People always say that babies don’t come with an instruction manual, and that is true! While people have been raising kids for hundreds of thousands of years, new parents who do not have much experience with being around children will usually develop parenting styles from one of the following: they will try to follow exactly how their parents raised them because they really valued their childhood and the manner in which their parents nurtured them, or they will try to avoid everything that their parents did because they experienced conflictual or traumatic experiences. Some parents do one of these things and look to books and advice from experts about how to tweak their techniques to have the best possible parenting outcome as well. Often, however, there are parents who experienced a toxic relationship with their own family and in turn have difficulty developing appropriate relationships with their own children; we will be discussing the particular phenomenon that can arise from a toxic relationship with a parent called infantilization throughout this article.
Parenting is a difficult yet incredibly important task. Raising children and knowing exactly how to do so is hard and a life-long responsibility, and many struggle with knowing whether or not they are “doing it right”. While there are a lot of books and opinions about the best way to raise children, there are several fundamental skills that research has shown to be the most likely way to raise a child who is confident, independent, empathetic, and overall makes a great citizen of the world. Generally, a parent who is able to provide a balance of warmth and nurturing with consistent boundary setting and appropriate limits is likely to have the best parenting success. When a parent is too permissive and nurturing, having no boundaries or limits, or when they are too authoritarian, or demanding, threatening, or sometimes abusive, these toxic extremes lead children to struggle with developing appropriate ways to respond to their other relationships and with life on their own.
One particular type of toxic parenting relationship occurs when a parent struggles having a solid sense of whom they are as a person and may have developed low self-worth, or may have developed an inflated or grandiose (or narcissistic) sense of self that may cause them to feel entitled to any and all attention and admiration from their children. When a person has difficulty loving and understanding themselves, they can often develop codependent traits that impact their ability to help raise children to be independent, free-thinking, and emotionally healthy adults. Parenting in this way can lead to infantilization, which is described as a tendency to “treat or condescend to as if still a young child”. Parents who infantilize their children will emphasize a child’s incompetence in independent activities, making it difficult for them to feel confident of their ability to do things on their own without that parent. This can ultimately cause the child to develop a sense of anxiety or insecurity about being on their own or making their own decisions, which can lead to overdependence on their parent, and an inability to function in the world on their own.
This behavior often spans well into adulthood and the child struggles to develop a life outside of their parents’ grasp. If a child attempts to obtain some semblance of independence away from these parents, the parent may feel a threat and act out in emotionally explosive or abusive ways to cause the child to revert back to their normal codependent status quo. This dynamic causes stress and can increase the likelihood that the child develops severe mental illness symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns that cause them to not be able to function in every day life.
Symptoms of Infantilizing Behavior
Here is a list of common behaviors that would be constituted as toxic parenting strategies that may be seen as infantilizing behavior:
- “Babying” their children- assuming they cannot do things they are developmentally capable of and stifling their ability to try. Infantilizing parents may also try to keep their children looking young to convey that they are unable to care for themselves, in style, appearance, or activities
- Being judgmental and disapproving- expressing severe negative emotions about a child’s desire to branch out and have their own unique ideas or skills. Infantilizing parents may often shame their children for trying to make decisions on their own. Relatedly, these infantilizing parents may also exhibit lots of negative criticism- being harsh and overly critical of their child’s independent behaviors, thoughts, and ideas.
- Rejecting or interfering in moves for independence- thwarting a child’s ability to grow by their flat out disallowing them to do things like get a driver’s license or move out of the house, or getting involved with or interfering in things in their life to eliminate it, including ruining relationships with others.
How to Break the Cycle
Seeking support from a qualified and trained mental health professional can help the child of an infantilizing parent help to develop their sense of self, self-concept, and self-worth while helping them develop and establish healthy boundaries with their parents to help them move toward quality independence. This will be difficult and take some time, but with support setting and keeping boundaries is possible! If setting and keeping boundaries is ineffective with an infantilizing parent, a person may need to decrease or eliminate contact with that parent to help improve their own mental health and stability and to prioritize their own health and sanity.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events