Helping Kids Who Are Immature
What parents can do to support children who are behind their peers
As children grow up, the world’s expectations of them seem to change at the speed of light. Schoolwork is suddenly more challenging. Sports that were fun become more competitive and physically demanding. Activities, games, and TV shows your child and her friends loved one day are considered “babyish” the next.
All kids struggle to navigate shifting social norms and expectations of parents or teachers, but when a child matures more slowly than her peers, the changes can leave her feeling left out, embarrassed or bewildered by the things her friends are doing. Luckily, as every formerly awkward adult knows, immaturity is usually temporary, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for kids who are in the thick of it.
“In most cases, as kids grow up, things even out,” says Rachel Busman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “They’re going to catch up. But the process can be hard.” Our role as parents, she explains, is to reassure kids and give them the support and scaffolding they need to make it through.
Signs of immaturity in younger kids
Children whose birthdays place them at the younger end of the class are more likely to be less mature than their classmates, but age isn’t the only factor, as kids mature at different paces.
In younger kids some signs of immaturity might be:
- Needing a little extra attention or help to do things her peers will do independently
- Being less physically coordinated than other children her age
- Becoming easily upset or overwhelmed or having trouble calming herself down when things don’t go her way
- Struggling to adapt to new concepts in school
- Being physically smaller or less developed than other kids her age
- Hanging back or avoiding activities that are new or challenging
Signs of immaturity in older kids
As kids get older, immaturity might look like:
- Age-inappropriate interests, for example a preteen who’s still watching Paw Patrol
- Social awkwardness, discomfort with new social relationships like dating, or unsupervised group hang outs
- Rigidity or unwillingness to try new things
- Being “grossed out” by conversations about sex and sexuality
- Being less physically developed than his peers
- Difficulty adapting to new academic challenges
It’s also important to note that kids may be less mature in one area, and advanced in another. For example, a child might be at the top of her reading group but feel lost when it comes to the social complexity of middle school, even when it seems like all her friends have it figured out.
At its core, being mature isn’t about the toys kids are into, or whether they’re afraid of scary movies when their friends aren’t. The key work of growing up is acquiring a set of invisible skills called self-regulation — the ability to understand and manage emotions and impulses when they come up. Kids who struggle to self-regulate have a harder time dealing with even small setbacks and aren’t good at calming themselves down or controlling impulsive behaviors. For example:
- A child who stalks off in a huff if her friends won’t play the game she wants, bursts into tears if she doesn’t get the pink cupcake, or throws a tantrum when asked to clean her room or set the table.
- A pre-teen who smashes his video game controller when he loses, impulsively interrupts when friends or teachers are talking, or is late for everything.
Parents can help by encouraging children to practice skills and behaviors that bolster and teach self-regulation skills.
- Talk about how he could advocate for himself if he’s in a difficult situation. For example: if a child is uncomfortable with an activity his friends are doing you could develop a script he can use to defuse the situation: “You know, that’s not my thing but you guys have fun, I’ll catch up with you afterwards.”
- Work on negotiating and being patient. For example, if a girl gets upset when her friends don’t want to play her favorite game, you might say: “I know it’s upsetting when you and Jen want to do different things. Next time, maybe you could try agreeing that you’ll play a game she chooses first, then play one you choose afterwards.”
- Practice mindfulness with your child, and model what good self-regulation looks like. For example, “I get upset sometimes, too, and it can be hard to calm down. What if we both agree to take ten deep breaths next time we start feeling angry or upset?”
As kids learn better self-regulation skills, they’ll feel more confident and capable when it comes to navigating new or difficult challenges, and be better able to make smarter (and more mature) choices for themselves.
Be realistic about risks
We want our children to grow at their own speed and feel comfortable and happy and excited about the things they love. But pressure to conform to what other kids are doing can be intense. The most hazardous part of immaturity is the potential for kids to be embarrassed, teased or bullied.
So how can parents walk the line between supporting a child where she is and making sure she’s not at risk? Let your child know that liking or doing things that are different than their peers isn’t something to be ashamed of, but that they may have to be ready for other kids to not want to play. For example, if a child likes to play with dinosaurs but his friends have moved on to Fortnite, you could make a plan for how he’ll talk to them about it. For example, he could say, “I’m going to play dinosaurs now, but can we play tag together later?”
“If a child is still sucking her thumb or bringing a stuffed animal to school at an age where that’s not really appropriate anymore it isn’t the end of the world,” says Dr. Busman. “We don’t want to shame kids or shut them down by saying, “Don’t be a baby. Get your thumb out of your mouth.”
Still, it’s helpful to warn your child that her favorite activity may not be accepted by her peers. “It’s a chance to help kids understand that some activities are really only acceptable in certain places,” Dr. Busman explains. “You might say, I know that sucking your thumb is super relaxing, but you know I haven’t seen any of the other kids doing it at school. I wonder if that means that’s something that’s just better to do at home? What do you think?”
Keep communication open
Unfortunately, no amount of planning or practice can totally ward off the potential for bullying so parents should keep their antennae up.
The best way to know what your child is dealing with is to keep an open line of communication. That may require persistence. Ask open-ended questions and give kids as many opportunities as you can to tell you what’s going on in their lives. For example, if your child reports that a girl she was friends with no longer wants to play, take it as an opportunity to do some detective work. Instead of saying, “Oh, I’m sorry,” which kind of shuts the conversation down, try, “That sounds upsetting. Has anything happened or changed between you guys lately?” If she doesn’t want to answer, or simply says “I don’t know,” give her some space, but make a point of checking in again later.
Do some research
If you’re concerned your child’s immaturity might be causing problems for her, start by doing some research into what her universe looks like. What are other kids your child’s age listening to, reading, wearing, watching, etc.? How do they compare to your child’s interests? If you find something she might be interested in but hasn’t picked up, like a band or a tv show, try making a plan to check it out together.
And if your child has an interest her friends think is silly, find somewhere — a club or group or class — where she’s able to do it in an accepting, judgment-free space.
Enlist the school as ally
Finally, if you’re worried your child might be uncomfortable or being bullied at school, enlist her teachers or the school’s guidance counselor as an ally. “If you sense that your kid might benefit from a little extra scaffolding at school, you could ask them to keep an eye out for bullies, and to maybe help her along socially until she’s feeling more comfortable.” Even if you don’t suspect your child is being bullied it might be a good idea to schedule a check-in with your child’s teacher. He may be able to give you a better idea of the social and academic pressures she’s facing at school.
When to be concerned
In some cases, what looks like immaturity may have a different cause. Early signs of ADHD, some learning disabilities, anxiety and autism can all be mistaken for run-of-the-mill immaturity. Behaviors that seem extreme, or don’t fade as children grow, warrant a visit to your child’s pediatrician or a clinician.
Some things to watch for include:
- Speech delays
- Significant lack of coordination that is age-inappropriate — for example, a child who has difficulty using a fork or trouble writing legibly long into grade school
- Total lack of interest in social activities
- Serious anxiety around social situations like sleepovers or parties, or trouble making or keeping friends
- Significant sleep issues that are age-inappropriate, for example a 9-year-old who struggles to sleep through the night without parental intervention
- Academic difficulties that have a significant impact on grades
- Problems with impulse control or concentration
- Tantrums or meltdowns in elementary or middle school
In most cases though, being immature is just a part of growing up, like having knobby knees or braces. Giving your child the help and support she needs to navigate it in a safe, less stressful way will help her land on her feet when she catches up and give her powerful tools to care for herself both now and when she’s “mature.”