What Is Emotional Immaturity

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 25, 2024
4 min read

Maturity means that a person, animal, or plant has reached their final stage of growth. Someone who hasn’t reached that stage is immature. That’s easy to understand when it comes to physical development, but what does it mean to be emotionally immature?

The American Psychological Association defines emotional maturity as “a high and appropriate level of emotional control and expression.” Emotional immaturity, on the other hand, is “a tendency to express emotions without restraint or disproportionately to the situation.”. In other words, emotional behavior that is out of control or not appropriate to the situation can be considered immature. It’s more like the emotional reactions you might expect to see from a child than from an adult.

People who are emotionally immature don’t meet society's expectations for social behavior within their age range. It’s safe to assume that a grown-up will be able to consider their impact on others and pay attention to their feelings. Emotionally mature people can accept criticism and learn from it. Adults with emotional maturity can think about and plan for the future as well. People with emotional immaturity, however, struggle with these things.

Emotionally immature people lack certain emotional and social skills and have trouble relating to other adults. Some behaviors can be a signal that you’re dealing with an emotionally immature person:

Impulsive behavior. Children are often impulsive. They speak out of turn or touch things that they shouldn’t touch. They say things without thinking about how they’ll affect other people. Over time, people learn not to do those things. Emotionally immature adults haven’t learned to curb their impulses. They act in unpredictable or antisocial ways.

Demanding attention. Young children get bored when people don’t pay attention to them. They’ll do things to draw the focus back to themselves, even if that means acting out in negative ways. Emotionally immature adults often do the same. They might not act out in negative ways, but they may inject themselves into conversations or crack inappropriate jokes to get everyone’s attention.

Name-calling and bullying. In general, adults don’t resort to schoolyard tactics when they relate to other adults. You seldom see two adults calling each other mean names. Someone who behaves like a mean kid in school is not using mature emotional tactics. Instead, they are relying on childlike displays of temper.

Avoidance. Emotionally immature people may not have a good sense of the future or how to plan for it. Refusing to take on significant responsibilities like committed relationships, careers, or investments like homeownership are signs of avoiding responsibility. People like this might let others take care of them way beyond the point that they should be self-sufficient. This is sometimes called Peter Pan syndrome, after the fictional character who never wanted to grow up. 

Narcissism. An essential facet of maturity is the ability to think about other people’s needs and feelings. Immature people only appear to care about themselves. They dislike compromise and don’t want to take other people’s ideas into account. They always want to have their own way.

If you’re trying to navigate a relationship with an emotionally immature person, there are a few things you can do to ease the situation. When you work to resolve the situation, you can prevent a negative impact on your mental health and relieve some stress.

Communicate. Talking honestly but sensitively about their behavior is one way to start. You can point out how their words or actions made you feel and ask them to be more sensitive in the future. You may need to repeat that conversation more than once. It takes time to learn new emotional patterns.

Be positive. When the person behaves in ways that seem mature and genuine, praise them for it. Positive reinforcement is a strong tool for encouraging growth. Parents often do this to encourage certain behaviors in young children. Adults will respond positively to praise as well.

Adjust. You can also try to adjust your own expectations, within reason, of course. Not everyone will change, but you can change how you respond to people. You can learn their patterns and find ways to work around the problem behaviors. 

You may not be able to smooth out a relationship with an emotionally immature person on your own. If that’s the case, look for someone who can help through it. A family counselor or couples therapist can help you and your loved one learn to relate in more positive ways.

If the emotionally immature person in your life is a co-worker, try speaking to someone in human resources about the situation. They might be able to help you find more constructive ways to work together.

People can grow and change. If someone you care about is emotionally immature, you may be able to help them learn to behave more like an adult. If they don't want to change, speak to a counselor about how to care for yourself while dealing with an emotionally immature person.