Doesn’t everyone know a child who has a smart, not dirty or foul, mouth? You know that kid- the one who seems to position her/himself in the middle of adult conversations and makes statements or decisions indicative of a more mature person or an adult. Somewhat precocious, a little rude, slightly condescending, but always made sense in proper context, yes? Well, that particular child is just self-assured and exceptionally wise or perceptive- not particularly the subject of this discussion- adultification.
Exactly what is adultification? My grandmother used to call it, ” growing up before your time”. Early “adultification” occurs when a young person is forced into adult-like roles before reaching a mature level of mental and emotional stability.
Childhood adultification manifests in four forms:
- “precocious knowledge,” in which children gain knowledge typically associated with older people;
- “mentored adultification,” where a child assumes an adult-like role with only limited supervision;
- “peerification/spousification,” when children gain status equal to that of their parents, sometimes assuming the position of a “quasi-partner;” and
- “parentification,” whereby a child may become a full-time “quasi-parent” to his or her siblings.
It is difficult to determine how many are affected by the complex processes that surround young people who have played adult roles such as premature caregiving, parenthood and family conflict, because not all young people experience it the same way. Themes that can characterize adultification are:
Early Independence. This occurs when youth must provide for themselves once they are faced with neglectful caregiving. Little supervision compels them to provide for their own needs, which they may deem beneficial, and viewed as character-building.
Family Conflict. Various forms of caregiver abuse, neglect and strained home environments with conflict and high stress, makes youth feel older than they are.
Premature Caregiving. Household responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings or relatives, cooking and cleaning, lead youth unprepared to balance these adult duties with other responsibilities like school work and can motivate youth to leave home early.
Parenthood. Becoming a parent at an early age without much parental support can raise an array of emotions. Some youth can use this as determined motivation to positively alter their lifestyles for their own children. Others will carry resentment into adulthood that will affect their parenting and relationships with their children.
Cultural Differences. Race and culture vary and will likely influence life outcomes. For instance, people of color assume greater responsibilities and obligations earlier, and may encourage earlier independence than other cultures. However, this should not be assumed as a cultural norm, since it has components that are not culturally or racially dictated. Rather, the perceived level of adultification is also dependent upon family financial and socio-political status among other factors. Many responsibilities taken on by youngsters may often be seen as an expectation in preparation for independence and adulthood rather than abusive or neglectful on the part of caregivers.
Culturally-based, this phenomenon is to be viewed from multiple lenses, which highlights the importance of cultural proficiency among all who work with children, youth and families.
Schools should offer in their curriculum design, reality-based, youth empowerment and peer support programming experiences- within a safe environment to explore and examine different realities and acquire new effective coping skills. Science and Social Studies classes need to incorporate life skills training, for the acquisition of real life skills. Conflict resolution, effective listening, the art of positive feedback, building empathic awareness, tolerance, and emotional literacy expansion opportunities should be embedded in instructional design in formal k-12 learning institutions.
Offered in schools, perhaps when youngsters become adults, we can be assured that they have been given basic life skills within more age-appropriate learning contexts. Amidst all challenges that children face, at home, in school and the world around them, it falls on us to prepare our young learners for real life global competency in the real world.
Adultification is literally growing up too fast in an already fast paced society. We must broaden our lenses and re-imagine policies, practices, procedures and perspectives that place children at the center of all focused and family-friendly strategies to improve life quality and learning outcomes.
Home, family, community, work or school culture alone does not lead to early adultification of youth. Yet, youth who are adultified are the most vulnerable, and the least qualified for the roles that are thrust upon them. Although a hurried childhood can indicate adultification of youth, we must be careful to not misconstrue reality dictated responsibilities assumed by children as such across the board. There is a fine line between this and ‘normal’ challenging tasks given to children in families. Responsibilities are good in many instances and inappropriate in others.
A form of adultification, a child becomes parentified when they are charged with parenting tasks which are beyond them. A child should not have to be responsible for caring for others 24/7. They are their sibling(s)’s sibling, not their parent, and they should not be expected to act as though they are.
‘Spousification‘ and ‘peerification‘ are often interchangeable terms. The difference is that spousification involves treating a child as a partner, while peerification involves treating a child as a peer. A form of spousification more commonly seen these days comes when divorced or separated parents use their child as a sounding board for their grievances against one another. For example, a mother might tell her child that their father is a bad person, or blame the father for the separation. The problem is that bad person is also that child’s parent. A child should not be expected to listen to disparaging comments about either of their parents.
It is important to remember that a child is a child, and should be treated as such. They are not prepared to act as a friend or partner to their parent(s). They are only prepared to be….children who, with proper nurturing and sound guidance, will be adults soon enough. It is unfair to rush them along. Life is pretty challenging already.
Why is adultification worth mentioning?
In short, because it’s wrong. A child is a child. A child should not have to act like an adult. The effects of being adultified can be seen once the child has grown and physically becomes an adult, long after they mentally became one.This is not to say that there are not good things that can come out of adultification. The adultified child may grow to have a strong sense of independence, be very practical, have skills as a care-taker, etc.. However, the negative effects can weigh the person down.
If you are or were adultified, what do you do? First, the important thing to acknowledge is that you have identified the issue. This is the first critical step on a journey towards healing any wounds you may have been left with. Begin to live and love life while always in pursuit of the best, most authentic version of yourself.