As a therapist who works primarily with couples, I have learned that almost any client can look reasonably adult when I meet with him or her individually. By contrast, seeing the same therapy client in a couple therapy session where spouses are interacting often gives me vastly more data. Mistaken, emotionally immature and pathological behaviors all become very visible. I see then the extent to which, under stress, each partner’s actions can be rude, hurtful or even dangerously childish—or calm, respectful, and mature.
What is Emotional Age?
A psychologist from Africa, with whom I once spoke at an international psychology conference, explained to me that in his country it was common to assess people in terms of both physical age and emotional age.
Physical age can be counted by number of birthdays. Physical age, especially with children, tends to correlate with height, strength, and cognitive functioning.
Psychological or emotional age measures emotional habits. For instance, adults can stay calm whereas children tend to be quick to anger in the face of triggers.
Adults exercise careful judgment before talking whereas children may impulsively blurt out tactless, hurtful words. If toddlers want a car or doll that another child is playing with, they are likely to reach out and take them. Preschoolers get mad or cry multiple times every day, even if they are basically well-nurtured and happy kids. The rules of adult-play, like taking turns or not grabbing, have not yet begun to shape their behavior. Youngsters do not act in a consistently civil manner because they have not yet internalized the rules of “civilized” adults.
Behaviors that are normal and even endearing in children look childish and rude when adults do them; when you encounter such emotional immaturity in adults, you need deal with it appropriately.
One way to think about how young children differ from emotionally mature grownups is to picture young children you know—maybe even your own children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and even your neighbors’ kids. How do these children differ from adults that you know and respect?
Before reading my list of characteristics that I look for, you might want to jot down a list of the traits that you noticed in your visualization.
Signs of Emotionally Immature Adult
The following are some of the top signs of emotional immaturity or childishness in an adult person.
1. Emotional escalations
Young children often cry, get mad, or look petulant and pouting; grownups seldom do.
When things go wrong, young children look to blame someone; grownups look to fix the problem.
When there’s a situation that’s uncomfortable, young children might lie to stay out of trouble; grownups deal with reality, reliably speaking the truth.
Children call each other names. Adults seek to understand issues. Adults do not make ad hominen attacks, that is, attacks on people’s personal traits. Instead, they attack the problem. They do not disrespect others with mean labels.
There is one exception. Sometimes adults, like firefighters who battle forest fires, have to fight fire with fire. They may need in some way to overpower an angry child, or an out-of-bounds adult, in order to get them to cease their bad behavior.
5. Impulsivity [poor impulse control]
Children strike out impulsively when they feel hurt or mad. They speak recklessly or take impulsive action without pausing to think about the potential consequences. Similarly, instead of listening to others’ viewpoints, they impulsively interrupt them.
Emotionally mature adults pause, resisting the impulse to shoot out hurtful words or actions. They calm themselves. They then think through the problem, seeking more information and analyzing options.
Again, occasionally, acting on impulse is a hallmark of mature behavior. For example, soldiers and police are trained to discriminate rapidly between harmless and dangerous situations so that they can respond quickly enough, with an immediate appropriate response, to protect potential victims of criminal actions.
6. Need to be the center of attention
Ever tried to have adult dinner conversations with a two-year-old at the table? Did attempts to launch a discussion with others at the table result in the child getting fussy? You bet!
A child who is physically larger than the other children his age can walk up to another boy who is playing with a toy he would like and simply take it. The other child may say nothing lest the bully turn on them with hostility. Safer just to let a bully have what he wants.
Adults respect boundaries: yours is yours and mine is mine.
8. Budding narcissism
Narcissism is the inability to see anything other than one’s own interests and perspective. Adults also can see things from others’ perspectives and therefore take others’ concerns into account.
In another post I coined the term tall man syndrome for one way that the normal narcissism of children can persist into adulthood. If children — or adults — can get whatever they want because they are bigger, stronger, richer etc, they become at risk for learning that the rules don’t apply to them. Whatever they want, they take. “It’s all about me.”
This narcissistic belief may look initially like strength. In fact, it reflects a serious weakness in being unable to see beyond the self.
Psychologically strong people listen to others, listening to understand others’ feelings, concerns and preferences. Narcissists who hear only themselves are emotionally brittle: it’s my way or the highway. They operate like children who want to stay out and play even though dinner is on the table and pitch a fit rather than heed their parents’ explanation that the family is eating now. “It’s all about me; no one else counts; and if I don’t get my way I’ll bully you with anger or feel overwhelmed and pout.”
9. Immature defenses
Freud coined the term defense mechanisms for ways in which individuals protect themselves and/or get what they want. Adults use defense mechanisms like listening to others’ concerns as well as to their own. They then engage in collaborative problem-solving. These responses to difficulties signal psychological maturity.
Children, by contrast, may too often regard the best defense as a strong offense. While that defensive strategy may work in football, attacking anyone who expresses a viewpoint different from what they want is, in life, a primitive defense mechanism.
Another primitive defense is denial: “I didn’t say that!” “I never did that!” when in fact they did say and do that. Sound child-like to you?
10. No observing ego, that is, ability to see, acknowledge, and learn from their mistakes.
When emotionally mature adults ‘lose their cool’ and express anger inappropriately, soon after, with their “observing ego,” they realize that their outburst was inappropriate. That is, they can see in hindsight that their behavior was out of line with their value system. They can see if their outburst has been, as therapists say, ego dystonic [against their value system].
Emotionally immature adults are like children who have not yet internalized mature guidelines of respectful behavior toward others, or who have not developed ability to observe their behaviors to judge what’s in line and what’s out of line, see their anger as normal. They regard their emotional outbursts as “ego syntonic,” justifying them by blaming the other person: “I only did it because you…”
How to Deal With Emotionally Immature Adults
If you, or someone you know, functions more like a child than like a grownup, how do you deal with them?
It’s easy to love children who act like children. It’s harder to love someone who acts like a child in the body of a grownup. Still, most childlike adults only act childishly when they feel threatened.
One strategy, if you love an adult who displays emotionally immature tendencies, is to focus primarily on the more adult and attractive aspects of the person. If you are the childlike one, love your strengths—and pay attention to growing up in your less mature habit areas.
Another strategy is to cease being surprised when the childish patterns emerge. Thinking “I can’t believe that s/he/I did that!” signifies that you have not yet accepted the reality of the child-like behaviors. Accepting that the behaviors do occur is a first and vital step toward change.
Third, if you are the receiver of emotionally immature behavior, beware of trying to change the other person. Instead, figure out what you can do differently so that those patterns will no longer be problematic for you. Your job is to keep growing yourself, not to change others.
Lastly, learn the skills of adult functioning. Much of what grownup “children” do can be considered as a skills deficit. If you tend to be childish, learning adult skills can move you into grown-up-ville.
The more clear you are about what constitutes grownup behavior, the more you will be able to stay a grownup—even when you are interacting with someone who is acting like a child.
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