If you’ve ever hung around a toddler or a teenager for any length of time, you know what emotional immaturity looks like.
If the toddler doesn’t get her way, she might scream, stomp, and fall on the floor in a fit of rage and frustration. Toddlers have very few filters preventing them from expressing their inner worlds in a most dramatic fashion.
Teenagers have more filters but still don’t have a fully-formed prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational thinking arena. Teens are hovering on the brink of adulthood, but without a complete set of judgment tools at their disposal, they will revert to immature responses as soon as things don’t go their way.
They may not fall on the floor in a fit, but they might scream, slam doors, pout, or use passive aggressive and manipulative tactics to achieve their goals.
It isn’t until we are about 25-years-old that our brains are fully developed, and we’re capable of understanding consequences, using sound judgment, and practicing emotional maturity (also called “emotional intelligence“).
However, turning 25 doesn’t guarantee a person will automatically become emotionally mature. I’m sure you’ve seen many 40-somethings or even 60-somethings who behave like children. Maybe you have someone like this in your life right now.
Emotional immaturity is pretty easy to spot, and is characterized by . . .
- Emotional escalation
- Telling lies
- Poor impulse control
- Narcissistic behaviors
- Need to be the center of attention
- Denial and attacks
- Passive-aggressive behaviors
Why would an adult, with a fully-formed prefrontal cortex, remain stuck in these childish behaviors and responses?
Experiencing trauma, neglect, or instability as a child can impact one’s ability to mature properly. Those who have suffered from trauma as a child can remain stuck and stop growing emotionally.
If parents are emotionally immature themselves, they are poor role models for their children, who may never learn appropriate and mature behaviors.
Also, an adult can remain emotionally immature if he or she was rarely allowed to take responsibility for mistakes, failures, or poor judgment as a child or teenager. If mom or dad always stepped in to save the day, then a child never learns how to fend for himself.
Parents who were highly indulgent and who didn’t implement appropriate consequences often raise children who can’t accept responsibility for their actions as adults.
They don’t know how to cope with life’s inevitable conflicts and challenges and will resort to the only responses they understand — those that are child-like and immature.
Even if you didn’t experience childhood trauma or have “helicopter” parents who hovered around meeting your every need, you can benefit from improving your emotional maturity.
We all have pockets of immature responses and behaviors that can be triggered in certain situations or within our close relationships. It is valuable for all of us to be honest with ourselves about our own immature behaviors and to work on improving them.
Improving emotional maturity can . . .
- Increase your level of self-awareness so you better understand your emotions;
- Help you regulate your emotions and express them appropriately;
- Allow you to be more empathetic and compassionate with others;
- Sharpen your social skills through improved communication;
- Help you create appropriate boundaries with others;
- Boost your self-confidence, as you feel more comfortable in your own skin.
Here are 10 ways you can cultivate emotional maturity to become more successful, confident, and happy in life:
1. Pay attention.
Start by noticing areas in your life where you tend to have difficulty with emotional maturity. This can be the most difficult step, as most of us don’t want to acknowledge how we might be acting childishly.
But awareness is the first step toward change. So take a deep breath and try to be completely honest with yourself.
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Take a look at the list of emotionally immature behaviors listed above to see if you consistently engage in any of these. Make notes about any behaviors you don’t like in yourself or that you notice others pointing out in you frequently.
2. Notice triggers.
There may be certain situations or people who trigger immature responses from you.
Maybe it’s something your spouse says that makes you defensive or the way you revert back to allowing your mom to baby you when you visit your parent’s home.
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Understanding what triggers immature behaviors can help you change. Think about why the situations or people trigger immature responses in you.
Does it go back to an event in your childhood? Did you never learn a more mature response in these situations?
Once you have a better idea of why you are triggered, think about ways you can respond differently.
You may need support from a counselor to deal with any old wounds from the past that are holding you back and preventing you from changing your reactions and responses.
3. Become more accepting of reality.
As the saying goes, “Reality bites.” It’s uncomfortable to deal with the challenges, disappointments, and difficulties that life presents us.
An emotionally immature person rails at reality and tends to blame the world for his or her circumstances. They will avoid, deny, or complain without taking appropriate action.
But emotional maturity requires that we accept reality and work with it.
Rather than whining and moaning about our “bad luck,” we deal with the situation at hand, managing it the best way we know how, and then we can move on with the knowledge that we’ve done our best.
5. Practice personal responsibility.
Between a life situation and your response to it is that brief moment when you decide how you are going to react.
By claiming your power to choose how you respond to life, you can jump off the treadmill of unconscious reactions.
Will you react automatically, giving up your personal power to a knee-jerk reaction?
Or can you break the negative pattern of immature responses and create new, more emotionally intelligent responses that align with who you want to be?
6. Define your ideal self.
Who do you want to be in this life? What kind of parent, spouse, friend, sibling, co-worker, adult child, and neighbor do you want to be?
How would you like to treat others?
What kind of words do you want to use?
How do you want to respond to life challenges?
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You can’t become emotionally mature until you define what that means for you.
Sit down with a pen and paper, and write down exactly what you want from yourself in your relationships and in various life situations (the positive and the negative).
You may not be able to achieve your ideal all of the time (we are human after all!), but you now have an ideal to aspire to.
When you fall short, forgive yourself quickly. Offer forgiveness to others if needed. Then move on.
7. Define your integrity.
Part of creating your ideal self is knowing what integrity means for you. Life is so full of mixed messages and conflicting views of right and wrong and good and bad.
You may have adopted your parent’s value system or borrowed your sense of integrity from your peers.
This is a common fallback position, as many of us don’t take the time to look within ourselves and ask the important questions about what our own guiding principles should be.
Often we are presented with decisions about our integrity in the moment when we come face to face with a situation that demands a particular response from us.
Rather than waiting for this moment to force our hands into a response that may not truly reflect our integrity, be proactive in determining in advance what your ethical and moral principles are.
Then you’ll be ready to respond authentically when the occasion arises.
8. Practice self-discipline.
One important part of emotional maturity is following through, doing what you say, and being a reliable person.
This requires delaying gratification and doing things you may not enjoy simply because you said you would do them.
Follow-through on difficult or boring endeavors requires some level of self-discipline. Self-discipline is a muscle you can develop with practice.
Start by challenging yourself to do one or two small things every day that you know you need to accomplish but don’t feel like doing.
As you push through these challenges, the actions will get easier because you are developing a habit that doesn’t require so much mental effort.
9. Prioritize the “we” in relationships.
Emotional maturity often flies out the window in our close relationships.
We are more prone to lose our tempers, say unkind things, and act in childish ways with the people we love the most. This is particularly true with our spouses or intimate partners.
Emotionally immature people tend to prioritize the “me” rather than the “we” in their relationships.
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They want to win every argument and make sure their own needs are met, even if it causes disconnection and a loss of intimacy as a couple.
For a relationship to thrive, you must put the health of the relationship above your own frustrations, wants and needs.
You must learn to communicate in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the strength of the relationship and find ways to be cooperative rather than competitive.
You need to practice compassion, forgiveness, and understanding and seek out a win-win solution during conflict
10. Focus on something bigger than yourself.
A big part of emotional maturity is operating in the world with the spirit of compassion, kindness, love, and service.
The less focused you are on your own problems, complaints, and challenges, the more inner peace and happiness you’ll experience in life.
Find an endeavor that allows you to focus less on yourself and more on serving, enlightening, helping, giving, and contributing in some way.
You don’t have to save the world — just find something you feel passionate about that allows you to leave a legacy of some kind.
Says Buddhist teacher and author Jack Kornfield, “Part of spiritual and emotional maturity is recognizing that it’s not like you’re going to try to fix yourself and become a different person. You remain the same person, but you become awakened.”
As you endeavor to improve your emotional maturity, you awaken more and more to the person you really are underneath the ego, life experiences, and old habits that have clouded your perceptions and reactions to life.
Once you are fully grown up and conscious, your world will open up in ways you never expected.