“He should know better than that at his age!”- How to help a child mature

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

Is this a legitimate complaint?

little girls smiling

Many parents often express disappointment in what they perceive as their children's overly childish behavior. In considering how to help a child mature, they often see their child can be quite intelligent and developed at times, they feel he has the ability to behave more maturely and it is the child's duty to rise to the occasion and cut out the kids’ stuff. Some parents feel that acting in a more mature fashion is a sign of sophistication and an indication that the child is advanced and will eventually be more successful in the adult world. They further feel that having high expectations for their children will healthily serve to bring them closer to an adult level that they are capable of. However in my opinion and in my clinical experience this is a mistake. In fact expecting children to behave even just a little bit more maturely then their age warrants has many unwanted negative mental health side effects and can cause children to develop many problems over time. In addition, it harms the parent child relationship. Any pressure from parents is unhealthy and pressure to be mature creates problems!

How to help a child mature? Let them be kids – for now.

little boy catching snowflakes on his tongue

The truth is children are fully children until they're 18 and they're supposed to be childish. It is totally normal for a child to act even younger than his age at times. This is necessary for their healthy development. They have to take advantage of their childhood and freely frolic in an uninhibited manner. Parents should never fear that a child's immature behavior is a sign of delays in development or that they will have to bear a stigma of immaturity. It is normal and healthy for them to behave as maturely as they feel the need to be in a particular moment.

Many parents make the mistake of expecting a particular child to behave just a little bit older than he is. This puts unfair pressure on the child. Some parents wish their children would just grow up and act mature already. It results in great frustration for the parents who are constantly disappointed with what they perceive as their child's immature behavior and is very unhealthy for the child because it denies him the rights to be the eight-year-old that he is. The maturity level of a particular child’s behavior goes up-and-down from moment to moment sometime he may act quite maturely but other times he needs to regress and act quite childish and this is totally within the realm of normalcy for him. It is futile and unhealthy to fight against it. Just because he cleared his plate off the table without being asked one time does not mean that therefore he can do it always and must always be expected to. Sometimes he will need to just be a kid and leave his plate on the table and go play. There's a difference between what a child is physically capable of doing and what he's emotionally mature enough to handle. He can theoretically do chores but often they are too much for him or her to safely assimilate into his emotional equilibrium. You may be physically capable of working 18 hour day in theory but it is unrealistic to expect that from yourself on a regular basis, as you simply lack the discipline and the stamina! 

See my important post: How to get kids to clean up, here.

Pressure to be mature feels like criticism!

little girl at the beach with several different colored balloons

Remember that everything a child does will seem vastly immature to our adult eyes, but when you say, “He should know better than that at his age” it is unfortunately a very harsh criticism of the child's very natural self. This generates shame in the child which is the most devastating psychological state. If created regularly it can generate all sorts of emotional disorders. It can often be very inconvenient for us when a child behaves childishly, but it is best for them that we tolerate it with a smile. Therefore I recommend that we lower our expectations for our children's behavior 10 percent across-the-board. We need to learn to laugh at their mischievous escapades, to enjoy the beauty of their childishness, it won't last forever.

See my fascinating post: Ignoring bad behavior in children: when and when not to do it, here.

Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, the specialties on my website, or download on of my informative free reports. If you are would like guidance about how to help a child mature from a child therapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!