some truth in the other’s reality. But there’s a caveat: When it comes to children who are hurting—including adult children such as your daughter—it’s a parent’s job to make the effort to see the child’s reality first.
That’s why your contact with your daughter over the years, though well meaning, has probably felt a bit tone-deaf to her. By sending annual holiday cards and asking “once or twice” in the course of two decades about her interests and concerns, you’ve shown that you’re thinking about her; but by giving short shrift to the elephant in the room—directly acknowledging that you’ve hurt her—you’ve created the impression that you don’t care about her inner world (a perception that likely led her to cut off contact in the first place). Of course, it’s hard for most parents to hear how they disappointed their kids, especially if they tried their absolute best, but unless you can see how you contributed to her feelings of anger or hurt, nothing will change between you. Right now the only way she can communicate her pain to you is by inflicting it on you in return—with her distance. But once you’re able to receive this message by other means—by understanding what she’s gone through—the indirect message becomes unnecessary.
You can start with a sincere apology. A sincere apology is heartfelt and empathic and entirely about the person receiving it. A letter in this spirit might go something like this: “I owe you an apology, and I wish I’d offered it much sooner. I know that I’ve hurt you deeply, and I’m truly sorry for that. I would like to know more about your experience, because I’ve come to realize that I failed to see earlier that I put you through a lot of pain. You may be so hurt and distrusting of me that you don’t want to open up lines of communication, but I want you to know that I love you deeply and I’m committed to really listening to you and hearing you in a way I should have long ago. One idea I have is that maybe we could talk about some of this, at least initially, with a therapist of your choice. Of course, I love and miss you very much, but I also want to respect where you are. I hope that at some point you’ll be willing to talk with me about this. Whatever you decide, I want you to know that I’m starting to see my role in your pain, and am so sorry for it.”
Notice that the apology doesn’t ask for her forgiveness, something that would lessen your pain. It doesn’t offer reasons or justifications for why you may have made certain choices that affected her. It doesn’t imply that she’s overly sensitive. (“I’m sorry if I hurt you” is different from “I’m sorry that I hurt you.”) It doesn’t manipulate her with your age or health status. It doesn’t say that you’d like her to befriend your daughters, who are 20 years younger and from another marriage, and who may have made her feel like less of a priority to you at a time when she needed you most. (Asking her to alleviate your younger daughters’ pain will simply reinforce her belief that you can’t see hers.)
Of course, she might not respond at first—or ever. If she doesn’t, you might consider replacing your holiday cards with another invitation to understand her pain. If she does eventually respond, remember that you’re there only to listen and come to understand her better, and that you’ll need to start slowly, giving her all the space she needs. Let her decide on what she’s comfortable with—she may, for instance, feel comfortable establishing email communication but not be interested in phone conversations or meeting in person.
Whatever the outcome, you’ll have a lot of feelings about what’s happening. Because you don’t want to burden your daughter with them or respond poorly to her because you’re struggling with your own pain, seeing a therapist can help you navigate this process in a way that’s healthy for both you and your daughter. In talking with a therapist, you may even discover more about what led to the estrangement, leaving you less in the dark about the distance. At the very least, you’ll develop coping strategies for what is a difficult and protracted process that has the potential to be immensely gratifying for each of you.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.