The Causes And Symptoms Of Infantilization

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated November 15, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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.

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 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.

While certain actions may naturally happen or even be necessary for children at some stages of life, continuing to perform them once they’re no longer necessary is a common form of infantilization.

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.

dad spends time with his son teaching him writing

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.

Disapproval

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.

Interference

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.

Excessive Criticism 

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.

a mom spends time with her two kids on the couch

Are You Struggling To Let Your Child Grow Up?

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.

Counselor Reviews

“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.”

Takeaway

Infantilization can be damaging to a person who is subjected to it over the long term. Therapy may be helpful, both to those who have experienced it and to those who are enacting it. There is no shame in reaching out for help as a parent. Regardless if you're a new parent or have multiple children, parenting involves ongoing learning and course-correcting, and there is no one right way to be an effective parent. Consider reaching out to a nonjudgmental online therapist at BetterHelp for support in cultivating healthy parenting skills.

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