Instead of fun-filled memories of playing hide-and-seek and roasting marshmallows, Lauren Nicks’ summer camp recollections are less playful and carefree. Rather, they’re overshadowed by instances of something that experts call adultification bias.
“I can remember when I was around 5 years old attending a summer day camp in Brooklyn and being repeatedly targeted by one of my male camp counselors for my shorts being ‘too short’,” she recalls. “I didn’t really understand what was going on, just that I kept getting in trouble.”
Not only was Nicks scolded for her clothing, but she was also often sent home for supposedly violating the camp’s dress code.
At the time, as a kindergartner, Nicks didn’t have the words to describe what she endured. Today, as a 20-year-old junior studying international studies and sociology at Spelman College, she calls it what it was: adultification bias.
“Now that I’m much older, I understand Black girls are more likely to be disciplined and reprimanded than other girls for wearing the same type of clothing,” Nicks says. “The problem was never me or what I was wearing, but the grown man who thought it was an issue — who was sexualizing me.”
What Is Adultification Bias?
At its core, adultification bias is about adults treating children like they are more mature than they actually are. It can have damaging effects – and the “bias” part is about the fact that it’s particularly likely to happen to Black children.
In 2017, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality issued a report on the topic, titled Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood. The report states that adultification is “ultimately a form of dehumanization” that robs Black children of their innocence and “contributes to a false narrative that Black youths’ transgressions are intentionally malicious, instead of the result of immature decision-making – a key characteristic seen in childhood.”
The report included a study of 325 U.S. adults from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. They filled out an online survey that included questions such as, “How much do Black [or white] females seem older than their age?” and “How independent are Black [or white] females?” The results showed that adults — regardless of background — viewed Black girls between the ages of 5-19 as being less innocent, more independent, and needing less support and nurturing than their white peers. This difference peaked in how they viewed children between the ages of 10-14.
“They just look at them as though they’re adult-like figures; they don’t need to be protected,” says Marline Francois-Madden, a licensed clinical social worker and CEO of the Hearts Empowerment Counseling Center in Caldwell, NJ. Grown-ups who adultify these children see them as “more likely to know more adult content. They’re more likely to be sexualized or hyper-sexualized,” Francois-Madden says. “And so, these are just the biases that you’ll see other people have on them.”
While adultification bias affects Black boys and kids from other groups, most of the newer research on adultification has focused on its effects on Black girls.
The Girlhood Interrupted findings also correlate these biases with how Black girls are treated in the education and juvenile justice systems. For example, if Black girls are perceived as being more adult-like by adults and authority figures, they’re more likely to receive harsher treatment and less leniency.
Francois-Madden, who wrote The State of Black Girls: A Go-To Guide for Creating Safe Spaces for Black Girls, agrees.
“Whether it’s in urban communities, predominantly white institutions, or private schools, you find that a lot of these girls are being educated by people who don’t look like them,” Francois-Madden says. “So the majority of the teachers may be white educators. And so, they experience it right in their classroom setting, where you will find that they’re being referred to a principal’s office for some sort of disciplinary action,” she says. “Also, if they share a story about being sexually assaulted or whether it’s how they’re being treated in their classroom by their teachers or whether it’s their peers that’s making any racialized statement, that their teachers don’t listen to them. They disregard them.”
How Adultification Bias Affects Black Girls
This treatment can have negative effects on Black girls. As a result, internalization can manifest in a myriad of ways. So it’s important to look out for signs and act.
“A lot of times Black girls don’t feel safe in these environments or they start to develop some sort of psychological stressor, whether it’s anxiety or depression,” Francois-Madden says. “People don’t realize how much racism can also play a role in impacting a Black girl’s mental health.”
Pay attention to any changes in your child’s behavior or patterns, Francois-Madden says. “If their sleeping habits, eating habits, or if their grades start to decline, look out for anything that is not a normal routine.” She says these may be red flags that your child could be experiencing some form of trauma related to adultification bias.
How to Support Black Girls
In some cases, Black girls are held to a higher standard academically, which is another aspect of this bias.
“I help a lot of tweens and teens experiencing adultification bias,” says Kim Wheeler Poitevien, a licensed clinical social worker and owner of Amel Counseling and Consulting in Philadelphia. “They often struggle with perfectionism, and we repeat the mantra, ‘Perfectly Imperfect.’ I often tell them that they cannot control the opinions and expectations of the adults and the system around them and understand that it’s unfair.”
Creating a secure space should be a top priority for counselors and parents alike when treating or supporting a child who’s been subjected to adultification bias.
“I would give them a very safe and affirming environment,” says Francois-Madden. “I would do some psychoeducation with them around what adultification biases look like. I would provide them with statistics on what’s happening to Black girls as far as the school-to-prison pipeline. Because this allows them to see that, ‘I am not the only one who’s experienced this,’ especially if they haven’t received any validation from their families regarding their experience.”
If you believe your child is being unfairly targeted, reach out to the appropriate staff at their school.
“Ask your child directly if they feel their teachers or coaches treat them differently,” Wheeler Poitevien suggests. “Ask them how long it has been happening and what they would like you to do. Bring these concerns to the school’s attention and gauge how serious they take it. If your child seems anxious, withdrawn, and upset, you may also consider taking them to see their pediatrician and a therapist.”
Breaking the Bias
There’s no direct answer why Black girls and tweens are perceived as adult-like beyond their years. But there are theories.
“Black children are often taught to behave in a manner more mature than their age. This has been a method for survival,” Wheeler Poitevien says. “I think the root cause is multifaceted: white supremacy, objectification, lack of bodily autonomy, and personal accountability for inflicted traumas. When a girl is cat-called it’s because her clothes are ‘too tight.’ When she is reprimanded for talking in school she is ‘disruptive’ rather than gregarious.”
Use Social Media for Good
While more cases of adultification bias are in the news and social media, the phenomenon isn’t new. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and social media, Francois-Madden suggests that it’s just more common for us to see examples of it in daily life.
“I think now what we’re seeing is that we have access to media, we have access to technology,” she says. “So we see the news in real time. We get to see videos happening where girls are being policed by their school resource officers, where they’re being policed by officers in the community where officers are pinning them down on the floor because they had a cell phone in the classroom.”
And for Wheeler Poitevien, the constant media stream can have a good side.
“While there are many posts and reels with content shaming little girls about being fast or judging parents, there are others that offer alternate views,” she says. “There are more content creators offering conscious parenting perspectives and more nurturing responses for young Black daughters. Social media can offer a way for new generations looking to break generational patterns to spread information and support.”
Leveraging social media is a good tool for raising awareness around adultification bias. But there’s more work to be done.
“I think awareness and training is essential to combating the adultification bias,” Nicks says. “Years ago, there was no name for this. Now that we understand there is a disparity, work needs to be done in classrooms and beyond to curb this bias in adults of all races, as it isn’t just white adults who adultify Black children.”
For young girls who have also experienced adultification bias like Nicks, she offers words of support.
“My advice to young Black tweens who experience this is to call it out each and every time,” Nicks says. “When you feel like you’re being treated unfairly by someone, let them know. Call them out and make them hear you.”