HSE experts suggest new way of looking at infantilism

Views on human age need to be revisited. The value of adulthood as a period of certainty has declined for many, which means that this period is being delayed. The processes of personality development vary, and adults are preserving signs of infantilism. HSE University experts, Elena Sabelnikova and Natalia Khmeleva, suggest a new way of looking at the phenomenon of infantilism in their paper Infantilism: Theoretical Construct and Operationalization which avoids a 'judgemental' approach.

The traditional life periodization by age 'child - young person - adult' is not quite relevant today. Too many things have changed: the pace of life, approaches to education, social roles and institutions, marriage, and professional identity. People's life courses have become less predictable. The beginning of adult life has changed. Finally, the value of adulthood is being questioned, and infantilism is becoming a common phenomenon.

Delayed Self-identity

From a psychological perspective, adulthood implies self-regulation, emotional maturity (rationality, self-control, lack of impulsivity, etc.), responsibility, ability to self-reflect, and the need to work and have stable relationships. Adults strive for success in their professions and in family life. Some psychologists emphasize the importance of the motives of affiliation and achievement. It is important for a person to define his or her civil and social position, lifestyle, etc.

According to Sabelnikova and Khmeleva, infantile personality, on the contrary, is characterized by immature feelings ('childish' reactions, lack of willpower, lack of confidence), external locus of control (other people are blamed), inflated self-concept, low demands on self (accompanied by high demands on society), and egocentrism. 'An infantile person seeks to escape the need to adequately assess objective social reality', the paper's authors added.

In other words, maturity is associated with successful mastering of the key social roles: professional, spousal, and parental. But more and more people are delaying this choice, and valuing it differently. People are spending more time in search of themselves and are taking longer to get an education and choose a partner. As a result, the process of professional and personal identification is taking longer.

Age Boundaries Are Relative

Demographic data show that the age of separation from the parents' family has shifted from 18-20 in older generations (for example, among Russians born in the 1950s) to 23-25 for those born during the 1980s baby boom.

Almost one-third of the generation born between 1980 and 1986 believe that they rushed into independence too early. 'On the one hand, we can assume that 70% of the younger respondents had made a well thought out decision since they are sure they started off on their own at the right time for them', said demographers Alina Dolgova and Ekaterina Mitrofanova. 'However, a fairly large and growing proportion had apparently taken the decision lightly and later regretted it'.

Periodization of ages has varied in different studies. Adulthood has different names: maturity, personal agency stage, middle age, etc. Some researchers, including American psychologists Grace Craig and Don Baucum, suggest talking about 'early adulthood' between 18 and 40. Other scholars, such as American psychologist Virginia Quinn, define the same period as 'young age'. According to Sabelnikova and Khmeleva, this is the main period of self-realization.

Infantilism Factors

Delaying adulthood is a response to the new reality, many scholars believe. Everything is changing, from the set of competencies and jobs (some of them are disappearing while the others are evolving), to relationships.

A number of new 'ways to live' have been discovered. Alternative models of adulthood have evolved. People's life courses have become unpredictable. For example, people earn a degree, work, and then study again and change their profession. People can leave their parents' home, but then come back and extend their 'childhood'. Meanwhile, the range of life opportunities is too wide, which can be disorienting and make it difficult to make a choice.

Educational choices have an 'unknown expiration date' (due to the unclear future of professions) and, according to psychologist Alexandra Bochaver, cause lack of confidence. As a result, young people tend to become escapist and delay important decisions. Instead of choosing a strategy, they limit themselves to tactical solutions in various spheres of life and delay their final ('adult') choices.

Conditions for socialization have changed. Communication has largely gone online, and is mediated by digital technology and devices: gadgets, mobile apps, social media, messengers, etc. But such contacts are superficial, Sabelnikova and Khmeleva believe. Some studies have shown that when live communication is replaced with digital communication, empathy decreases and 'autistic-like behaviour' grows (self-absorption, escaping reality). This leads to emotional immaturity.

The sociocultural environment has also changed, and traditional roles are being devalued. 'The goal "to be happy" is being replaced with the goal "to be successful"', Sabelnikova and Khmeleva write. 'Many values are getting a "not" prefix: not to get married, not to have children, since the old patriarchal values will be an obstacle for contemporary young people who are willing to become successful by all means'.

With all these powerful changes of environment, infantilization looks like a logical phenomenon.

In addition, some types of activities also impact the coming-of-age process. For example, according to Virginia Quinn, long studies (Master's, doctoral, continuing education) somewhat slow the process of growing up. Such people often live with their parents and are not willing to get a job and earn an income.

Peter Pan, Prince, Eternal Boy

Psychologists have studied the signs of infantilism from various perspectives. Jeffrey Arnett, author of the Emerging Adulthood theory (2000), outlined a special age period from 18 to 25. Young people of this age are no longer teenagers, but they are not adults yet. They are only partly independent, since they usually live with parents. Such young people have a lot of opportunities and few responsibilities. Before choosing a partner or a vocation, they can try different options several times.

Carl Gustav Jung provided a psychoanalytical analysis of this phenomenon. Speaking about the 'eternal boy' archetype (puer aeternus), he meant people avoiding adult responsibility.

Jung's peer Marie-Louise von Franz developed these ideas in her book 'Eternal Boy. Puer Aeternus'. She looked at a particular form of neurosis in such people: a 'provisional life'.

A man suffering this neurosis feels that he doesn't exist yet in real life. In his search for a partner, a job, or a vocation he constantly feels that this is not what he wants. The state of 'provisional life' may linger on: an 'eternal boy' starts avoiding living in the present. As a result, he may acquire addictions, anger attacks, and phobias.

A similar phenomenon is kidults (kid+adult), a term that first appeared in The New York Times in an article by journalist Peter Martin during a burst of arcade machine popularity. Kidults are people who preserve their teenage likings (from video games, anime and fantasy, to a responsibility-free lifestyle) until they are 30-35 and older. Psychologists illustrate this type with such characters as Peter Pan and the Little Prince.

Legitimation of Infantilism

Some scholars argue that adulthood is no longer an unconditional value. For example, a study on attitudes among 5th-graders today revealed that they are not willing to grow up. They associate adulthood not only with independence, but also with a lot of responsibilities. Young adults are in a similar situation. 'The contradictory image of the future... frightens a young person and encourages them to stay 'in childhood', where there were no problems and the life was stable and safe', Sabelnikova and Khmeleva write. It turns out that infantilism in this case is almost a conscious choice.

The researchers believe that infantilism should not be judged. To a certain degree, it can be considered a sign of time diversity in personal development. Lev Vygotsky used to write about similar processes.

'The personality's path to maturity is not homogeneous by type', say Sabelnikov and Khmeleva. Due to time diversity, in infantile people, the emotional and willpower area 'falls behind the general development rates, and intelligence and cognition develop faster than the average in this period'.

'Legitimation' of infantilism can also be related to its assessment as a protective mechanism, a way to overcome the difficulties in life. Nancy McWilliams, a psychoanalyst from the U.S., emphasized that the term 'infantile personality' is disappearing from the official list, which is logical; in modern terms, it's just an alternative life course.

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