The Impact of Emotional Immaturity

Emotional immaturity[Do you prefer listening to reading? Listen to the Reconnection Club Podcast episode based on this article, When an Adult Child Seems Emotionally Immature.]

Many parents I work with individually tell me that their estranged adult child seems young for his or her age.

I hear about 30-year-olds throwing trantrums and 40-year-olds who can’t seem to get their lives together despite high intelligence, good health, and sufficient opportunities.

If your estranged adult child is emotionally immature, you may need to help them communicate their hurt, anger, disappointment, embarrassment, ambivalence, or whatever else may be keeping them at a distance, before the two of you can work through it.

This month’s post is all about how to help your child become more emotionally mature while you work on repairing your relationship.

Your Child’s Emotions

A contentious marriage or divorce, a prolonged illness, a death or other trauma in the family when your child was young may have had an impact on his or her emotional development. These things can happen even in loving, caring homes.

When we’re scared or feel alone, hurt, or guilty as children, parts of us can stop growing. They freeze in place, and natural development is halted.

The same thing can happen because of substance abuse. If your child began using alcohol and/or other drugs when he was, say, 12 years old, there are cognitive and emotional parts of him that may still be 12.

Until the substance use is removed and emotional development can resume, those parts that got stuck will keep your child from becoming — and acting — emotionally mature.

Lend Them Your Skills

An emotionally immature person can’t give what they don’t have. If your child is having trouble “using their words” with you — that is, if they’re using silence to make a point instead of expressing their feelings verbally — you might have to help them identify and express their emotions in order to move out of estrangement and back toward healthy connection.

This requires that you marshal all of your own emotional resources. You’ve got to be open, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, to hearing things that don’t feel good, or don’t make sense, but that represent your child’s experience.

Be sure to have someone hold you, or at least find someone you can talk to, if you feel hurt, lonely, discouraged, or anything else while working your way back to your child. You deserve support. Seek it out.

To help an emotionally immature child express herself or himself, follow these tips:

1. Create emotional safety.

– Don’t argue with your child’s point of view, even if it seems blatantly wrong.
– DO use your child’s words, e.g., “I’m sorry I act as though I hate your wife. ”
– But reframe them as in the above, “I’m sorry I act as though,” rather than simply “I’m sorry I hate your wife” (unless it’s true)
– Say “yes” whenever possible: Yes, I spent more time with your brother. Yes, you didn’t get what you needed. Etc.

2. Model forgiveness and defenselessness.

This is much easier when your own emotional bucket is full, and you’re convinced of your goodness. Low self-esteem makes it nearly impossible to let down defenses. Get help if your self-esteem is too injured to create safety for yourself and your child.

3. Use feeling words to express yourself.

E.g., “I’m uncomfortable talking about this, but I know I need to be open,”

“I feel defensive when you bring up my relationships with men,”

“I sent that text from a place of hurt, and I regret it.”

If you want them to really communicate with you, use your own skills to show them how it’s done.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Don’t assume your child hasn’t already tried to tell you the reason for the estrangement. Statistically speaking, they’re more likely than not to think they’ve made it clear. But they may have expressed it in a way you didn’t understand.

Be fearless in your examination of previous conversations with, or correspondence from, you child.

If just last year you received a card that said you were the best parent they could possibly have, then you know you’re dealing with ambivalence. That loving child is potentially still there waiting for you to help them remove the obstacle(s) that lie between you.

Use your own emotional skill and maturity to do the heavy lifting in your relationship with your child. Model the communication you’d like to see from them.

If you need support for this (and most of us do), there’s no shame in the fact that you’re still growing, too. Embrace any opportunity for growth in both yourself and your child.

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