The Causes And Symptoms Of Infantilization
Infantilization is the term for when one person treats another in a way that’s inappropriate for their age and/or abilities. It’s especially common in parent-child relationships, where the caregiver is treating the child as if they’re younger or less capable than they are. However, infantilization can also occur between adult women and men (or those of any gender), such as in unhealthy romantic relationships. It can also occur in the relationship between adult children and senior parents. Infantilization often feels demeaning and can compromise a person’s mental health. Recognizing the signs can be helpful, whether you may be experiencing it or unknowingly perpetuating it.
What Is Infantilization?
As they grow, children and adolescents need guidance in order to learn critical life skills and to mature mentally and emotionally. However, it's important to recognize that too much guidance—such as helicopter parenting—can actually stunt or hinder a child’s growth in these crucial areas. Infantilization is one way some parents end up doing this. It involves coddling, condescending, denying, spoiling, pampering, or patronizing the child in a way that doesn’t match up with their age or capabilities.
For instance, a parent tying their child’s shoes every morning when the child is in preschool is normal. A parent who insists on tying their twelve-year-old’s shoes every morning before they march them off to school, even though they now know how to do it themselves, may not be. These kinds of actions can give a child the sense that their parent doesn’t trust them or doesn’t believe they can learn new things or take care of themselves in certain ways. They can also prevent them from practicing life skills that they’ll need down the line in order to be happy and healthy. They may even over-guard the child from learning to make their own decisions and mistakes, which can hinder them throughout their youth and well into adulthood.
In a friendship or romantic relationship, men (or those of any gender) may infantilize women (or those of any gender) by giving them unsolicited advice, trying to control their life decisions, or insinuating that they shouldn’t have their own agency and can’t do things on their own. People with physical disabilities or mental illnesses may also receive this kind of unwanted treatment from loved ones or even from strangers. An article published in the journal Disability Studies Quarterly highlighted one particular disorder that is often infantilized, autism. By analyzing autism’s portrayal in the media, they found that a majority of depictions featured children. This serves as an example of the preconceived notions many people have about autism and other disabilities. Because of these notions, people may make decisions on behalf of those with disabilities or illnesses without taking into account the person’s age, actual capabilities, or desires.
What Infantilization Looks Like
While there is no one specific situation that can describe all iterations of infantilization, there are several common types. Here are a few forms of infantilization that may be used knowingly or unknowingly—especially by parents toward children.
Expressing disapproval or other negative judgments toward another person’s decisions and actions can be a way of infantilizing them. It shows that you don’t trust their intelligence or decision-making skills, and that only you know what’s best for them. When it comes to parenting, frequent disapproval can send the child the message that their instincts, desires, or choices are invalid, incorrect, or not to be trusted. Those who were raised this way have essentially been programmed to doubt themselves, their intuition, and their gut feelings, which can make adult life difficult.
Another form of infantilization involves going beyond expressing disapproval and actually taking matters into one’s own hands. It’s an even stronger expression of one person’s belief that the other is completely incapable of running their own life. For instance, a parent might call the school or a classmate’s parent to sort out a dispute their child is having with another student, rather than encouraging them to build conflict-resolution skills and supporting them as they take on the situation themselves. Or, a parent could actively sabotage their adult child’s romantic relationship because they believe that it’s not a good match and that they should be with someone else.
Hurtful comments can undermine a person's self-confidence, often under the guise of helping them. Clothing choices, weight gain, choice of career or partner, and many other aspects of life can all become subject to heavy criticism. Eventually, the child or other person who is being negatively addressed may come to truly believe that all their choices are incorrect and that the only person who knows what’s best for them is their parent/partner/etc.
Infantilization may also manifest as sexism, verbal abuse, denial of emotional support, and even gifts that aren’t age appropriate. All of these types of actions have the potential to undermine the other person’s self-confidence and self-worth and deeply damage the relationship.
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in any form, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) for immediate support, advice, and assistance.
Why Infantilization Happens
The causes of infantilization can vary. When it happens in milder forms or infrequently, the person may genuinely not realize they’re doing it or that it’s unwelcome. In cases like these, it can be a mistake or misstep that’s correctable through awareness and communication. This may be the case with adult children and senior parents or caregivers and those they’re caring for.
In some cases, infantilization plays a role in creating a chronic relationship dynamic. It may be linked to certain underlying issues or even mental health disorders that can take more effort and intentionality to unearth and begin to adjust. Some researchers have also associated infantilization with narcissism. Parents with narcissistic tendencies or narcissistic personality disorder may not want their children to grow up and stop being reliant on them or having to obey them, so they’ll attempt to prevent that from happening. Partners who display narcissism may also be so hooked on the feeling of being needed or the power they have over another person that they may do anything to try and maintain this dynamic.
Negative Outcomes Of Infantilization
A parent consistently infantilizing a child throughout their upbringing and even into adulthood can have serious consequences. One study found that helicopter parenting behaviors such as infantilization correlate with a higher likelihood that students will feel burned out in school and lack self-control. A book on the topic also says that infantilized children are "underchallenged developmentally by parents who excessively meet their needs” and are ”at risk of identifying with an underfunctioning role in life.” Infantilization can hinder a child’s development of necessary skills for adult life, damage their self-confidence, and even contribute to conditions like depression and anxiety.
It’s not just children who can be harmed by infantilization, either. It can be damaging to the self-esteem and self-worth of older adults and/or those with illnesses or disabilities too. One study outlines common forms of infantilization in care centers for seniors—such as “confinement, baby-talk, nicknames, child-oriented decor, teacher-student learning format, reprimands, use of toys, as well as a loss of control, autonomy, choice, and adult status”—and how they represent “a form of psychological mistreatment.” The study imparts that these can lead to “negative influences on behavior, well-being, self-identity, relationship formation, and social interaction” in those being infantilized.
How To Stop Infantilization
If you’re the one experiencing this type of behavior, a good first step is usually to work on setting boundaries. This process involves pushing back when the person tries to employ one of the infantilizing tactics we mentioned above, or otherwise makes you feel like you’re helpless or incapable of running your own life. Start by making clear, calm statements about what you will and will not tolerate. Avoid discussing the reasoning behind your decisions, since this often simply serves as a way for the other person to try and convince you otherwise. Stand firm, and walk away if needed. If you’re a senior who is being infantilized by your adult children, you may eventually need to put legal agreements in place to keep them from overstepping the boundaries of the relationship.
If you’re the one expressing infantilizing behaviors toward someone else, recognizing that is the first step. From there, you can begin the process of changing your behaviors. This may involve learning to respect other people’s boundaries and keeping your opinions about their actions to yourself. Infantilization can become a habit over time, so it may take time to unlearn this tendency. Ultimately, the rate at which you overcome this habit will be determined by your willingness to change. In some cases, getting the assistance of a professional can help simplify this process.
How Therapy Can Help
If you’ve been or are currently being infantilized in a relationship, it can take a toll on your mental health. Meeting with a therapist may help you rebuild your confidence, learn to set boundaries, and find out what red flags to watch for to help you avoid these dynamics in the future. If you’ve realized that you’re infantilizing someone in your life, a therapist can help you understand the psychology behind this behavior and work toward change.
Traditional, in-person therapy is always an option for those who are comfortable with this format. For those who prefer to receive treatment from the comfort of their own home, online therapy is another option. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed mental health professional who can help you work through the challenges you may be facing via phone, video call, and/or online chat. With research suggesting that virtual therapy is no less efficacious than in-person methods, this may be a viable option for those who prefer it. See below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from clients who have found themselves in similar situations.
“Pat has been an 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.”
What is infantilization?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, infantilize is defined as:
- To make or keep infantile.
- To treat as if infantile.
Within a mental health context, it is described as "a form of abuse in which a competent adult or young adult is treated like a child."
What are some examples of infantilization?
- Using diminutives such as "sweetheart," "honey," and "dear" when addressing an adult.
- When one adult tries to control another's behavior by giving consistently unsolicited advice or degrading their abilities.
- Unnecessarily over-simplifying an explanation or suggesting an individual won't understand something without any reason to think so.
- Insisting that the individual remain in constant contact and account for where they are at all times.
What is the purpose of infantilization?
Infantilization is often used to exert control or gain the "upper hand" over another by making them doubt their abilities. It can take away an individual's autonomy, stunt their development, and, in some cases, demean them.
What are the effects of infantilization?
The effects of infantilization can be long-lasting and range from mild to severe, depending on the individual and circumstances. They can be as detrimental for children and teenagers as for adults. Some examples of how infantilization can affect individuals include:
- It can strip individuals of their autonomy and independence, resulting in frustration and disempowerment.
- Constant infantilization can erode a person's sense of dignity and self-esteem. Feeling constantly patronized or belittled can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth.
- Infantilization in parent-child situations can make an individual overly dependent on others later in life.
- Infantilization in adult relationships can lead to resentment and strained interactions.
- Infantilization in younger children can hinder personal growth and development. This can diminish a child's ability to make confident decisions or learn from their mistakes.
- It can lead to miscommunication and frustration when individuals don't feel heard or understood.
- In the workplace, infantilization can hinder career advancement despite an individual's experience, expertise, and ability.
What is an example of infantilization in the workplace?
When an individual diminishes another through remarks about their physical attributes. For example, people who are shorter than average or appear younger than their actual age might experience infantilization in the form of comments that suggest inability. This can cause others to question their expertise and authority based on their appearance.
What does infantilization look like?
The appearance of infantilization may vary with individuals and circumstances. For example, it may look like talking down to or patronizing an elder. It may appear in the form of treating a work colleague as if they can't understand basic concepts without evidence to suggest they wouldn't. It can also be represented by one partner constantly monitoring and questioning the other's choices.
What should you do if you feel infantilized?
Feeling infantilized can be frustrating and uncomfortable at its mildest and debilitating and abusive at its most severe. Here are some suggestions on what to do if you have infantilized experiences:
Reflect on your feelings.
Often, infantilization goes on so long that the person it affects may not notice it anymore. It can begin to feel normal, so it's crucial to analyze the situations where you feel infantilized. Are there specific patterns or triggers that lead to these feelings? Understanding the context can help you identify and address such situations more effectively.
Communicate those feelings.
Not everyone who makes others feel infantilized may know how their actions affect them. If you feel safe enough, calmly and assertively express your feelings to them. Use "I" statements to explain your perspective, such as "I feel patronized when..." Communicating how you feel will help you determine an individual's motives and let them know how their language and behaviors can be damaging.
Taking control and clearly defining your boundaries can help you cope with infantilization. Let others know what you are comfortable with, and firmly establish what kind of treatment you expect and deserve.
Sometimes, people may not understand the impact of their behavior. You can educate them about why their actions make you uncomfortable and how they can change their behavior to be more respectful.
Talk to friends, family members, or a therapist about your feelings of infantilization. They can provide emotional support, advice, and perspective.
Learn to advocate for yourself. Assertiveness training can be beneficial in helping you communicate your needs and assert your rights without being aggressive or passive.
Re-evaluate your relationships.
If specific individuals consistently make you feel infantilized despite your efforts to communicate and set boundaries, evaluating the value of these relationships may be necessary. Distancing yourself from toxic or unhealthy relationships is sometimes the best course of action.
Take steps to build self-esteem.
Building your self-esteem and self-confidence can help you feel more safe, making it easier to handle situations where you might otherwise feel infantilized.
Seek help from a mental health professional.
If your feelings of infantilization affect your mental health and well-being, consider speaking to a therapist or counselor who can provide guidance and support in addressing these issues.
What is infantilizing language?
Infantilizing language refers to linguistic terms commonly used to demean or infantilize others. Common examples include:
- Referring to a woman as a "girl" or a man as a "boy."
- Using terms like "sweetie," "dear," or "honey" when addressing an adult in more professional or formal situations or if the individual doesn't know the other intimately enough to use such terms with affection.
- Using terms that praise or coddle a child, such as "good girl or good boy," when addressing an adult.
- Questions such as "Have you been a good girl/boy?" exemplify infantilizing speech.
- In some cases, infantilizing speech is more subtle and challenging to identify. For example, asking questions that suggest the person is incompetent (especially without expecting a response) or implying someone is of lower intelligence by over-simplifying speech.
What causes childish behavior in adults?
The underlying reasons why an adult would act like a child are many. Occasional or mild childishness may sometimes be a normal part of human behavior. However, childish behavior may indicate more serious underlying issues if it becomes a consistent or problematic pattern.
Here are some common causes of infantilizing behavior in adults:
- Unresolved Childhood Trauma: Adults with unresolved emotional wounds or issues from their upbringing may exhibit childlike behaviors to cope with these complex emotions.
- Lack of Emotional Control: Some adults may struggle with emotional control, leading to impulsive and emotionally immature behavior. Various factors, including a lack of emotional development or coping skills, can cause this.
- Personality Disorders: Certain personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder, can be associated with childlike behaviors. Individuals with these disorders may struggle with emotional stability and interpersonal relationships.
- Substance Use Disorders: Substances like alcohol and drugs can impair judgment and lead to impulsive and immature behavior in adults.
- Neurodevelopmental Disorders: Some individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders like Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may exhibit childlike behaviors due to impulse control and attention difficulties.
It's vital to recognize that disability studies show that infantilizing people with such disorders can be highly detrimental, and the behavior is often more widespread than we may realize.
For example, an essay published in disability studies quarterly empirically analyzed how parents, charitable organizations, and the media/news infantilized autism. The authors found that people with autism are overwhelmingly infantilized by all parties, "posing a formidable barrier to the dignity and well-being of autistic people of all ages."
- Social and Cultural Factors: Cultural and social factors can also influence behavior. Childlike behavior may be more accepted or encouraged in certain contexts in some cultures or social groups.
- Personality Traits: Some individuals may have personality traits that include childlike qualities, such as a playful or whimsical nature. This may not necessarily be problematic unless it interferes with their ability to function in adult roles.
- Lack of Responsibility or Accountability: Avoiding adult responsibilities and refusing to take accountability for one's actions can lead to childish behavior. This may manifest as a refusal to work, pay bills, or engage in other adult responsibilities.
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