‘Adultification’ of a child by a parent entails that parent inappropriately assigning the child an adult role within the family that s/he is too young, and too developmentally immature, to take on or cope with.
It may involve the parent treating the child like an adult friend, a partner, a confidante, or, as happened in my own case, a kind of personal counselor/therapist (Burton, 2007; Jurkovic, 1997). Even before I was a teenager, my mother referred to me as her ‘Little Psychiatrist’, amongst other, somewhat less complimentary, things, (as I have written about elsewhere on this site).
The child may be ‘adultified’ in such a way even when the parent has access to more appropriate means of emotional support such as close friends or adult family members; however, the phenomenon is especially likely to occur if a parent has recently divorced or separated. In such a situation, for example, the newly single mother may start to use her son (for it is more frequently a son than daughter in such cases, according to research) for psychological and emotional support; if her recent separation has not been amicable there is often a danger that she may enlist her son as an ‘ally’ against this other parent, perhaps destroying the father-son relationship.
As well as being expected to provide emotional support, some parentified children may be expected to provide practical support (such as overly arduous household duties or excessive personal care). For example, the child may be coerced into undertaking inappropriate ways of earning money in an economically deprived family (Burton, 2007) which could interfere with schoolwork or even be illegal.
Furthermore, as a result of being parentified or due to other extreme stressors in the family, the child may run away and become homeless, resulting in further parentication (Schmitz and Tyler, 2016).
A parent who ‘adultifies’ his/her child may do so in a manipulative manner by only providing this child with approval as long as s/he (the child) is making great efforts (at the expense of his/her own needs) to fulfill the parent’s emotional needs. This obviously exploits the child’s innate need to positively bond with the parent, especially if the other parent is now absent.
Possible Effects Of Adultification Upon The Child:
Because the child is not developmentally ready (i.e. is not emotionally mature enough) to fulfil the adult role assigned to him/her, the effects tend to be negative and destructive; I provide examples below:
- adverse effect on psychological development (Arnett, 2000).
- stress and strain of taking on arduous responsibilities before the child is emotionally mature enough to do so (Foster, Hagan, & Brooks-Gunn, 2008).
- impaired relationships with peers
- deterioration in quality of school work
- career problems in adulthood
- difficulty maintaining relationships in adulthood.
According to a recent study, the child may be adultified by the parent in four main ways:
1) By attaining precocious knowledge (e.g. by being treated as a confidante by the parent and made to discuss ‘adult matters’)
2) ‘Mentored’ adultification (assuming an adult role within the family with minimal supervision).
3) ‘Spousification’ (being treated as the parent’s spouse – this may entail sexual abuse)
4) ‘Parentification’ (having to act as a parent of younger siblings)
Whilst the effects of adultification upon the child are often negative, some evidence exists to suggest that mentored adultification (number 2 above) and parentification (looking after younger siblings – number 4 above) may help to increase a child’s confidence – however, such conclusions must be drawn tentatively as research into this area is still at a nascent stage.
Burton, Linda. “Childhood Adultification in Economically Disadvantaged Families: A Conceptual Model.”Family Relations vol. 56, no. 4, 2007, pp. 329–345. www.jstor.org/stable/4541675. Accessed 26 Aug. 2021.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).