I write dumb essays, poems, and stories. I post them here. American culture, social commentary, autobiographical, sometimes funny.


Traumatic Stunted Emotional Growth Syndrome

This is in no way an actual "syndrome" that I am aware of. It is likely just an observation of a set of common characteristics resulting from a wide variety of psychological processes. But I will write about it from my own simple point-of-view.

Did you ever know someone, whose "emotional" age seemed to be much younger than the number of years they have actually been alive? Of course we all have. Many of us might even describe ourselves this way. But for some people, and we all know one of these people, this "age gap" seems to be very pronounced.

I am a people watcher. I tend to notice these types of details about people. A smart person, I don't remember whom, once said, or wrote, "I learn a lot more by keeping my mouth shut than I ever did by saying anything." Maybe I just made that up. I don't really recall. But in any case it makes good sense. Not being one to follow my own advice, at least not by the letter, I transmute this counsel to apply instead to observation. Therefore I might also say "I learn a lot more by watching others than I ever could by doing anything." Now there is sage advice.

I watch people everywhere I go. I think half of us suffer from this affliction. The rest of you are being watched. I also try to meet as many new people as I can in my daily adventures. And, being somewhat of an extrovert, I tend to get to know people, at least understanding the important details of their lives, fairly quickly after meeting them. Well I get to know people I like fairly quickly. If you sit with me at a pub and I don't ask any questions, well, you know what that means.

To the original point of this essay, my graduate level work in keen observation of individuals wandering around me wherever I may be has led me to the discovery and subsequent theory of the completely unscientific and in no way legitimately documented personality defect I write about here. I imagine many of my readers will instantly realize they have seen it before, perhaps even suffer from the malady themselves, but have never known what to call it. This phenomenon, which, once I noticed it, appeared to be incredibly common among people in our culture is something I refer to as "traumatic stunted emotional growth syndrome." Let me explain what I mean.

I can't even remember where the idea came from. I first encountered it in college, and because I studied a lot of psychology and sociology for kicks (remember I was an English major), I might have even read about it somewhere, and there may be some legitimacy to it. Probably though, I just heard about it at a party somewhere, or someone tried to bullshit me and I fell for it completely. In any case, I have been observing examples of this phenomenon for years, and I have yet to see the theory fail.

Here is the basic premise. When something particularly traumatic happens to someone at a certain age, that person will often become emotionally "stunted" right at that age. This means that as this person grows and matures in other ways, they will continue to react to certain emotional situations in exactly the same way they did at the time they experienced trauma, never "growing" into true and reasonable "adult" emotions. This, as you can imagine, can be a particularly debilitating problem for people who experience traumatic emotional events as children, because they turn into strange adults.

As an example to illustrate my point, I will tell you a little story. I once had a secretary for whom I used this theory to predict something about her past of which I could never have actually been aware. She was not a good secretary. She was about 32, divorced with two adolescent kids. She seemed a nice enough person most of the time. We were both working for a state government agency and she had been transferred to me from another state government agency. She was initially friendly and polite, but after some time I became aware of some strange habits. I did not pay as much attention to the goings on at my workplace at the time as I maybe should have, so I became aware of these habits mostly because other people came to me to complain about them.

The first thing was, she spent the first two hours or so of her morning each day sitting in her cubicle grooming herself. She did all her makeup, brushed her hair, used perfume, hairspray, everything you can think of, not at home before coming to work, but at her desk, for about two hours every morning. Secondly, she spent much of the rest of her day cruising "singles" websites. Thirdly, she did not wear shoes in the office. As soon as she arrived, her shoes came off, and did not go back on again in any way until the end of the day when she left to go home. I received the most complaints about this. And lastly, this was the problem that really finally got my attention, she refused to actually do any work. Those of you who work in an office environment will immediately understand why this kind of behavior is not really appropriate for an administrative assistant.

See she was a state employee, which in this particular state meant she actually had a "property right" to her job. So I couldn't just fire her for refusing to work, as long as she was showing up every day and not abandoning her job. I had to prove a reasonable case for denying her of her legal property. Besides, I was particularly interested in understanding her behavior, as it was some of the oddest behavior I had ever observed in a workplace. I would think that I was borrowing this story from Melville without asking, except that it actually happened to me.

The first time I approached my little Bartleby about these problems, I decided to take up the issue of the shoes (or lack thereof). I told her very plainly that she had not been wearing shoes, and needed to whenever she left her desk. I thought I would start by offering a compromise. She asked why. I had not expected this question. I explained that people had been complaining, and that office policy dictated that everyone must to wear shoes. Though I seemed at least subconsciously to understand this policy, I never thought I would have to actually explain it to someone. Her response to this was almost disturbing to me. She let out what can best be described as a low, nasally, whine, which started very quiet and got progressively louder for about 30 seconds, which is a very long time to listen to something so acutely odd. I thought that this had been a fairly simple matter, and this was certainly a reaction I had not planned for. Before my astonished mind could get back on task enough to yell "What the fuck????" she followed her little noise with a very irritated "fine, whatever!"

I simply walked away. I did not know what else to do. As I walked back to my office I heard her exclaim behind me that she hated wearing shoes.

This behavior surprised and disturbed me to such a degree that I had to mull it over in my mind for some time. After a few days, it occurred to me that her reaction to my simple, logical request was about the same reaction that a father might get from his teenage daughter if he asked her to clean her room. Except that, at the time, she was several years older than me. I mean, her reaction to me was strikingly similar to the reactions parents get from teenagers whenever any bit of logical thought is introduced to them. It was uncanny. The support for this association finally came to me when three days later she was not wearing shoes as she made her way around the office. It was as if we had never spoken at all, or she assumed that my request for her to wear shoes, as put out as she was by it, expired after two days.

The very next day I made a point of asking her specifically to complete a task. I knew this was a pretty bold move at the time, but I was determined. I gave her a stack of old hardcopy materials to re-type. It was as simple a task as I could think of. I asked her to save her work in a specific folder on a shared drive so I could check her progress. I did not ask for questions, I simply walked away and left her with her work. At the end of the day, I checked the folder on the shared drive where I had asked her to save her work, and it was empty. I asked her what had happened, and she explained to me that she did not want to save her work in that folder, because I might "check up on her" to see whether or not she was working. So she had not completed any part of the task. This move was apparently made to "keep me guessing" about whether or not she was actually working. Her defiance was maddening, but felt strangely affirming.

The day after that, I set about the task of firing her. This took eight months. During these months, I met with her weekly and made the same statement each week. I explained that her performance had not improved from the last time we met, I listed the specific actions she needed to take to correct her performance , things like wearing shoes, brushing her hair at home, and getting some work done, and explained that if she did not correct her performance she would be terminated on July 7. I had the exact same conversation with her each Thursday afternoon for eight months. She took vigorous notes each time, and even recorded several of the meetings. I was indeed perplexed.

During the course of these eight months, I learned some additional things about her. I learned that she had been married very young, and that her husband had not been a very nice man. I learned that she had a propensity for manipulating systems and services of all sorts to her own benefit. I remembered from college this theory of traumatic stunted emotional growth syndrome. And I predicted that something very bad had happened to her when she was about thirteen years old. I ascertained that this was about the age she acted in any emotional situation. Although she was physically in her early thirties, there was no mistaking her for a thirteen-year-old girl.

I eventually learned that her father had been killed rather violently when she was thirteen, and that she did not speak with her mother. This explained everything to me.

Still I needed a useful secretary. The work that had been piling up was really getting out of hand. When July 7 came around, I was not surprised to find that she was shocked to be ushered out the door. It seems that earlier in the day she had delivered to the human resourced department all of the notebooks containing the notes she took in our meetings for eight months, all of the tape recordings, and various selected email from me asking her to get something done. She had built (in her mind) a case that I was "impossible to get along with," and for proof she offered evidence that I had repeatedly asked her to perform unreasonable tasks. The HR folks did not know what to make of this at all. They had apparently never heard of traumatic stunted emotional growth syndrome. But, it was July 7, and all the paperwork was in place, so they just watched her pack up her desk and walked her out the door.

I later heard that within a month she had married a middle-school sweetheart in Las Vegas, and was living there. I was glad to hear it. I wished her the best.

This was not the first time, nor the last time I had this kind of experience with the massive explanatory power of traumatic stunted emotional growth syndrome. It has happened over and over, and I swear to you, it has never failed to explain this type of behavior.

Children in our country face any number of potential emotional traumas. Almost everyone is hurt or traumatized in some way as an adolescent or teenager. And these seem to be the years that produce the most noticeable emotional deficiencies in adults. People who are abused physically, sexually, or emotionally almost always exhibit traumatic stunted emotional growth syndrome in some way. People whose parents, siblings, or loved ones die when they are in these tender years will show symptoms. People who experience very stressful and emotional problems at home as children, such as a nasty divorce, parents cheating on each other or fighting constantly will show symptoms. Almost any truly stressful and emotional situation a child encounters could cripple them this way as adults.

I am not a psychologist, and my ignorant rambling on this topic is based only on my own observations and my half-wit social theory. But it seems to be that the thing that often makes a difference for people who suffer from traumatic stunted emotional growth syndrome is getting help dealing with the source of their pain. I have heard of people abused as children, who sought, or were offered counseling and treatment and who were not saddled with this problem as an adult. I have known people who dealt with terrible tragedies in their childhood years who grew up to function as perfectly well balanced reasonable adults, because they spent the time with therapists and psychologists working it out. It seems to be the people who are left to deal with their more significant problems on their own from a very early age who suffer most from traumatic stunted emotional growth syndrome. These are the people we know who seem perfectly normal most of the time, but when life gets stressful, they either cannot cope with it at all, or they behave in a manner typical of a much younger person in the situation. These are our lost souls. These are the people who continue to have trouble with adult relationships, and adult responsibilities. These are the sufferers of traumatic stunted emotional growth syndrome.

I must confess that I am not just the bell ringer for this syndrome. I am also a client. Almost as soon as I noticed it in other people, I noticed it in myself. It seems that far too often in my adult life, when relationships (my failed marriage for example) became difficult or stressful, I became a scared, fourteen-year-old boy who just found out his girlfriend was pregnant. Or I would fight like a sixteen-year-old who has to be in court to try and maintain a relationship with his one-year-old baby son. It has taken me several years to learn to let these emotions go, and learn to behave like a grown-up even in the worst situations.

It is my sincere hope that my readers will begin to recognize and internalize the symptoms associated with this gross oversimplification of social and psychological theory. TSEGS can be recognized and treated. In fact, recognition is the most important step. Look around you. Consider your friends and family. Consider yourself. Can your illogical and irrational behavior be attributed to TSEGS? I have no idea. I am not a professional in this field.


  1. I usually just blame PMS for my irrational behavior.

  2. isn't that the beauty of being a woman... blame it on PMS... although when I turn 45, I am planning to revert back to my mental state of 21... young and hot.. and wait.. I groom myself at my cube almost everyday in the morning because I'm late.. AND I take off uncomfortable shoes as I sit at my desk. THAT to me is perfectly rational behavior.

  3. When I was around twelve years old I read "I'm OK, You're Ok," and it imprinted forever in my mind the diagram of the three selves. The Adult, Parent, and Child, and the idea that at any given moment we might be reacting and acting from one of those selves. The goal was to always be in our Adult. It's been a life long struggle to find that rational grown up, but it's sure as hell worth it. It sure helps when dealing with my emotionally thirteen year old mother for one of us to be the adult. Sigh.

  4. your tone is arrogant and kind of irritating :( stop thinking of yourself as "smart" as if you're some kind of exception. that seems to be where you're emotionally stunted :p

  5. I assure you that is not the only way I am emotionally stunted. Thanks for reading and hating. I do appreciate it.

  6. I totally agree, I knew this was real. Thank you for putting this out to read.

  7. interesting...I have this theory also from my own behaviour and childhood trauma. It is very distressing and shameful when people say "you're 26 and STILL acting like a spoilt teenager". I just want to grow but it takes time and effort!