Why Are Childish Adults Childish?

4 min read

Some of us spend our adult lives being called stuck, stalled, backward, childish, infantile, juvenile, or immature.

These adjectives are not meant as neutral descriptors but as insults at the same degree of offense as, say, “lazy,” “clumsy,” “shallow,” “stupid,” “sloppy,” or “dysfunctional,” for which they’re sometimes synonyms.

We are described as such — and scolded to “grow up” — because we often respond non-adultishly to real-life challenges. We feel easily cornered, triggered, overwhelmed, or incapable of handling challenges that others take in stride.

We sometimes cry when criticized; flee when frustrated; plead for second, fourth and fifteenth chances; lash out without breathing 10 times first; sense deadly danger at the slightest sound or … I don’t want to type it because I’ll be scared.

I say this as a childish adult.

Studies suggest that aspects of modern society are increasing our numbers, making more of us more immature.

We are patently disdained on the premise that we cherished childhood too much to move on; that we cling to it Peter Pannishly or that, having attained a certain level of maturity, we chose for selfish reasons to revert.

But as detailed in a previous post here, adult childishness — also known as emotional immaturity — is almost never a conscious choice. Usually it’s the explosive fallout of dysfunctional parenting styles, resulting in important lessons never learned. It’s what can happen when the normal ladders leading to normal adulthood have been booby-trapped, dismantled, hidden, stolen, or greased.

Here are six major ways in which various childhood experiences can freeze survivors in place — against their will, often unwittingly.

  • Abuse. Physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or any other manner of deliberate maltreatment can have shattering, long-lasting effects on victims who adopt habitual defensive coping strategies such as dissociation, numbness, immobility, addiction, or belligerence which undermine their equilibrium and sense of self, stalling their emotional lives.
  • Isolation. Like most mammalians, we learn life skills while young by observing others, mainly elders who display practical interactive tactics: sharing, say, or arguing or taking turns. But growing up neglected by — or ignoring — actual human beings while exalting online personalities deprives children of crucial practice in processing real-world problems and can lead to social-skills deficiencies and loneliness, which studies show is linked with emotional immaturity.
  • Infantilization. Driven by fear and their desire for control, some parents repress and restrict their children, refusing to let them undertake various tasks and quests and rites of passage that would otherwise help them mature. Overprotected, disrespected — “Stop that! You might break something or die!” — babied children often inherit that terror of the world and of themselves that froze their parents from the start.
  • Pampering. Spoiling a child is meant as praise — and sometimes self-congratulation, as in “Whee! I’m such a loving parent!” Indulged, instantly forgiven, permitted to have and do whatever pleases them, and freed from facing consquences because they’re “above all that,” spoiled children often fail to learn life lessons about obligations, responsibilities, and earned rewards. In this sense, they can become victims, too — of their own narcissism and entitlement.
  • Childish parents. As detailed in a previous post, being able to physically reproduce doesn’t automatically mean being emotionally adept at parenting. Being raised amidst the emotional dysregulation, whiplashy mixed messages, lack of empathy, inconsistent modeling, neglect and/or hypervigilance typically exhibited by emotionally immature parents means internalizing consistently harmful and paralytic lessons instead of helpful ones.
  • Trauma. Stressful experiences other than direct, intentional abuse can also stall maturity as victims struggle desperately to endure, much less accept, devastating illness or the loss of loved ones or living in war zones or anything else that overwhelms the mind and body and surpasses their capacity to process emotional pain.

This is not to say that every trauma or abuse survivor, every mistreated or spoiled or babied child, stays frozen — for a long while or forever — at the age when dysfunction set in. Some don’t. But many do. It’s not a fun aesthetic. It’s a tragic demonstration of cause-and-effect.

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