Since beginning Shrink4Men in 2009, I’ve frequently described narcissists, borderlines, psychopaths, histrionics and other emotionally immature individuals as children in adult bodies, or emotional toddlers. That’s because these individuals think, relate and behave much younger than their actual physical age.
In other words, they exhibit a persistent lifelong pattern of emotional and psychological immaturity. In this respect, they’re arrested at an earlier stage of development. This is one of the reasons these people are considered personality disordered.
It isn’t possible to have a mutually reciprocal adult relationship with a child. Nor can you have a functional adult relationship with a child in an adult’s body. Individuals with these characterological deficits simply lack the capacity to build stable adult relationships. This is why many of my clients say they feel like more of a parent than a partner to their disordered spouses and exes. Or rather, a parentified child, taking care of an adult toddler.
But your narcissistic or borderline spouse has lots of friends? Hundreds of Facebook friends? Sure, many people with these issues have sustained friendships going back several years. But consider the nature of their “friendships.” Typically, friends of narcissists et al are comprised of:
- Minions, cheerleaders and flying monkeys (i.e., enablers).
- Narcissistic supply (i.e., lickspittles, toadies, butt kissers and sycophants).
- Fellow bullies of a feather who terrorize the countryside together.
- Other drama llamas that feed off each other’s perpetual chaos emissions.
- Genuinely good people who are friends with the narcissist’s or borderline’s false self/public persona, not the jerk who abuses you when no one’s watching.
These people aren’t friends, they’re useful tools. They’ll be discarded without hesitation if they cease being useful. And that’s what you are to a narcissistic partner — a useful tool. Until you’re not. Then you’ll be devalued, discarded and replaced.
If you’re the adult child of a narcissist or borderline mom or dad, you were probably parentified as a child. Kids personality disordered parents have grow up fast. Disordered parents rob their children of their childhood. Why? Because the narcissistic or borderline parent is, psychologically speaking, a child. As such, they’re incapable of putting anyone else first. This includes their children who are actually children.
When you’re a parentified child, mommy or daddy need you to take care of them. Or, you end up having to raise yourself because mommy and daddy are incapable of doing so. In which case, you probably developed some codependent caretaker traits and have chosen adult partners who are just as emotionally and psychologically underdeveloped as your parent(s).
In other words, your model for adult relationships was anything but adult. You were conditioned to believe that love is doing and doing for others, sacrifice, martyrdom and pain. Unlike actual children with good enough parents, narcissists and psychopaths don’t ever grow up.
These people aren’t ever going have an epiphany and change their ways. They’ll take and take and take until you’ve nothing left to give. They’ll exploit and abuse you until they break you. Then they become angry and blame you for being broken. Just like a toddler who breaks their toy by playing roughly with it.
If you’re married to, dating or have a parent with these issues, there are probably times when it feels like you’re dealing with a 3-year old in a 53-year old’s body. Odds are that’s exactly what you’re experiencing. Ever try to reason with a 3-year old? How about a 12-year old? Good luck with that!
Traits of adult toddlers or chronically emotionally immature narcissists and borderlines.
The reason it feels like you’re dealing with a toddler if your spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, parent, sibling, etc., is disordered or has an abundance of personality disorder traits is, I repeat, because they’re frozen in a state of arrested emotional, psychological and moral development.
The following are traits that narcissists et alshare with actual toddlers (i.e., children between the ages of 2 and 4 years):
1. Tantrums. Tantrums are multi-purpose. Narcissists and borderlines throw a tantrum:
- To get their way. Think Veruca Salt.
- When they want attention or when they’re bored.
- Because they’re enamored with the sound of their own caterwauling.
- For the amusement of seeing you scurry, scamper and wince.
- To keep their nearest and dearest on their toes (i.e., to keep you emotionally engaged).
If, for whatever reason, you’re determined to stay with your narcissist or borderline, stop rewarding their tantrums. Ignore them. Leave the house. Hang up the phone. Heck, turn off your phone. Anticipate that they’ll escalate the acting out behaviors and continue to ignore them. Unless she threatens to make a false 911 call accusing you of domestic violence or they become violent, then please, please, please get away from them as fast as you can.
2. Unreasonable and incessant need for attention. Being in a relationship with a narcissist, borderline or psychopath eventually feels like breast feeding a colicky, angry baby crocodile with a tapeworm. They never seem to tire of feeding. Their appetite for attention is insatiable.
I lived with a narcissist for approximately 7 years. The empathy well ran dry around year 4. I should’ve realized the end was nigh when he made one of his emotional distress signals (a heavy sigh accompanied by brow furrowing and holding his forehead in his hands as if in mortal agony) and I inwardly rolled my eyes. By that time, I’d ceased to jump in response to his nonstop attention-seeking. His laundry needed washing and his meals needed cooking, too. Not to mention the work I’m actually paid to do. There are only 24 hours in a day after all.
After I didn’t immediately stop what I was doing to inquire what or who was vexing him in the moment, he followed up the nonverbal distress signals with, “I’m feeling really anxious.” Translation: “Stop what you’re doing, assume the position and listen to me.” My internal editor must’ve been on a coffee break because I reflexively asked, “What is it now?” Whoops and KABOOM!
I had nothing left to give. He’d consumed it all. I later discovered he was already actively grooming my replacement when that occurred. It’s the narcissist’s equivalent of double-dipping their chips. It’s not attention-seeking, it’s attention gluttony. It calls to mind Templeton the Rat gorging himself at the fair in Charlotte’s Web.
3. Poorly developed problem-solving skills. If you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist, borderline or other immature personality, you probably think of yourself as conflict avoidant. Maybe you are, maybe you’re not. It’s more likely that you avoid conflict because of how your partner or ex does conflict. This emotional toddler doesn’t create conflict to resolve issues, but to distract from the real issues — their destructive behaviors.
They’re not interested in doing what’s right. They just want to be right, especially when they’re objectively wrong. That’s the sweet spot right there. If she or he can get you to apologize for whatever rotten thing they did to you it’s experienced as a narc-gasm. They bully, bulldoze, talk over, pout, threaten, kitchen sink, derail the conversation and/or bring up old conflicts. Whatever it takes.
They’re not interested in compromise or finding win-win solutions. Winning means getting what they want and you absorb the cost be it monetary, emotional or physical. They have to have all the cookies, a much bigger cookie or, at the very least, 3 more chocolate chips in their cookie than you. Your suffering is what makes her or him happy, but not for long. They want what they want whenever and where ever they want it and you’d better deliver. The volcano god/goddess requires regular human sacrifices.
4. Need-based love. A child’s love for their parents is based on need. Infants can’t take care of themselves and rely on their parents completely. Children (and children in adult bodies) don’t have the capacity for mature love based on mutuality and reciprocity. The narcissist doesn’t love you. The narcissist loves you for what you can do for them.
You’re a source of supply — attention, social status, butt kissing, physical labor, money, etc. During the love bombing stage, you’re the most amazing person ever. Once they begin to devalue you, if you’re giving them everything they want and shield them from life’s everyday frustrations, you’ll get some moments of respite. But you’re still tap dancing on eggshells.
Narcissists and borderlines need targets and enablers. In other words, they need scapegoats and people to clean up their messes. They can’t successfully narcissist or borderline without them. But abusers don’t love their enablers or targets. Nor do they feel gratitude for all the garbage you tolerate. When they’re not in a state of emotional or physical need, they prefer you leave them alone.
Or, rather look at them adoringly and while they ignore you and do their own thing (e.g., attention-seeking with their Facebook minions). Just like kids want mom and dad to watch them doing handstands in the swimming pool. They don’t want the parent to participate in their aquatic play. They want mom and dad to be their audience.
5. Poopy Diaper Face. Poopy diaper face the look of emotional constipation the narcissist, borderline or psychopath gets just before they get their tantrum on. I remember it well! Sometimes, it’s more subtle like a slow simmering pout. Other times, it’s scary and potentially dangerous like when they turn on the Death Stare™ or the Shark Eyes™.
In other words, it’s the non-verbal signal that your emotional toddler is building up to one of their episodes. Why do they do this?
Much like actual infants and toddlers, these individuals lack the ability to self-soothe, amuse themselves, reality test and problem solve. When feeling any kind of emotional or physical discomfort, their reflexive behavior is to alert the nearby grown-ups to come and tend to them.
Or, if they can’t get your attention fast enough, they’ll then self-soothe via self-destructive and destructive to others behaviors. Alcohol and drug abuse, overeating, overspending, cheating, raging at you to provoke an angry response, lying (creates the feeling of duper’s delight) — you know the drill.
Self-care is the responsibility of every adult.
Caring for oneself is the duty of every adult. It’s a duty to ourselves and others. When children are small and helpless, it’s a parent’s job to protect and care for them. It’s also a parent’s job to teach children how to assume increasing personal responsibility and self-care as it becomes developmentally appropriate.
It’s not your job to parent your narcissist, borderline or psychopath. If you believe it’s your responsibility ask yourself why? Why do you believe it’s your responsibility? Where did you learn that? Why are you taking that on? HINT: The answer isn’t, “Because I love her” or “Because I love him.” You’re doing so in a misguided attempt to get them to need you. To need you like a child needs their parents. That’s codependency, not love!
Do you really want to spend the rest of your life tending to an emotional toddler who refuses to grow up? Do you want to be a parent or a partner? If you want a relationship of equals, it’s time to launch your emotional toddler. That doesn’t mean creating boundaries with an expectation they’ll actually grow and mature. It’s highly unlikely that will ever happen.
You launch them because you accept that she or he is not your responsibility and never was your responsibility. They’ll survive just as they always have without you, so don’t exaggerate your importance to them. The world is chock full of other willing enablers. You launch them because it’s time for you to start taking care of you.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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