What Is Emotional Retardation?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 June 2019
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Emotional retardation refers to slowed or stagnant development of the emotions. Several symptoms characterize this type of developmental disorder, including a lack of subtle or complex emotions and the reduced capacity or inability to experience empathetic emotions. Since it is often symptomatic of an underlying mental or physiological condition, a careful assessment by a psychologist or neurologist is often warranted if symptoms arise.

People suffering from emotional retardation generally have difficulty experiencing emotions or expressing their emotions. Often, the developmental lag in those with this condition makes it difficult or impossible for patients to learn and mature through emotional experiences, leading to a stagnated level of emotional growth. Patients may be unable to fully explain, experience, or express what some psychologists call “subtle” or “complex” emotions, such as compassion or worry.

In some cases, patients do not fully develop the capacity to notice and respond to social cues, and may have difficulty interacting in a group or in one-on-one conversations. This aspect may be concurrent with social learning disorders, such as autism, which can make it difficult for some patients to make friends or establish relationships. Other symptoms that may be present with emotional retardation include mood swings, high anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and self-esteem or body-image disorders.


Emotional retardation is generally a symptom, rather than a disorder in and of itself. It can be characteristic of dozens of different mental disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and personality disorders. It may come in concert with mental or physical developmental disorders, or may exist primarily by itself. Since the range of possible causes is so enormous, it can be very difficult to identify the cause or responsible factors, and nearly impossible without professional help. Even with the aid of psychologists and neurologists, patients may go through a long long diagnostic period before the exact cause can be determined, and even then, no full explanation can be guaranteed.

In addition to mental and emotional disorders, other possible causes of emotional development issues include extreme physical or emotional trauma. Patients who experience a traumatic event, such as sexual abuse, a serious accident, or a life-threatening situation may develop emotional disorders that can present as emotional retardation. While a traumatic origin may be more common in emotional disorders found in children and adolescents, trauma can also cause severe emotional problems for adults. Both children and adults who display symptoms of emotional retardation following a trauma may benefit from psychological assessment and treatment.

While emotional developmental issues may cause considerable challenges in the lives of both patients and their families, the situation is often far from hopeless. Once properly diagnosed, a patient can begin to learn more about the management and outlook of his or her condition, working with doctors and therapists to devise management strategies. Patients with emotional retardation often have the ability to lead a full, successful, and happy life, even if symptoms continue.


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