How Old Are You Emotionally?

Lisa May Executive Director, Live the Life South Florida
(Scroll down to leave a comment on your emotional age you identify with.)

When we mention the phrase “Arrested Development,” most people think of the sitcom with that title. It’s the story of the formerly wealthy Bluth family and their dysfunction. The series received critical acclaim, six Primetime Emmy Awards, and one Golden Globe Award. It has been named one of the greatest TV shows by publications, including Time and Entertainment Weekly. I’ve not watched the program, but my guess is it was widely viewed because we all relate to it at some level. Every family has some dysfunction, and most of us know someone that suffers from arrested development, maybe ourselves.


What is arrested development?

Arrested development from a mental health perspective is when someone’s chronological age doesn’t match their emotional development. Most people age emotionally and chronologically in tandem. Some wobble and weave and play catch up through life experiences or when ”adulting” happens, but others remain a child or adolescent emotionally their entire lifespan.

There’s no sin in a child acting like a child, and when we’re stressed, we sometimes regress, but for an adult to behave and respond childishly regularly may point to a deeper issue. It may indicate that normal emotional development has been hindered or “arrested.” Arrested development can happen when trauma occurred in a child’s life, and the adults didn’t help them process and heal.

What are some of the signs of someone that may be suffering from arrested development? It could be a factor if you’re in a relationship with someone in their 30’s and they respond like an adolescent when you have conflict. Some red flags: “Don’t tell me what to do!” Their autonomy is threatened when you need something from the relationship. They are rebellious when criticized, corrected or directed. They constantly measure their performance and adequacy against unrealistic views. They compare their fortunes, capabilities and performance with others. They don’t listen with empathy because they hear your reality as a criticism. They may be quickly bored by routine and restless. They blind themselves to the consequences of risk-taking and rule-breaking. Someone stuck in emotional childhood may lie, trick or manipulate to get what they want. They seek revenge. They may hide their truth to keep you. They may belittle, blame and sulk to let you know they’re upset, or placate so you will feel sorry for them and appease them. The list goes on and on. 

The bigger question is: Was their trauma in the growing up years that caused the lack of emotional maturity? The event may be an accident, abuse, the death of a loved one, a divorce or a dramatic change in the home, such as a parent being absent from the house due to taking a job, etc. Whatever was a defining moment or event in the individual’s life that was never adequately processed and healed is where they may be stuck emotionally.


Can we grow into emotional adulthood?

The answer is YES! Diana Whiteman with Life Essentials says, “Everyone leaves childhood with some baggage, some leave with a carry-on, others have a truckload.” However, we can choose to restart our emotional growth. We must first be willing to take responsibility and examine our lives. Sheila Robinson-Kiss, MSW, LCSW, suggests we ask ourselves several questions:

  1. Is my emotional maturity serving as one of the closest allies in my day-to-day life? 
  2. When I’m triggered, how old is my behavior. The truth is found in the triggers. 
  3. What behavior am I committed to going forward? We choose to change our behavior until it becomes a habit. Bad habits can be unlearned, but new behavior choices take time before they become habits. 
  4. Validate your pain. Speak to yourself as though you were a nurturing parent. “I’m so sorry you don’t have your Dad here.” “I’m so sorry you had to experience that. It wasn’t your fault. You were a child, and that person should have never said that to you.”


Reaching maturity

emotionalThere’s a natural development as humans, and it’s imperative that we mature physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually so that we may be transformed into the likeness of Christ. “When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think like a child, reason like a child: when I became a man, I did away with childish things (I Corinthians 13: 11).

I don’t want to oversimplify this process or minimize the pain. Sadly, many have suffered significant trauma that very often requires a counselor or therapist to help process and heal. I want to encourage you to reach for help if you share life with someone that is emotionally challenged or if you find yourself responding in a manner that brings destructive conflicts and chaos, creates and exacerbates dysfunction, and destroys relationships. There is hope! Love yourself and those you share life with; Don’t stay stuck; reach for help. 


Live the Life South Florida exists to strengthen marriages and families through healthy relationship education, beginning in middle school through senior adults. We are educators, coaches, and pastoral counselors. If you’re interested in learning more, I encourage you to consider participating in a Live the Life workshop as well as exploring a class with Life Essentials ([email protected]). If you’re looking for a clinical counselor or therapist, we are blessed to have many in the South Florida community.  We’d be honored to provide you a list of highly qualified and reputable individuals. Visit

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