2020 was a tough year for kids and teenagers. The pandemic forced many into digital schooling and cut off in-person social development, a huge necessity for developing emotional intelligence. With additional household and family burdens brought on by the pandemic, many children and teenagers have been asked to take on more responsibilities on top of these other changes. It’s hard to be a kid right now.
But even before the pandemic, a common discussion amongst experts, teachers, and parents was are kids growing up too fast? It often seems kids now are feeling pressure to grow up faster, to be more mature, and act more adult before they are ready. As a parent, it can be difficult to know when, how, and if you should intervene. How much childhood is the right amount and what do you do when your child feels pressured by society to grow up too quickly? There’s a lot to say about this subject, so let’s start with some common concerns and then see what emotional intelligence can teach us about if your kid is growing up too fast.
How Big is the Problem?
The scope of this issue combined with the multitude of factors that contribute to it makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly what is the root cause, but disappearing childhood is a problem that is present on many people’s minds. A Netmums.com survey polled parents in the UK in 2016 and the results were staggering. 70% of parents polled said their children were no longer child-like by age 12 and 90% believe that this generation is under greater pressure to grow up than previous ones. So it’s safe to say the question of if kids are growing up too fast looms large in the minds of parents everywhere.
In this particular survey, the factors most frequently cited for this pressure were school peers, the media, celebrities’ physical appearance, teen fashion, and the internet. Additionally, this Washington Post article from 2011 reports many similar sources of this pressure with a few additional ones.
The article first discusses the myriad ways in which we’ve seen kids growing up faster and the concerns from their parents. The concerns at the time were parents applying academic pressure at an early age, kids hitting puberty at earlier ages than ever before, and technology exacerbating and exposing kids to unsavory and inappropriate content at early ages. Looking over this list, it seems not much has changed since 2011. Academic pressure is still high for young kids, scientists still have no explanation for why kids are hitting puberty earlier than in the past, and technology is a constant source of new issues for children.
Along with new issues brought on by the pandemic, it’s safe to say that kids are feeling this pressure from a constant stream of sources both new and old.
Clearly there’s an issue here that’s complicated and difficult for parents to wrap their heads around, never mind the kids and teenagers experiencing it. But what are the effects of this issue and is it really such a bad thing? Let’s take a look at what happens when children are forced to grow up too fast and all the negative effects this can have on their development.
Growing Up Too Fast or Parentified Children?
Sometimes, kids are asked to act like adults by necessity. Their family may be going through turbulence, their parent or guardian may no longer be reliable, or they may see that their sibling isn’t receiving the care they need and they step in to supplement that care.
There are a lot of different reasons why a child may be put in a situation where they have to grow up too quickly. Unfortunately, this can be very damaging to a child’s development. When they’re given too much responsibility at a young age, they begin to feel the pressure of being relied upon and have a tendency to close up emotionally later in life. A good work ethic and motivational aspirations are both important skills to teach, but not at the price of a meaningful childhood. From Psychcentral.com:
“Parentified children take responsibility for practical tasks like cooking, cleaning, and paying bills. They put their younger siblings to bed and help them with homework. They also take care of their parents covering mom with blankets after she’s passed out on the couch, acting as her crisis counselor or confidant (sometimes this is called being a surrogate spouse), bearing the heavy burden of trying to solve adult problems.”
A child bearing the responsibilities of an adult is obviously an unfair situation for them to be in. This is different from the overall sensation parents are feeling that childhood might be ending too quickly and is much more serious as children in these situations are essentially never even given a childhood in the first place. Nevertheless, it serves us well to see what that extreme example looks like and the negative consequences it can have on the adult they become.
Navigating these Feelings
So we’ve identified the issue and we can see why it’s an issue, but what can we do about kids growing up to fast?
Ultimately, parents and caregivers are in charge of monitoring how quickly and comfortably their children are growing up. If there are signs that your child is feeling pressured to grow up too quickly, it’s up to you to find out why. Most of all, this will come from knowing your child and when they are comfortable leaving childhood behind. What’s important is making sure that whatever guidance you offer is in their best interest and not part of your own fears or worries. Part of growing up is identifying when enough childhood is enough and when your child is ready to move on.
But there are cases where a child feels a natural tendency to grow up quickly like in the case of children who are very intelligent from an early age. Because of their high intelligence, they begin to associate with adults more and rob themselves of a real childhood. It requires a lot of respect on the part of the parents to navigate situations where children feel they should be treated like adults and requires the parents to have open minds and think through their reasoning for their parenting decisions. Gifted children feel satisfied when they’re given a reason for every decision. Part of parenting a gifted child is clearly stating these reasons and that they’re not up for debate. Children, often at a young age, love to debate and negotiate, but it’s often not in their best interest to indulge them.
Another effect of kids growing up too fast is on the parents who wish they could hold on to those last little bits of their kid’s childhood. There’s nothing wrong with a kid growing up, of course that’s the ultimate goal of any parent. But when kids are growing up faster than ever, parents may be left feeling like they missed out on savoring their kid’s childhood.
In order for parents to move past feeling like their kid’s childhood got away from them, there are some ways to reframe your perspective on the matter. By cleaning and purging kid’s rooms often, parents can make room for new and more current interests instead of obsessing over the old memories. More space means more opportunity to appreciate the person your child is becoming, instead of the kid they were. Print out newer photos to replace some of the baby and early childhood photos around. This will also help you appreciate some of the more recent memories you’ve made instead of remembering this as a period of change and leaving childhood.
And if this is an especially emotional period, don’t be afraid to cry. Crying is good, but moving on after a good cry is the tough part. Don’t let these feelings hijack you and spiral out of control. Keep in the back of your mind that growing up is what you want. It means you’ve done your job. It’s your ultimate goal as a parent and even if it’s happening a little sooner than you’d like, it has to happen eventually. But what about when it feels like something your child is doing reluctantly, like they’re only acting grown up because of pressure from other kids and society? Well, it’s something many parents have been through, so it may do us well to examine what other parents have done.
A Lesson in Emotional Intelligence
This story from Sunshine and Hurricanes really warmed my heart and I think it speaks to a larger message of acceptance and permission. Emotionally intelligent parenting is all about advocating for your child and listening to their needs and supporting their goals. And that’s exactly what I see from Kira’s example.
It began with moody, petulant behavior. This was something Kira was not used to from her child and it marked a notable shift in her son’s behavior. This is typically a sign of feeling pressured to act more like an adult. When a child begins comparing themselves to older kids or other kids, this is a sign that they’re starting to become self-conscious about their perceived lack of maturity. They convince themselves that by acting out and modeling their behavior after the older kids in school, they can bridge this perceived gap in maturity; even if that’s not something they’re actually ready for, or truly wanting.
Kira’s heartfelt response was so high in emotional intelligence. She recognized what her son was going through and didn’t tell her son he was wrong for acting that way. She could tell that her son’s heart wasn’t in this new obnoxious behavior he was recently displaying. The story is so good, I want to share it with you, verbatim:
Finally, one day when this new obnoxious version of my child sat down at our table as I was making dinner and his wannabe teen act began, I simply looked over at him sternly and said “Stop.”
We were both silent for a few heartbeats, just staring at each other.
I softened my gaze, lowered my voice and broke the heavy quiet. “I want you to know that it is okay to still be a kid,” I said.
I told him that I realized he was probably seeing kids act like this at school or on TV.
I sadly admitted that we live in a world that pushes kids into growing up too fast.
I confessed that if he was a teenager and acting this way, I would give him a little more grace.
But he wasn’t, he was still a child.
“So, you can stop now,” I repeated to him again.
“Stop with the attitude and the eye rolling. Stop trying to do things, and watch things and be things that you are not ready for and that you’re not even really all that excited about.”
“I’m officially giving you permission to be a child for just a little bit longer.”
I got up and I went over to him and gave him a hug and then a kiss on the head. Then I went back to making dinner.
I was waiting for another one of those eye rolls with a huffy response or that you are so lame and you just don’t understand me classic face seen in every teen movie since the dawn of time.
Instead, he sat there quietly for a few minutes and eventually got up and went to his room. I expected he’d at least angrily stomp off, but nothing.
“Great, the silent treatment,” I was thinking.
I decided to give him a little time to cool off and then go check in. When I peeked my head into his room, he was sitting on his bed playing with his Lego’s. He looked up and gave me a smile.
“When’s dinner?” he asked.
“Thirty minutes,” I replied.
As I walked back towards the kitchen, I found myself whispering to myself in disbelief.
“Could that actually have worked?”
Astonishingly, it did.
The amazing lesson from this story is that Kira empathetically and without judgment gave her son permission to feel whatever it is that he was feeling and she wanted him to know that she was there for him.
At the end of the day, how kids are growing up fast nowadays is a multifaceted issue that isn’t always going to resolve itself easily. It helps to look at examples from other parents who’ve gone through this to really understand what has worked for others and to spur our own creative thinking in coming up with solutions that work for our own situation. And from what I’ve seen and personally experienced in my own parenting, one of the best things a parent can do is make a solid attempt to understand what their child is going through and offer whatever support they can. How have you dealt with your kids growing up and did it happen sooner than you liked? Let me know in the comments how it made you feel and how you managed those feelings.