The Causes And Symptoms Of Infantilization

By: Joy Youell

Updated August 04, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn

Infantilization happens when adults are treated like children. This can occur, for example, when parents refuse to allow their children 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 to recognize the signs of infantilization, so you can appropriately discourage it in yourself or others.

I Think I'm Experiencing Infantilization, What Do I Do?
Learn How To Draw Boundaries With A Licensed Therapist.

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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 handicap these children because they may be unable to develop key skills that they'll need to face life as a functioning adult.

This phenomenon is often referred to as infantilization-basically, treating someone as an infant.

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 can limit their adult children by treating them like small children, and there are other ways that infantilization can manifest itself. Throughout this article, we'll discuss some of the causes of infantilization, potential effects, and what you can do to address this issue 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 suffer from narcissistic tendencies are inclined to infantilize their children because they likely see their children as an extension of themselves. A child's independence is 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 basic skills necessary to function. It can be paralyzing as they learn to navigate the world on their own because their parents just stepped in to do things for them when they were younger.

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.

Disapproval - The way a parent looks at a child and the questions they ask can convey disapproval. When parents try to infantilize their children, they tend to disapprove of any decision made without their input or approval. Essentially, they are trying to train their children to run every decision by the parents first. This creates and reinforces belief that the child cannot make his or her 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.

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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. Narcissistic parents believe that they have the right to interfere in the private lives of their adult children. This interference can even include sabotaging their 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 meddle in friendships and romantic relationships.

Excessive criticism - Hurtful comments are used to undermine the 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 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, it can create a sense of dread about interacting with their parents. If the situation goes on long enough, the child may end up cutting off contact with their parents.

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-worth 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 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 become paralyzing, leading to depression or anxiety.

To address these 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 a relationship with the parent initiating this behavior. Setting boundaries is a good way to start. Part of setting boundaries means keeping the details of your private 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 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 and along with your confidence.

The reality is that you can draw boundaries, but you also need to be willing to enforce the 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.

I Think I'm Experiencing Infantilization, What Do I Do?
Learn How To Draw Boundaries With A Licensed Therapist.

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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.

Parents need to be willing to address these issues with their children, reminding them that they are adults as well. If necessary, legal protections 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.

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Online Help for Infantilization

BetterHelp offers online counseling for people struggling with many different issues. 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 better way to live. Read below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors.

Counselor 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."

"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."

Conclusion

If you want to redefine who you are and take back your power, you will need to recognize that you can 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. Take the first step today.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is an infantilized person?

An infantilized person is a person who has been treated as a child, although their age and mental capacity is not that of a child.  This treatment is called infantilization.  Narcissistic parents, especially narcissistic mothers, are believed to be the main source of infantilizing behaviors.  When narcissistic parents infantilize a child, they may treat their child younger than their actual age or act with excessive criticism when it comes to their child’s abilities.  Narcissistic parents treat their child as if they are incapable of handling age-appropriate responsibilities and this can make a child feel overwhelmed and may lead to mental disorders such as anxiety or depression. 

Why do parents want to control their children's lives?

From the time a child is born, parents must learn to control certain aspects of their child’s life.  Decisions like which foods to eat and which ones to avoid, setting a bedtime and approving what activities their children are involved in are all parts of a parent’s responsibility.  It is safe to say that some control by parents is not unhealthy.  However, when narcissistic parents infantilize their children, it can lead to long-term problems such as the development of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other addictive behaviors, and can negatively impact their ability to exercise critical thinking. 

What is narcissistic parenting?

Narcissistic parenting is characterized by a parent(s) who is not interested in who their child is but sees the child as more of an extension of themselves.  Narcissistic parents want their children to become who and what they want, instead of fostering independent in their child.  They use their children to live out their own desires and dreams.  For instance, a narcissistic father who had dreams of becoming a lawyer that were unfulfilled may insist that his child goes to law school, even if the child is not interested in that career choice.

What causes childlike behavior in adults?

There are several things that can lead adults to behave with childlike tendencies.   Some factors that are linked to childlike behavior in adults include:

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events that occurred at some point during childhood, such as abuse or severe neglect. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 61 percent of all adults in the United States have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience.  Up to 16 percent are believed to have experienced four or more.  The CDC also reports that adverse childhood experiences are a risk factor for physical and mental health problems and may cause some adults to act in immature or childish ways.
  • Adult ADHD: Some adults with ADHD may have trouble paying attention or may be hyperactive and impulsive. 
  • Anger issues: Although most adults learn to control their reactions to emotionally volatile situations, adults who suffer with anger management issues may act childish and throw tantrums when they don’t get their way or when tempers flare.
  • History of a stroke: A stroke, also known as a cerebrovascular accident (CVA), can cause a person to experience psychological changes. Some people may respond with childlike behaviors including impulsiveness, lack of social inhibition or emotional outbursts.
  • Frontal lobe damage: Disease processes or injuries that result in damage to the frontal lobe of the brain may cause a victim to act with childlike behaviors.  For example, a traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, or Alzheimer’s disease are all examples of conditions that may lead to frontal lobe damage.

Is it good to be childlike?

The answer to this question can arguably be a matter of opinion and several factors may need to be considered.  For example, children should act age-appropriately childlike.  Teenagers may have days that they act in what some call an immature or childish way and other days that they seem more mature.  This is a normal part of growing and learning. 

For adults however, there seems to be consensus that, although feeling carefree and happy is okay, there is a fine line between that behavior and truly being childish.  Being a childish adult may be associated with narcissistic personality disorder traits as most childish adults seem to lack the ability to think beyond their own wants and needs.  When narcissistic parents infantilize a child, the children may exhibit more extreme childlike behaviors.

Is childlike behavior a sign of bipolar disorder?

While not everyone with bipolar disorder acts in a childish manner, children and teenagers with bipolar disorder are more likely to have rapid changes in mood and behavior, outbursts of aggression and temper tantrums. However, to be diagnosed as true bipolar disorder, the symptoms will occur in episodes, rather than chronic (ongoing).

What are some of the effects of infantilization?

People who infantilized often develop passive personalities and show significant dependence on their caregivers.  They may lack motivation to pursue things they may have previously enjoyed, especially if past experiences led to feelings of hurt or embarrassment.  Some people who have been infantilized develop mood disorders, personality disorders and addictive disorders such as alcohol or substance abuse or eating disorders. 

How can an adult recover from infantilization?

The most crucial step in recovering from infantilization is recognizing the need to set boundaries.  If you are being treated as a child, it is up to you to decide that it’s time to grow up and be treated like an adult.  Talk to your parent(s) or whoever is treating you like a child and explain your thoughts and feelings.  Make your boundaries clear and explain that you expect to be treated as an adult. 

Joining a support group or seeking counseling may also help you learn ways to identify your feelings and learn effective ways of communicating your wants and needs. 


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