What Is Infantilization?

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What Is Infantilization?

Infantilization is when an adult is being treated like a child, even though nothing about their mental, physical, social, or intellectual wellbeing requires such treatment.

Oftentimes, parents are guilty of this to some degree as their children are growing up, particularly when they are teenagers and trying to forge their own path.

That said, infantilization can also happen in both friendships and romantic relationships, especially if someone is trying to demonstrate superiority. Verywell Mind spoke with Dr. Sherry Benton, a practicing therapist and founder of digital the mental health platform TAO Connect, to find out more about what infantilization looks like and what impacts it can have.

"Infantilizing is treating someone as less than they are," says Benton. "It is treating them as a child, a victim, and so forth."

In recent years, the impacts of infantilization have been studied in nursing homes and senior centers, as well as in regard to the care given to people diagnosed with autism or mental illnesses. If someone is infantilized, it can be harmful to their self-image and confidence.

Signs of Infantilization

 First, it's important to reiterate that this doesn't happen only in parent-child relationships.

"This can happen in any relationship," says Benton. "Excessive neediness can be a sign. Additionally, one person in the relationship can gaslight and leave the other feeling inadequate and incompetent."

  • Excessive neediness: For example, constantly seeking affirmations, compliments, or attention.
  • Constant contact: Always staying connected through text, phone, or social media.
  • Downplaying someone's thoughts or accomplishments: Instead of expressing pride, they undermine the other person in order to make them feel less important.
  • Questioning complex and simple decisions: Instead of accepting choices, the person will interrogate each choice, asking "Are you sure?," or even trying to make other suggestions.
  • Gaslighting: Engaging in behaviors but then denying it to make a person question their reality.

If you feel like you are infantilizing someone, Benton urges you to "recognize that you are hurting the other person and preventing them from growing." When you find yourself doing any of the things listed above, she encourages you to step back, offer your support and allow the person to make their own decisions.

It's also important to understand why this might be happening. It might be because you believe that's what love is or that's how you are treated by your parents. Or it might be that you are codependent or feel more comfortable and safe having the upper hand in relationships.

Causes of Infantilization

People can infantilize others for lots of reasons. In parent-child situations, it unfortunately often starts early.

"This is something that can start in childhood and last through adulthood," says Benton. "Sometimes, overly controlling parents can leave a child doubting themselves and unable to make decisions and take care of themselves in the long-term."

One study found that infantilization by parents has what they called an "intense negative impact" on the child's maturity as they age. Another study found that parents that infantilize their children can cause them to develop behavioral issues and also lead them to infantilize their own children.

"Infantilization can be a way to maintain power over someone and prevent them from being a functioning adult," says Benton.

This may even be borne of the best intentions of not wanting to see your child get hurt, but it can cause children to doubt their own decision-making skills for years to come. If you are a parent, take note of your child's ability to make decisions and work on supporting them when they come to you instead of taking over entirely.

While infantilization in romantic relationships or friendships can become a way for one person to control another by causing them to doubt themselves, Benton explains another viewpoint as well.

"Conversely, soliciting this treatment from someone is a way to appear helpless and control someone by letting them believe we can’t take care of ourselves," says Benton.

Consider if you are infantilizing yourself to get someone to help you with things instead of asking them directly and risking rejection. You may act like a child to be treated like one, which may feel comforting but can be limiting. Perhaps you act helpless so that others step in to do things for you, like paying your bills or solving your problems.

Infantilizing yourself may get you what you want in the short term, but it can be disempowering and prevent you from taking full responsibility for and having agency and freedom in your life.

Once you become aware you may be infantilizing yourself with your partner or friends, you can share your awareness with them to request support and accountability in changing and shifting this dynamic. It may also be helpful to seek a therapist to help you identify the underlying reasons for your pattern of infantilizing yourself with others.

Impact of Infantilization

The effects of infantilization can often be seen years after the dysfunctional relationship has ended. While people may have been infantilized by different figures in their lives, many of the effects are the same:

While not everyone who has been infantilized experiences all of these issues, it's important to recognize the potential impacts of this treatment.

Reasons for Infantilization

The simple answer is to gain control. For parents, they may have good intentions in that they want the best for their child. This can be damaging when it gets to the point of not allowing children to make their own decisions.

In romantic relationships, people who infantilize have the same goal of maintaining a sense of power in the relationship.

If you find yourself seeking control by infantilizing others, seek out a therapist who can work with you to recognize the actions and statements wherein you're perpetuating this behavior.

Coping With Being Infantilized

Not only can infantilization be harmful for someone's self confidence, it can also cause long-term mental health setbacks. For someone that is being infantilized, the hardest part about dealing with it can be recognizing that it's happening in the first place. "Often, it has been going on long enough to feel normal," says Benton.

Benton suggests seeking out a therapist or counselor to talk to about the things that are concerning. If it's coming from a parent, she also recommends family therapy.

Many therapists work with their patients to recognize statements or actions that are infantilizing. Once people recognize them, it's much easier to call them out and address them. Therapists can also work with you on effective responses and reactions.

A Word From Verywell

If you are dealing with being infantilized, it can be understandably frustrating. Know that this is is a line of thinking that you can work through in therapy.

For those that are worried that they are infantilizing someone, work to understand when you're saying or doing things that actively take away someone else's power. Find a therapist who can work with you to recognize these actions.

In both situations, you are more than capable of taking control and making healthy decisions for your own life.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Vielma-Aguilera A, Bustos C, Saldivia S, Grandón P. Psychometric properties of the attitudes scale of health care professionals’ toward people with a diagnosis of mental illness (EAPS-TM). Current Psychology. Published online June 2, 2021. doi:10.1007/s12144-021-01911-4

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By Brittany Loggins
Brittany is a health and lifestyle writer and former staffer at TODAY on NBC and CBS News. She's also contributed to dozens of magazines.