Childhood Adultification

Poverty, Gender and Birth Order are Among Factors That Influence Children

People who were raised in alcoholic or addiction home may identify with these processes.

Using ethnographic studies of children and adolescents growing up in low income families, a study published in Family Relations provides insight into how poverty and other related attributes influence the formation of adult behaviors in children.

Childhood adultification, the processes by which children prematurely assume adult roles within their families, is a little researched area of child development.

Parent/child authority hierarchies; family needs, such as working to support the family financially; and family culture, such as expectations concerning responsibilities are all found to influence adultification. Attributes such as gender, race and birth order show consistent influence on the adultified roles taken on by children.

“Eldest children in a family are more likely to become adultified than their younger siblings,” says study author Linda Burton of Duke University. “Large differences can also be seen in the types of adultified roles taken on by male and female adolescents.” Boys are more likely to become primary or secondary breadwinners in a household, and to become confidants to their mothers, while girls are more likely to take on homemaking and caretaking roles. The exception to this rule, however, is that African American boys are also more likely to take on domestic roles in families compared to Hispanic and White males.

The study classifies childhood adultification 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.

The model does not imply that an adultified child only experiences one form consistently. Nearly all adultified children have experience with precocious knowledge, while those who advance to higher levels of adultification move back and forth across levels as family situations require.

The study remarks on several developmental, behavioral, and health outcomes for adultified children, noting that these experiences can have both positive and negative impacts.

For instance, children who experience parentification or mentored-adultification sometimes report that they have achieved greater self-confidence and a strong sense of agency.

However, peerification/spousification and parentification can also lead to high levels of anxiety and depression.

The effects of precocious knowledge vary depending on whether or not parents help children to interpret the knowledge they acquire.

Several ways in which the lives of adultified children and their families may be improved are suggested by the study. Efforts to improve understanding of adultification among teachers and family practitioners, as well as programs to assist adultified children in fine-tuning their social and emotional competencies by teaching them social and emotional tempering techniques, are recommended.

The study also advocates efforts to optimize children’s assets, and the creation of respite and “developmental compensation” opportunities.


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