Mid-Twenties Adult Carries Baby Doll with Her

Reader’s Question

A family member in her late 20’s still seems to have an odd attachment to dolls. For example, when the entire family is together for a holiday, this young woman brings “baby”, dressed in appropriate clothing, etc. Her mother seems to think it’s all in good fun. There are a number of photos of this young woman and “baby” which make my skin crawl.

It doesn’t seem to be a healthy thing — I could see it if she COLLECTED dolls or treated them in a different fashion, but this seems a little ‘off’ to me. This young woman is a well-educated professional, a nurse in a pediatric unit at a local hospital. She has her own home, but is very close to her mom and immediate family; there are strong conservative religious ties. What’s going on here?

Psychologist’s Reply

There’s an old saying: “The difference between men and boys is the price of their toys”. Millions of adults play with toys — actually men more than women. Adult males continue to have trains, model airplanes, go-carts, etc. Men and women enjoy video games. The mental health issue is not playing with toys — which is viewed as a recreation, hobby, interest, or passing fad. A mental health concern surfaces when our toys become a major focus in our life.

In society, being an adult has certain social and emotional expectations. In healthy development, the fantasy world of childhood changes to an appropriate adult hobby or interest. The child interested in model trains often becomes an adult interested in model railroading which is actually very sophisticated and complex. Many adults elect to live their lives partially in adulthood and partially back in their childhood.

In this specific situation, this family member has elected to maintain her role in the family as an “adult child”. Her parents may actually encourage and support her in this fantasy as her behavior might suggest that she remains child-like, innocent, and conservative in her interactions with others. Her mother may have a continued sense of a mother-daughter relationship that hasn’t moved into a mother-to-adult daughter relationship. Her role is also visible evidence to her parents that she has not socially joined the “adult world” of romance, sexual relationships, alcohol, R-rated movies, etc. From their religious background, this is another role they may support.

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This role in the family may also have some benefits for the “adult child”. Using this pre-teen role is an effective way of avoiding adult responsibility in her social life. As an example, based on your observations of her role in the family would you 1) arrange a blind date for her, 2) ask her a list of medical questions, 3) ask her to speak to your organization about a career in nursing, etc.? A nurse in the family system is always viewed as a responsible adult — someone who automatically receives the 3:00 am calls that a nephew is sick. She may have consciously or unconsciously found a way to avoid that level of responsiblity. In the worst case situation, she may actually be avoiding the real life, adult world by electing to live in this fantasy world during her nonemployment hours.

Fantasy lives often make us feel more important, more valued, more competent, and more involved than our real life. We are more successful in our fantasy life because we design it that way. I’ve never seen a person dressed in a Star Trek outfit as a simple Ensign. For reasons unknown to us, she may find peace and a level of security in her doll obsession, perhaps a way of partially escaping her high level of responsibility as a pediatric nurse. Hobbies reduce our stress level, lower blood pressure, and provide enjoyment and purpose. She appears to have incorporated her hobby into her life at this point.

It is possible that she will continue this behavior for years to come, partially due to the support of her family system and partially to avoid growing up completely. While it’s an odd situation, it’s not a mental illness as such. Enjoyment in dressing as a Star Trek character is not a psychiatric illness either, although I do have concerns about those few who have learned the Klingon language.

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