Adultification: How To Heal If You Grew Up Too Soon

Maybe your parents were immigrants and you were asked to do a lot as a child. You may have been expected to translate for your parents at school and everywhere else, take care of your siblings, and keep up with your schoolwork. Or perhaps your parents were consumed with life stressors like divorce, unresolved trauma, or financial constraints that required you to step up and take charge from an early age. Among mental health professionals, this is known as childhood adultification.


Research in the Journal of Family Relations defines child adultification as "a process in which youth are prematurely and often, inappropriately exposed to adult knowledge and assume extensive adult roles and responsibilities within their family networks." While there are different types of child adultification, the overall experience of being made to grow up quickly creates stress that leads to a range of complex thoughts and feelings about it. So, if you find yourself struggling with the impact of child adultification, or at the very least are curious about the ways it may have impacted you, here are some considerations that can move you along in the healing process.

Consider your unique family experiences

We don't get to choose our families, and sometimes we're born into family circumstances that are not the best for us. To illustrate, you may have been raised by a family or parents addicted to drugs, parents who struggled with a lack of financial resources and housing insecurity, or parents who had significant trauma that made them largely unavailable. According to research published in Family Relations, this can lead to a number of different types of child adultification experiences.


Some adultified children have been over-exposed to adult information or treated like a spouse or peer. Others were expected to take care of household responsibilities with no supervision, or they took on the role of a full-time adult and parent all at the same time. All of these experiences occur when children are not developmentally mature enough to manage them, although it may look like it. In order for healing to take place, it's important to be able to identify and gain some clarity on what you experienced.

Consider your coping style

Children deal with adultification in different, non-exclusive ways. Sometimes, they develop rigid ways of coping, like being guarded or becoming the poster child for rebellion, both of which may signal a lack of trust and an unwillingness to get close to others. Other times, children struggle with their self-concept and self-esteem and overvalue their role as the "responsible one" or the "caretaker" because it gives them the validation they yearn for. Still, as they get older, they may develop vices or addictions as a way to manage the stress, particularly if it was what was modeled for them. 


In what ways did you cope with your adultification experience? While merely recognizing your coping style does not automatically lead to healing, any positive changes require that you have some working insight into how you've managed to deal with the stressors of childhood. It's also an opportunity to reframe the way you have thought about your experiences. For instance, if you have been prone to self-blame, you can develop a more compassionate and understanding perspective. Try this: what would you say to someone who had similar adultification experiences? Would you hold them responsible or be supportive and understanding? This can help guide how you talk to yourself about what occurred. 

Consider the cost

If you experienced child adultification, you did the best you could with the information you had at the time. There was no rule book to tell you how to respond. So, of course, you protected yourself, took pride in your role as keeper of the home, or relied on vices or addictions to get through it. Whatever way you managed to cope, think of what it cost you.


Yes, you were smart enough to run an entire household by age 7 and still make the honor roll, but at what cost? Did you develop a compulsive style and now don't feel useful unless you're in control? If you relied on vices to get through, what did you have to sacrifice — your skills and talents, your relationships? Considering the cost helps to clarify the areas in your life where you may be running on a deficit. And when you are clear about what you have sacrificed, you can begin to give attention to those areas.

Consider the gains

Sometimes, our greatest accomplishments occur as a result of great pain. While it's important to be clear on what your child adultification experiences have cost you, it's never a good idea to only focus on the negative. This only leaves you feeling regret and resentment and prevents you from enjoying life. When children are forced into adult responsibilities prematurely, it is not ideal, but it can amplify positive qualities such as resiliency, compassion, and the ability to think critically, even if these traits are misused by adults early on.


Maybe you learned that you can multitask or you have a killer work ethic. Or maybe you just learned you made it through. Never underestimate the stick-to-itiveness and resilience you acquired to survive. But once you figure out what you learned, it takes some resolve to learn how to use these gains effectively in your life. You may be great at multitasking, but that doesn't mean people are allowed to take advantage of you or that you should put everyone's needs before your own. It's about learning how to set boundaries around your assets so they can work for rather than against you.

Process it with a mental health professional

Along with these considerations, it's important to process your adultification experience with a mental health professional (or a trusted friend if you can't get to a therapist just yet) rather than avoid it. While avoidance may feel good in the moment and reduce stress temporarily, it almost certainly leads to more maladaptive coping as a way to escape painful feelings. On the other hand, processing overwhelmingly stressful experiences with a qualified individual helps you to create a new narrative from an adult perspective that allows for more compassion, grace, and healing, as well as improved comping.


While the healing process often occurs within the context of treatment, much of the work you will do will be outside the therapy room. Therefore, it behooves you to find a motivation for change. Maybe it's to get relief from anxiety and live an improved life, or maybe you think of all the people you can help if you get healed. The possibilities are endless.