Understanding Infant, Child, Adolescent and/or Mature Adult Emotional States

Throughout my career, I have observed that our emotional maturity consistently waxes and wanes throughout the day like the phases of the moon. Accessing an individual by their predominant developmental or emotional state became a more reliable predictor of behavior than chronological age would typically indicate. A successful intervention relied upon accurately assessing when an individual operated from his or her infant, child, adolescent and/or mature adult emotional state. Emotional maturity evolves naturally and organically until stress activates immature subparts of our personality, which regress into a stress response. Jumping back and forth from one emotional state to another throughout the course of a day is normal for most people. You can increase your emotional intelligence by understanding infantile, childish, adolescence and mature adult stress responses in yourself and others. The brief summary of the infant, child, adolescent and mature adult stress responses that follow will increase your emotional intelligence and intervention strategies. A detailed description and recommended solutions for each stress response can be found in my book, The Promise of Wholeness: Cultivating Inner Peace, Mindfulness and Love In a Divided World, Roman and Littlefield Publishers.

The Infant Stress Response:

Newborns believe the world revolves around them and are totally dependent upon others to survive. Operating primarily from its primitive reptilian brain, an infant is unable to distinguish if its emotions come from self or another stimulus—the infant feels and responds, period. Narcissistically inclined individuals, people with personality disorders and trauma survivors with untreated regressed personality aspects often regress into the emotional state of infancy in adulthood. When our reptilian brain dominates an adult personality without the emotional intelligence and calming effects of our higher brain, interpersonal relationships suffer. When we consider our emotional responses in relationships with these insights, the phrases echoed time and again by lovers “Don’t be such a baby!” or “Don’t be so sensitive!” take on new meaning. Individuals embroiled in infantile stress responses respond well to soothing, reassurance and cherishing without conditions from a nurturing source. Comforting from internally or externally sourced heartfelt wisdom promotes more emotionally mature adult responses.

The Child Stress Response

Children express emotions through their behavior (active or passive). Children usually struggle to discuss or express what causes their emotional states because abstract thinking and left-hemispheric analysis doesn’t kick in until ages twelve to fifteen. Overwhelming emotion can trigger a shutdown response of the reptilian brain, or the fight/flight/freeze response of the emotional brain and offers another explanation for why children are frequently clueless about their own emotions. Firm boundaries create psychological safety for children struggling with inappropriate behavior, impulsiveness and periodic emotional regression. Believe it or not, children and immature adults in the midst of a child stress response need external controls and will eventually respond favorably to an internal or external caring mature adult who provides the structure they are unable to provide for themselves. The following exercise is designed to access emotional intelligence.


  • Ask yourself: What do you THINK about an event?
  • When you run out of words, ask: How do you FEEL about the event?
  • Ask questions and gently probe for Then ask: What did you Do or want to DO next?
  • If/when you run out of words and have explored your motivations, move to one of the other two theme

Since there are three areas of questioning you can always circle back to a feeling question once your childish aspect embroiled in the stress response feels comfortable with the conversational flow.

The Adolescent Stress Response

Autonomy and self-determination are the primary drivers of adolescents whose primary developmental task is to launch into the world with a healthy identity and the ability to make productive, autonomous choices. Opposition, resistance and outright rebellion are traditional tools used by adolescents to express youthful idealism, personal opinions and self-guided solutions. Saying no to authority figures feels empowering initially and is a necessary step towards the adolescent’s individualization, but if we are still locked into this method at the age of thirty, we likely are suffering from the repercussions. Adolescent stress responses tend to think in the short term, lack the proverbial wisdom others glean from actual experience and often do not know what it takes or have the patience to consider guidance from mature emotional intelligence. Compare the pitfalls of an adolescent short-term rationale to the incorruptible wisdom of an enduring, loving mature solution. Once you have a better grasp of how your shortsighted attempt towards autonomy failed to become an enduring solution, it may be useful to weigh the wisdom of your inner voice to help you make better decisions in the future.

The Emotional Mature Adult:

Mastering the challenges of the previous developmental stages requires maturing until a willingness to say yes to life is developed. Certain situations will cause every one of us to regress and exhibit infant, child or adolescent stress responses. The emotionally mature adult makes the effort to self-correct. In order to meet our own needs with equanimity, a healthy adult will respond very differently than someone with an infant, child or adolescent stress response. When our sense of self is strong, our heart can love, takes responsibility and has integrity. Incorruptible, an emotional intelligent, mature adult can merge with someone else without falling into his or her hell—if that is what our beloved is experiencing.

Recognizing the emotional imperative behind regressed aspects of our personality calms down our reptilian and emotional brains and gives the higher brain an opportunity to have a more productive conversation with our internal stress responses and/or the person triggering us. Conflict is best resolved with two emotionally mature adults, as opposed to a scenario where two age-regressed inner aspects or individuals with infant, child or adolescent stress responses duke it out.