Relating to the Emotionally Immature: Advice from a Christian Counselor
By Barney Armstrong, MA, LMHC, Bellevue Christian Counseling
Have you ever said these words: “He’s so immature,“ “I wish she’d grow up,” “She can be so childish,” or “He’s so selfish and insecure?” These words describe a person we all know—a spouse, a sibling, a friend—people who seem to have behaviors that we consider childish. It may even be that some people think this about us. Yet we cannot understand why others do not see this. Confronting them with their behavior doesn’t produce change, for they don’t seem to get it. In fact, they may become combative and reply in a more childish way.
Childish vs. Emotional Undeveloped Behavior
Instead of seeing this behavior as childish, it may help to instead view such people as emotionally undeveloped. This means that you cannot simply expect them to behave differently. You do not say to a toddler, “Grow the heck up, will you!” That is not helpful, but rather hurtful.
These behaviors are often not consistent, but are episodic because they are masked by a learned façade. Your friend may exhibit acceptable behavior even though inside he or she is emotionally reactive, fearful, uncertain, self-protective, blaming, and even raging. You can be fooled by their day-to-day behavior, but still see episodes when the pot boils over. For example, your boyfriend may show disproportionate rage at little things that remind you of a toddler throwing a tantrum. Perhaps you see that in yourself and wonder, “What’s going on here? How come everyone else seems to be able to handle this and I can’t?” Such behavior may be triggered by a minor disappointment or expectation gone awry, by a slight embarrassment that others would simply laugh off, or by an accusation or innuendo that creates surprising defensiveness.
Arrested Development: The Missing Link
Considering such behavior through the lens of Arrested Development or Fixation is one way to try to understand it. Arrested Development is an interruption in the predictable sequence of stages of emotional development from birth through adolescence. To oversimplify a bit, something traumatic or otherwise derailing happened in the process of growing up and emotional development got stuck at a certain point. Or, it may have continued but left a gap, resulting in a stage that was not completed, and a weak or missing piece in someone’s emotional constitution. This can explain a lack of confidence and weak skills for interacting with others, dealing with conflicts, embarrassment, or disappointment, and a hesitancy in relating to others.
At each stage of emotional development there is a sense of accomplishment that allows the child to “graduate,” an attainment that gives them confidence in their tasks of emotional developmental. It is as if the child were saying, “Got that nailed down, so now…” When that sense of having completed a stage is lacking, they can spin their wheels continually trying to finish the process. You may encounter them in that remedial emotional state and experience it in your relationships.
Don’t Take it PersonallyIt helps to recognize this in a friend or a spouse so that you do not take it too personally and become frustrated. Much of what they are saying or doing is emotional and fearful, rather than personal—they are not making statements about you. You may recognize tantrums, pouting, narcissism, grandiosity, selfishness, blaming, etc. But it helps if you can turn away from useless and often exacerbating interventions like, “You are so immature!” “Grow up!” “Stop being a baby!” That is like telling someone to stop having a broken arm. Try to also turn away from constantly defending yourself and responding to all of the red herrings they toss out. If you can see what is really going on, you will be able to stop caving in to their demands.
Sending the Wrong Message
There is no one-size-fits-all formula for this because the stages and symptoms look different, but an example will help.
Dora is quite in love with her fiancé, Frank, but he goes into unpredictable rages over small conflicts—in parenting terms, he throws a tantrum. Remember that a growing child is trying to become confident in an emotional stage of development so that he can go on to the next stage. Dora has tried giving him what he wants. At times she has become defensive or fearful. She has tried fighting back and has become verbally abusive, and has threatened to leave. All of these have sent exactly the wrong message to Frank.
What Frank wants to know now is what he wanted to know as a child—that a parent can handle his rage. He needs to know that when he is out of control, he is still safe and that his parent is not set off-balance by it. He needs to be secure and to know that his parent can handle him at his worst. That is what safety means.
Dora’s responses would not enable a child to graduate to the next stage. And they also do not help an adult who is raging and looking for this as yet unattained assurance. If you are in relationship with someone who has Arrested Development, the chances are that you have already tried similar things and have seen them fail.
Christian Counseling Provides a Safe Space for Emotional Development
So what does actually help? Arrested Development or Fixation is a prime candidate for counseling. Christian counseling can provide a safe environment in which a neutral party can help to untangle the causes and symptoms of your problems. A Christian counselor can offer a mindful presence and can suggest guidelines for progressing in growth that never took place. I would be happy to work with you and/or your friend or spouse in making sense of things and fostering the growth process.
From Flickr CreativeCommons: “Grouch,” courtesy of Greg Westfall (CC BY 2.0) and “Angry Child” courtesy of Gerry Thomasen, (CC BY 2.0)