Childhood adultification

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Childhood adultification involves children being exposed to adult knowledge and engaging in behaviours understood as adult-like (such as taking on caregiving or provider roles in the family). The child transitions to adult-like personas/family roles, typically driven by a necessary dependence on them to meet family daily survival needs and limited housing options. This is often with limited guidance and is correlated with high poverty rates. Compare childhood adultification with the 'hurried child', which is often typically of middle class families and is a redefinition of childhood focused on building human/social capital as quickly as possibly. While the hurried child remains 'in sync' with that typical norms of being a child, childhood adultification is 'out of sync' with what they are 'supposed' to do.

Based on ethnographic research with low-income families, Burton theorises 4 stages of childhood adultification:

1) Precocious knowledge: witnessing situations and acquiring knowledge that are advanced for the child’s age; often become aware of financial situations and may share with other children or act on/emulate adult behaviours.

2) Mentored adultification: when a child assumes an adult role with limited supervision from an adult. Often allows the child to feel needed, appreciated, while mostly maintaining the parent-child authority hierarchy.

3) Peerification/spousification: when a child behaves more like a parent’s peer or spouse than like a parent’s subordinate (takes on role of quasi wife, husband or confidante). Peerification will become spousification when the child begins coparenting or becoming a confidante.

4) Parentification: when a child assumes a full-time quasi parent role to their siblings and parents. The most extreme cases are usually when parents are substance abusers, and the child must protect or take care of them as well as their siblings.

Why does childhood adultification happen to certain children in certain families?

  • Birth order and gender: eldest male often breadwinner, eldest female often homemakers/caretakers
  • Perceived early maturity and resilience
  • Specific family needs must be met: sibling care, elder care, jobs, financial management, emotional confidants, communication
  • Reduced parental family resources: inadequate quality time, unavailability, lack of psychological awareness, poor health
  • Reduced social family resources: lack of emotional and material resources from relationships and social networks
  • Strain on parents that pressure children to comfort their parents, help them

Factors that influence childhood adultification

  • Number of adultified siblings
  • Family norms and early assumptions of responsibilities
  • Clarity of hierarchical boundaries between parent and child
  • Rural vs urban areas
  • Transitory vs persistent poverty
  • Broad-based economic restructuring vs individual's lifelong disadvantage
  • Chronic health issues vs healthy
  • Access to childcare and social services
  • Extent of lack of privacy
  • Violent neighbourhoods

Consequences of childhood adultification

  • processing precocious information while unchecked can result in imitation of adult-like behaviours without understanding their meaning or appropriateness
  • may have good life skills, but compromise school attendance/performance
  • may feel needed within the family, but also have a lot of anxiety and worry
  • may feel more confident and independent, but compromised emotional/intimate relationships and forgo marriage, drop out of school, etc

Works Cited

Burton, L. (2007). Childhood adultification in economically disadvantaged families: A conceptual model. Family Relations, 56(4), 329-345.