HEALTHWellnessEmotional Stunting – Can’t We All Just Grow Up?

Emotional Stunting – Can’t We All Just Grow Up?

first responder screaming
A young woman screaming uncontrollably while isolated on a black background

We’re all adults here, aren’t we? Or are we? Do you sometimes think your partner behaves like a spoiled child? Might they describe you the same way? Do arguments that start small quickly escalate to shouting matches, crying and stony silences? 

Are you frustrated because no matter how loudly you make your point, no one ever hears what you’re trying to say? When things go off the rails, are you quick to assign blame? Do you or your partner often have to apologize for cruel things said in the heat of the moment or do you bully others to get your way? Do you feel bullied by your partner or your colleagues? 

Are you always trying to be the strongest, the smartest or the most successful in any group, even if that makes others uncomfortable or resentful? 

If any, or all, of these examples seem familiar to you, you’ll be surprised to learn that this entire can of psychological worms may be attributed to a single, surprising cause: emotional stunting, the technical term for the failure to achieve an adult level of maturity. Like a plant deprived of the space, nutrients, water or sunlight that it needs to grow, an emotionally-stunted personality reaches a certain stage and then stops, unable to finish the maturation process. Many people dealing with emotional stunting grow adept at covering their problem and may appear to function on an adult level. A closer look, however, shows that they not only face, but often create, ongoing difficulties caused by the inability to respond to life events in a fully mature way. 

Emotional stunting can be the result of seemingly contradictory factors that range from smothering parents who refuse to allow independence, to neglectful parents who withdraw love and support at critical developmental stages. Sometimes, emotional stunting is the result of traumatic events so painful and damaging that normal emotional development is derailed. Whatever the cause, the outcome is often dysfunctional relationships and difficulty living, working and dealing with others.

Are you the strong, silent type?

Our culture has an unhealthy tendency to glorify heroes who seem emotionless and  immune to grief, anguish or sadness – but while they make great movie characters, they’re terrible friends or partners.  Emotions are embedded in our higher brain functions and suppressing them is next to impossible and won’t make them go away.

Often, emotionally stunted people refuse to allow themselves to grieve after a significant loss or trauma, such as a serious injury or illness, or the death of a loved one – and that’s an unfortunate mistake.  Sharing  pain with others is a vital means of releasing pressure and is crucial to allowing us to move through the healthy stages of grieving to reach a point of acceptance. This need to work through emotions is particularly important for first responders following a traumatic call: to ignore that process can lead to long-term difficulties in coping with the demands of our jobs.

It’s not only negative emotions that need to be faced and dealt with head on.  The ability to express and validate loving emotions is essential to maintaining our closest personal relationships.  We have to be able to share our most intimate feelings with our loved ones, in ways that are both nourishing and constructive, and respond when our partner does the same. 

Let’s get growing

If emotional stunting is an issue in your life, what are your options? Can growth still be fostered? Can emotional maturity be reached? It can – but it won’t be easy.

As is the case with so many issues in our lives, the first step is identifying and admitting that there is a problem…and that can be tough. Take an honest look at the examples of emotionally stunted behavior at the beginning of this article. Recognize any?

If the behaviors are yours, acknowledging them is an important step. Congratulations! Next step? Planning positive alternatives. If your instinctive response to any frustrating situation is to lose your temper, shout, or slam doors, plan an alternative now – while you’re calm and rational. Maybe you could remove yourself from the cause of your frustration, count to ten before speaking, or take five deep breaths to bring calm to the moment. Picture yourself making these changes and be ready the next time frustration strikes. You might not be entirely successful right away, but simply accepting that there is a better way to handle things is propelling you towards a new level of maturity.

What if the emotionally-stunted person is your wife, husband or perhaps a member of your team? What’s the strategy in that case?

It’s easy to love child-like behavior when it’s entertaining or if it stirs your protective, nurturing instincts. It’s less easy when childish antics spark conflict or leave you feeling like the only adult in the room. But there are strategies to improve tough situations.

Start by deciding not to be surprised – you’ve dealt with childish behavior before and the shock has probably long since worn off.  Decide not to take responsibility.  Rather than trying to prevent or change someone else’s actions, instead focus on changing your own reactions. Try removing yourself from situations where your spouse or partner is creating emotional turmoil and establish boundaries that make clear what you are and aren’t willing to accept. Don’t be drawn into battles, don’t escalate situations by losing your temper, and don’t descend into name calling or retreat into silence – instead, choose not to engage. 

Will any of this be easy?

No.  But making positive change never is.  In happier days to come, you might look back and call these strategies taking the high road, or tapping into your better self…or you might just call it becoming an adult.