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Child Development

Remember When Everyone Outgrew You?

Being an immature adult is a symptom, not a choice.

When did you first realize that you were being left behind?

Was it during adolescence, when your best friend start wearing blusher or downloading nudes — gauging your face for signs of solidarity, not shock?

Did you sit there instead feeling excluded from some secret club? Did you hope they were joking?

Did you squeal "Eeewww!" to call their bluff, then realized that they played no more, not games you knew, and not with you? That they'd been summoned futureward by some sharp starting-gun you could not hear?

Instead you heard only the slapslapslap of their retreating footfalls and sat incalculably alone.

Maybe they half-glanced back, calling Catch up! in increasingly adult accents as you strove, arms pinwheeling, to run.

But did you tumble as if ball-and-chained while watching them — from ever-farther distances — accomplish rites of passage you could barely understand?

Fast-forward: Now does everyone sixteen and older seem your senior? Dazzling sophisticates, initiates, keepers of grownup secrets, guardians of sacred gates?

And does everything you try take longer and seem ten times harder and less possible for you than it appears to be for them?

Do you wake most days already afraid? Do you experience such shame and fear that you are ashamed and afraid of being so ashamed and so afraid?

Why were we left behind? Why are so many of us, although physically grown up, still childish — not in a freewheeling daisychainy way, but stuck? Why can regular conversations make us cry, yet much else leaves us numb? Why do we always expect punishment? Why do we so easily vanish, lie and fight?

Why does maturity seem a forbidden country at whose barbwired, laser-beamed frontier we feel brutally disinvited, disallowed?

Here's why: Because childhood trauma prevented us from growing up. We spent our fledgling years — when human brains develop rapid-fire and identities form — learning not how to love and thrive but how to hide, flee, unfeel and unsee.

We were raised in survival mode by those who, often victims too, had neither mastered nor could convey crucial skills such as compassion, courage, tolerance, resilience, gratitude, endurance, self-awareness, stress reduction, preparation, planning, patience, justice, loyalty, adaptability, responsibility, resolve.

Instead, they sent us, stunted, staggering blindfolded into pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey reality.

Thus we struggle to achieve what normal adults consider birthrights: friendship, partnership, parenting, safety, identity, work.

This was never our fault. Like buds glued shut or cut, we were denied the right to bloom. Ten trillion sunbeams never touched us.

And what is maturity? I cannot tell you from experience but only guess, as toddlers ponder how planes fly. We who lack it are often unawares, misdiagnosing ourselves as shallow or spoiled or slow, misreading our anxiety as anything but feeling left behind.

This chasm impacts every interaction, all relationships. We sense ourselves — and sense that others sense us — acting adultlike, urgently seeking clues for what to say and how to say it, which unfathomed feelings to display.

Coworkers, would-be pals and partners decide one by one that we are uninitiated, partial, larval.

Often they react to this with rage or pain, as if we were actual children wearing suits and gowns, walking on stilts, to trick them.

Then we watch them demarcate their distance, backing off from us as one does from the dirty.

We, the immature, envy you grown-up grownups for adeptly raising offspring, fighting fires and building rocketships.

Some of us play catch-up well enough to mature marginally, forcibly, finally, latter-day-patchworkily. Just as when learning foreign languages, some can attain fluency without history. Or, if not fluency, then sometimes-somewhat-semi-functionality, plastered over stark sad caesuras as we fractionally ford those blazing act-your-age frontiers like refugees.

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