Causes Of Infantilization

Updated November 14, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Infantilization happens when an adult is treated like a child. This can occur, for example, when parents refuse to allow their child to grow up or when adult children treat senior parents as if they can’t make decisions on their own. Infantilization can feel demeaning and can compromise a person’s mental health. It’s important for parents to recognize the signs of infantilization, so they can appropriately manage it.

infantilization parent spends time with her son and daughter

Are You Struggling To Let Your Child Grow Up?

What Is Infantilization?

As they grow, children need guidance in order to learn critical life skills and to mature mentally and emotionally. However, this process of maturing doesn’t happen for some people, possibly because the authority figures in their lives prevent it. Through their speech and actions, these authority figures choose not to adjust their parenting or oversight to accommodate a child’s current level of maturity. Doing so can potentially harm these children because they may be unable to develop key skills that they’ll need to face life as functioning adults.

This phenomenon is often referred to as infantilization — essentially, treating someone as an infant. It's when you coddle, condescend, spoil, pamper, or patronize someone despite their age or capabilities.

Some experts have closely associated infantilization with narcissism, where parents fear their children becoming adults and therefore their equals. To prevent this from happening, they attempt to stop time. Parents try to limit their adult children by treating them like small children. Treating them like a toddler or juvenilekeeps them stuck in their youth and therefore is a safeguard for the parent to maintain control. Throughout this article, we’ll discuss some of the causes of infantilization, the potential effects of infantilization, and what you can do to recognize and address infantilization if it appears in your life.

Causes Of Infantilization

The causes of infantilization can vary, but in general, a person who treats someone like an infant often feels superior or needs to feel superior. Children who are now adults may find that their parents refuse to see them as such. Instead, these parents feel the need to express superiority in many ways, including micromanaging their adult children’s activities.

Parents who exhibit narcissistic tendencies are inclined to infantilize their children because they likely see their children as an extension of themselves. A child’s independence can feel like a threat to that relationship. Using infantilization, parents undermine that independence by doing things for their children in inappropriate ways or by trying to make their child feel incompetent when learning something new.

Once these children reach adulthood and live on their own, they may lack the basic skills necessary to function, as infantilization plays out. It can be difficultto learn how to navigate the world on their own because they’ve become used to their parents stepping in to do things for them when they were younger.

dad spends time with his son teaching him writing

Methods Parents Use To Infantile Their Children

There are a variety of ways that parents can reduce a child’s independence and treat them as if they are not in control of their lives. Doctors have even performed research on the effects of infantilization on the body from those who have experienced it. Below are some of the behaviors that parents might engage in and use to gain control.

Disapproval – The way a parent looks at a child and the questions they ask can convey disapproval. When parents infantilize their children, they tend to disapprove of decisions that are made without their input or approval. Essentially, they are training their children to seek their parents’ approval for every action they take. This creates and reinforces the belief that the child cannot make their own decisions. If you’ve experienced this, you’ve essentially been programmed to doubt yourself, your intuition, and your gut feelings about people and situations.

Interference – For people who are infantilized, the common theme is that they’re incapable of running their own lives and making their own decisions. At least this is what they’ve been led to believe. Parents who are narcissists believe that they have the right to interfere in the lives of their adult children. This interference can even include sabotaging their adult children’s relationships or telling them who to date. For these children, this interference creates conflict in all areas of their lives as their parents expect to be involved in friendships and romantic relationships.

Excessive criticism – Hurtful comments can be used to undermine a child’s self-confidence, often under the guise of helping them. Clothing choices, weight gain, choice of career or partner, and other aspects of life all become subject to the critical eye of the parent. The goal of the parent is to keep their adult children from leading independent lives.

Infantilization may also manifest as verbal abuse, denial of emotional support, and even gifts that aren’t age appropriate. As adult children age, they may find their parents buying them gifts that send a message about their inability to care for themselves. These parents may also come into their adult children’s homes to rearrange rooms and furniture, sending the message that they know better. All of these actions undermine their children and can impact their sense of self-worth.For adult children, this can create a sense of dread around interacting with their parents. If the situation goes on long enough, the child may end up cutting off contact with their parents altogether.

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in any form, reach out right away to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) for immediate support, advice, and assistance.

The Negative Impact And Symptoms Of Infantilization

When a parent treats an adult child as if they are incapable, it can create an unhealthy internal dialogue within the adult child. They may become hesitant to make decisions without consulting their parents or show a lack of trust in their own judgment. Their self-confidence and self-worthcan go downhill as they begin to judge themselves under the harsh filter of their parents’ comments and actions.

Infantilization can also have a dehumanizing effect and negative influence on those who are subjected to it. It undermines their individuality, marginalizing their abilities, thoughts, feelings, and actions. Over time, the internal levels of doubt can feel liketoo much to handle, leading to depression or anxiety.

To address self-esteem issues and other effects, these adult children often need to seek professional help from a licensed therapist or certified counselor. As part of this work, they can find ways to build confidence in their skills, abilities, and decision-making separate from the input and actions of their parents.

Ways To Address Infantilization

For people who are the target of infantilization, it can be hard to maintain healthy parent-child relationships. Setting boundariescan be an effective way to start. Part of setting boundaries means keeping the details of your personal life to yourself and defining the relationship in a different way.

There will often be a pointed moment or a conversation in which the person being infantilized stands up for themselves. When a parent starts giving their opinion, the child needs to be willing to identify the improper treatment, stop them, and then change the subject. Be firm about your decisions. Don’t get into the trap of explaining the reasoning behind your choices. Doing so gives parents a way to undermine the decision, along with your confidence.

The reality is that you can draw boundaries, but you also need to be willing to enforce consequences should those boundaries not be respected. Consequences could include changing the locks, not answering the phone if there are multiple calls, or even choosing no contact at all. People who choose to go the no-contact route have usually determined that trying to preserve the relationship is unhealthier than making a clean break.

a mom spends time with her two kids on the couch

Are You Struggling To Let Your Child Grow Up?

Infantilization Of Seniors

On the other end of the spectrum, seniors can become dependent on their children for care. These adult children find themselves stepping in and making decisions for their parents, and they may not even consult their parents. In the end, they treat their parents as if they are incapable of making decisions for themselves, despite the fact that they may still have a clear mind. This could make the parent infantilized.

Parents need to be willing to address these issues with their children, reminding them that they are adults as well. If necessary, legal contracts can be put in place to keep adult children from overstepping the boundaries of the relationship.In many cases, recognizing that actions are meant with love can motivate both parties to negotiate the boundaries of their relationship, so everyone feels appreciated and respected.

Online Therapy With BetterHelp

BetterHelp offers online therapy for people struggling with many different issues, including infantilization. If you recognize infantilization in any of your relationships, it may be time to reach out for professional help. Our qualified and licensed therapists can guide you through the challenging dynamics of infantilization and help you find a healthier way to live.

Getting advice for your situation can be difficult if you don’t have a trusted individual to turn to. You may receive advice that’s biased or downplays your situation, which can ultimately be unhelpful. Online therapy allows you to speak with an unbiased, nonjudgmental therapist who can guide you down a healthier path.

Read below for reviews of BetterHelp therapists.

The Efficacy Of Online Therapy

In cases of infantilization, both parent and child could benefit from online therapy. One study assessed the effectiveness of online therapy in treating adolescents with low self-esteem. Researchers found that “internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective for treating low self-esteem” as well as “decreasing depression and anxiety levels, and increasing quality of life.” CBT is a therapeutic intervention that challenges individuals to replace their unhelpful thoughts with those that are more positive.

Therapist Reviews

“Pat has been and incredible advocate for me! She checks in and cheers me on and has given me advice and tools to deal with professional and personal/familial conflicts that left me doubting myself. She’s been instrumental in helping me discover and unpack learned behavior I wasn’t even aware of and helping me understand and establish healthy boundaries with people in my life. I can undoubtedly say that I’ve been feeling better about myself and more comfortable with the way I walk through the world in large part thanks to her.”

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“I started working with Jeana a few weeks ago mainly because I am trying to really step out and learn who I am without the influence of my family and others. She has been so very helpful in guiding me through this process and helping me manage those emotions that will pop up while trying to dig through life.”

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The Takeaway

If you want to redefine who you are, take back your power, and recover from the effects of infantilization, you must recognize your ability to make decisions and trust yourself. Negotiating new boundaries in your relationships and discovering for yourself how capable you really are is possible — with the right tools. Online therapy can be an effective first step toward living a healthier life.

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