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Helping Kids Who Are Immature

What parents can do to support children who are behind their peers

Writer: Rae Jacobson

Clinical Expert: Rachel Busman, PsyD, ABPP

en Español

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 their 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 their peers, the changes can leave them feeling left out, embarrassed, or bewildered by the things their 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. “They’re going to catch up. But the process can be hard.” Our role as caregivers, 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 their peers will do independently
  • Being less physically coordinated than other children their age
  • Becoming easily upset or overwhelmed or having trouble calming themselves down when things don’t go their way
  • Struggling to adapt to new concepts in school
  • Being physically smaller or less developed than other kids their 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 their 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 their reading group but feel lost when it comes to the social complexity of middle school, even when it seems like all their friends have it figured out.

Emotional regulation

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 their friends won’t play the game they want, bursts into tears if they don’t get the pink cupcake, or throws a tantrum when asked to clean their room or set the table.
  • A pre-teen who smashes their video game controller when they lose, impulsively interrupts when friends or teachers are talking, or is late for everything.

Caregivers can help by encouraging children to practice skills and behaviors that bolster and teach self-regulation skills.

  • Talk about how they could advocate for themselves if they are in a difficult situation. For example: if a child is uncomfortable with an activity their friends are doing you could develop a script they 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 child gets upset when their friends don’t want to play their 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 caregivers walk the line between supporting a child where they are and making sure they’re 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 their friends have moved on to Fortnite, you could make a plan for how they’ll talk to them about it. For example, they 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 their favorite activity may not be accepted by their 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 caregivers 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 child they were 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 they don’t want to answer, or simply say “I don’t know,” give them 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 them, start by doing some research into what their 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 they 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 their friends think is silly, find somewhere — a club or group or class — where they’re 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 their 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 them along socially until they’re 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. They may be able to give you a better idea of the social and academic pressures your child is 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 they need to navigate it in a safe, less stressful way will help them land on their feet when they catch up and give them powerful tools to care for themselves both now and when they’re “mature.”

Frequently Asked Questions

What are signs that a child is immature?

When kids are little, signs of immaturity can include shyness, tantrums, or trouble at school. Kids who are immature get upset more easily and have trouble calming down without help. They may be bullied or struggle to make friends.

What are signs a teen is immature?

Signs a teen is immature might include being left out when friends begin dating or going to parties. And as schoolwork gets harder, they may find it tough to keep up. Some teens might be immature in one area, but not in another. For example, a teen who’s great at math but thinks talking about sex is gross.

How does maturity develop?

Maturity comes from a set of skills called self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage emotions and impulses. Kids who struggle to self-regulate have a harder time dealing with even small setbacks without acting out.

How can parents help kids develop maturity?

Parents can help kids develop maturity by teaching them to speak up for themselves and their boundaries. Try coming up with a script they can use when they feel overwhelmed to build better self-regulation skills and confidence.

This article was last reviewed or updated on May 15, 2024.