Q. It seems to me that more and more people are emotionally immature. We hear about road rage, child abuse and outrageous competitive behavior by parents at their children’s soccer games. What is emotional maturity and how can we instill it in our children?
A. Emotional maturity is lacking in many people today. We are tempted to tell them to “grow up”, if only just saying this would make it happen. William C. Menninger, MD, noted psychiatrist, lists seven Criteria of Emotional Maturity. These are excellent guidelines to judge and guide our quest for maturity in ourselves, and in our children. The comments following each of these are my own understanding and thoughts.
1. The ability to deal constructively with reality. Individuals with this trait are able to face the truth about them self and to see the world realistically. For example, when given a bad review at work they will remain rational, though inwardly in turmoil. They will attempt to understand and grow from the criticism if it is valid.
2. The capacity to adapt to change. Change is inevitable in life. The mature person lets go of the past and moves forward in the direction change takes them. This isn’t necessarily easy even for the mature person, depending on the significance of the change.
3. A relative freedom from symptoms that are produced by tensions and anxieties. The emotionally mature person is able to function in the world even though they may have some anxious or tearful times, occasional insomnia or minor physical symptoms. They go to work and do their job in spite of tension or anxiety.
4. The capacity to find more satisfaction in giving than receiving. Our culture encourages self-centeredness, grabbing for ourselves. Until we learn that giving is more rewarding we remain like children. When we enjoy giving we are kind, gentle and loving with others and with ourselves.
5. The capacity to relate to other people in a consistent manner with mutual satisfaction and helpfulness. We enjoy working and relaxing with other people and there is mutual give and take in our relationships with others. Again, we connect and enjoy friendships. We are kind, gentle and loving.
6. The capacity to sublimate, to direct one’s instinctive hostile energy into creative and constructive outlets. I’m not sure I would describe anger as “instinctive hostile energy” but we certainly are born with the God given capacity to get angry. The emotionally mature person has learned to control his anger so it does not do emotional or physical damage to anyone. After his or her anger has subsided, the emotionally mature person attempts to find a rational, constructive solution to the problem. Though anger may be justified often forgiveness goes the second mile.
7. The capacity to love. Love is not a feeling. It’s how we behave toward others. Love is the action we take no matter how we feel. A sick child wakes us at night and we stay up and nurse the child though we certainly don’t feel like it. The apostle Paul defines love in this way: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” Read I Corinthians 13 for Paul’s complete description of love.
How can we help our children grow toward emotional maturity? Children learn from our behavior as well as from our words. If we lovingly model emotional maturity they will learn this from us. We must understand that their growth toward maturity is a slow process. We must be patient and accept their immaturity while applauding each sign that they are becoming more emotionally mature. We need to be patient with ourselves in our own growth to maturity also. No one meets these criteria perfectly or all the time.
“Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding.” Proverbs 3:13