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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

Why Adults Often Behave Like Children

Sometimes at moments of particular stress, one adult will turn to another and say: ‘Stop behaving like a child.’ Or even ‘act your age.’

This isn’t merely rude (though it might be that too). More generously viewed, such expressions are picking up on a genuine phenomenon that can afflict us without attracting our notice. In contact with given challenges, we revert back to an earlier stage in our development. We leave behind our adult faculties, the ones associated with reason, logic, calm, strength, forbearance and perspective, and slip very quickly into a child-like spectrum marked by panic, rage, despair, terror and appeasement.

The specific occasions that shift us from adult to child are an individual guide to our own traumas. To hazard a generalisation: we go back to being a child whenever we re-encounter dynamics in the here and now that in some key ways resemble events in childhood that were significantly overwhelming (terrifying, horrific, sad), that we were never taught how to approach maturely and with self-compassion and that will have scared us witless and unsettled us profoundly. In other words, when we land — without realising it — upon an echo of a past trauma. 

The reason why we then behave like a child is that traumas selectively arrest development. A part of us will remain fixed at whatever age we become traumatised at; so though we may be 28 or 72, we will to all intents — in contact with a certain inflammatory situation — resemble the frightened, bewildered and ashamed 3 or 5 year old we once were. We’ll be bringing to a challenge all the rage, sadness, panic and confusion that we felt long ago — though we’ll be unlikely to notice that we are even doing so and therefore won’t be able to take averting action or warn others of our troubles. No bell naturally goes off in the mind to signal, ‘You’re now shifting from being 32 to being 2.’ The transition happens in a flash, and it’s the work of years of therapy and self-exploration to be able to notice the shift and take measures to attenuate the damage.

To guess at our original traumas, we need only to study triggering situations and generalise outwards from them. Let’s imagine that we get very worked up about a difficulty at passport control with a stern officer or about a dispute with a neighbour who is threatening legal action because a tree we planted is blocking their view. When we erase away the local details, we may be able to see an elemental structure and can then ask ourselves questions accordingly: a powerful man is adopting a bullying manner towards us. Does this remind us of anything in the past? Or: we’re suddenly being accused of having done something ‘bad’ that we had no idea about and the repercussions feel severe. Does this sound in any way familiar?

Memories tend to emerge. That stern passport officer might map with eerie precision onto an extremely frightening father. Or a legal dispute might in its psychological fundamentals hint at at some awful bullying one suffered at school. 

The beginning of relief from symptoms comes from greater awareness of our automatic regressions. When there is a certain kind of crisis, we should notice how fast we fall through the floors of adulthood, ten or twenty or forty years/storeys below the present, to the child-like basement. A part of us needs to hold the other steady, see the hole blown in our minds by a triggering event — then ensure that we step carefully around the gap and take a seat somewhere very safe on the edge of the room, while we wait for reason to repair the damage.

We need to tell ourselves, with some of the calm authority of a parent talking to a child: this isn’t your scary father you’re talking to, it’s just an officious boring immigration officer and you’re ten years older them, with access to lawyers, friends and a good mind. Or: this neighbour is deeply annoying but you’re not seven and a half any more and they aren’t going to gang up on you and make your life miserable for three years because you’re a grown up with a partner and people who love you and powers of reason.

We’re so afraid of patronising ourselves, we can find it hard to accept the bewildering way in which, in certain areas, we truly can be slammed back into being a frightened, panicky, perspective-less young version of ourselves. Only by accepting the risk can we start to notice the damage in us and the traumatised responses we are still leaning on, and then put in place more appropriate and more self-protective measures. The floors in our minds may be prone to collapse at moments of stress; knowing the hazard is more than half-way to the solution.

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