Understanding and managing emotional infantilism: A guide to identifying immature emotional responses in adults

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    20th May 2024 – (Hong Kong) In modern psychological discourse, the term “emotional infantilism” is increasingly wielded to describe adults whose emotional maturity has stalled at an infantile stage. This condition manifests through extreme behaviours such as crying, shouting, or even physical altercations to achieve desired ends.

    Encountering such emotionally immature individuals can be an inevitable part of life, be it in the workplace or within personal relationships. These individuals often lack the capacity to manage their emotions and can become volatile when faced with unexpected situations.

    Here, we explore six hallmark traits of the so-called emotional infant, providing insights into recognizing and understanding these challenging behaviours.

    Emotional infants often evaluate the world based on their immediate feelings. Their mantra might as well be, “If I am well, all is well; if I am irritated, the world can perish.” Their distrust of the external environment often leads to negative emotional responses, making it difficult for them to interpret situations, challenges, or relationships accurately. They act like emotional black holes, displaying aggression, irritability, and a lack of control, continuously draining those around them, especially their closest relationships.

    When their desires or interests are at stake, emotional infants display a high degree of self-centeredness and struggle with empathy. They find it challenging to deal with situations that do not cater to their needs, often responding with intense anger and resorting to blaming or insulting others to vent their frustrations.

    The pursuit of immediate gratification is a common human trait. However, the concept of ‘delayed gratification’—the ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward in preference for a later, potentially greater reward—eludes emotional infants. They lack the self-control necessary to forego immediate emotional satisfaction in favour of more valuable long-term outcomes.

    Emotional infants often live in a utopian fantasy, expecting others to cater to their emotional needs and transferring their negative emotions onto others, thereby avoiding responsibility for real-world issues. They gauge their interactions based on how others can stabilise their emotions, valuing individuals who can keep them comfortable and dismissing those who evoke discomfort.

    When left to their own devices, emotional infants experience heightened anxiety, reminiscent of a child’s distress when a caregiver is out of sight. This dependency manifests in constant demands for attention and care from those around them, leading to feelings of emptiness and anger when these are unmet.

    Despite a functioning rational mind, emotional infants often let their emotions override their logic. They are acutely aware of their unreasonable behaviour but are loath to admit fault. This often leads to inner tension and shame, exacerbating their perception of being threatened, which in turn fuels more intense and unstable reactions.

    Understanding these traits not only helps in managing personal and professional relationships with such individuals but also in fostering a better understanding of emotional regulation and maturity.