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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

The Stages of Development – And What If We Miss Out on One…

One of the stranger aspects of the way we’re built is that we need to go through a number of stages of development in childhood and adolescence in order to reach maturity – and if for whatever reason we miss out on any one of them, then a part of us will in the background be craving to return to finish the stage, even if it is one normally associated with being a toddler and we happen to be well into middle age.

The central stages of childhood might be summarised like this:

– The Adored Stage

In which, in the very early months and years, on the basis of having accomplished nothing at all, we feel deeply accepted and approved of by our caregivers simply for being; because we have arrived on the earth, are defenceless and vulnerable and (perhaps) have a very cute button nose.

– The Irresponsible Stage

In which we can explore the world in a spirit of freewheeling curiosity without too many consequences or burdens. We can ask questions, we can try out what it’s like to drop things on the floor, catapult pasta into the air or say bahhhh a hundred times.

– The Naughty Stage

In which we can give free reign to our desire to provoke, to be mean, to be jealous, to be a bit unkind and to flout the rules – while being forgiven and avoiding labels like evil or bad.

– A Manners Stage

In which we learn about the importance of being ‘good’, of making others happy and of fitting in with the demands of those around us.

Boy On The Rocks, Henri Rousseau, c. 1895 – 1897, Wikimedia Commons

Adolescence brings with it further stages of development:

– The Rebellious Stage

In which we can shout at our parents, declare that we never wanted to be born, question every conceivable kind of authority and attempt to be very strange indeed.

– The Sexually Exploratory Stage

In which we can give licence to our burgeoning sexuality and find out who we really are and what we want in bed.

– The Responsible Stage

In which we find ourselves vocationally, submit to the demands of academia – and accede to the limitations and demands of employment.

– The Emotionally Committed Stage

In which we exchange the pleasures of sexual exploration for the complicated pleasures of a deep union.

The difficulty with these stages is that they rely, in order to unfold, on a good enough facilitating environment. A rebellious stage requires parents who will put up with a degree of stroppiness and fury. An irresponsible stage requires caregivers who can allow us make a racket and leap up and down on the sofa for an hour. This is not a given. There may be depression, anger, a sick sibling, a divorce or some other factor that obliges us to jump to a pseudo or premature version of maturity. We can end up responsible before we have been rebellious; emotionally committed before we’ve been allowed to have a go at sexual exploration; or so-called kind before we’ve tried out naughtiness. 

That we have missed out on a stage may – unfortunately – be unapparent for many years. But the way we function means that eventually, the missing stage will force itself to be heard – perhaps at the cost of seriously upending our lives. We can state a general principle of psychological life: no stage that has been missed will ever easily leave us alone until it has been registered, honoured, sampled and exhausted. If we strive to suppress it, it will buckle and torment our psyches and bodies, until we recognise what has happened and take steps to correct the deficit.

The idea of missing stages explains the phenomenon of the otherwise responsible lawyer who, at 42, suddenly leaves their family and young children in order to join a commune. Or who infuriates their bosses and makes a bizarre ‘mistake’ that gets them fired. Or the octogenarian who divorces their spouse because they realise that they were never held and simply allowed to be. Or the 67 year old who, over the course of a few months, takes to drink and shouts late at night in the garden to vent to an aggression and energy that they were never granted licence to indulge in their family of birth. 

We sometimes say – generally half in jest – that we would love to ‘go back and be a baby for an afternoon.’ The expression is telling. There are parts of us that continually ache to sample what we never had enough of. The best thing to do with a missing stage is – first and foremost – to recognise that it is missing and then to find the least dangerous and most effective way of sampling it, even as we try not to ruin or spoil the accomplishments of later stages of our lives. We may have to find a way to explain to a long-suffering spouse or friend or colleague that we missed out on the adored stage, the naughty stage or the sexually exploratory stage. It may not be easy for anyone.

What this ultimately tells us is that we should never be rushed into maturity. Whenever we see a child or teenager and hear them described as ‘old for their years’ or ‘already so grown up,’ we should worry – and if this happened to be us, we should mourn. The world would be a lot calmer if all of its outwardly adult and yet inwardly bawling unhappy babies and furious toddlers had been given a chance to be who they needed to be at the age when it was safest and easiest for them to be so.

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