What Are the Causes and Symptoms of Infantilization?

Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD
Updated on March 1, 2021

When new parents that have not had much experience around children begin developing their parenting styles, they normally choose between trying to replicate the styles from the homes in which they were raised, or doing the opposite of what their parents did. Some parents choose one of these options and also look to books and parenting experts to refine their techniques. All of this is perfectly normal and common among new parents.

infantilization in parenting

Unfortunately, there are those who for different reasons, have difficulty developing appropriate parent-child relationships and healthy parenting styles. In this article, we will be discussing a particular phenomenon that can result a toxic relationship between parents and their children called infantilization.

The Causes of Infantilization

Raising children to become functional, well-adjusted members of society is a challenging task, 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 attributes that research has shown to be present in the homes of those children that have grown up to become confident, independent, empathetic, and overall great citizens 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 parenting success.

When a parent is too permissive and nurturing, having no boundaries or limits, or when they are too authoritarian, demanding, threatening, or even abusive, these toxic extremes lead children to struggle with developing appropriate ways to form their other relationships and transition to a life on their own when they become adults.

One particular type of toxic parenting relationship occurs when a parent struggles with having a solid sense of who they are as a person. This is more specifically characterized by those that have low self-worth, an inflated (or narcissistic) sense of self, and feelings of entitlement to the 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 raise children to be independent, free-thinking, and emotionally healthy adults. Parenting in this way can lead to what is known as infantilization, a tendency to treat or condescend someone as if they were a young child, .i.e., to baby them.

Signs of Infantilizing Behavior

Here is a list of common behaviors by parents that would be constituted as toxic parenting strategies and characterized as infantilizing behavior:

  • “Babying” 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 reactions to 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. Similarly, 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 disallowing them to do things like get a driver’s license or move out of the house, or getting involved with or interfering in their relationships with others.

The Dangers of Infantilization

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.

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 from these parents, the parents may feel threatened 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 will develop severe symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues that cause them to not be able to function in every day life.

How to Break the Cycle

Seeking support from a qualified and trained mental health professional can help the child of an infantilizing parent to develop their sense of self and self-worth, allowing them to develop and establish healthy boundaries with their parents so they may move toward independence. This will be difficult and take some time, but with support, setting and keeping boundaries is possible.

If one finds that the boundaries are not being honored by a parent, they may need to decrease or eliminate contact with that parent to help improve their own mental health and stability, for what is hopefully a temporary period of time until they are able to establish an appropriate level of independence.

Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD

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