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  • Writer's pictureErica Tatum-Sheade, LCSW

Adultification Bias: Why Our Girls Need Us

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

I recently gave a training to a mostly white audience of licensed clinicians on self-esteem in girls, and why it’s important to help “build them up” in our offices. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m big on self-esteem and on making sure every girl that walks into my office knows her value and worth. One way to really understand what is going on, and to best address it with girls, is to understand “Adultification Bias.”

When I bring up Adultification Bias to a group of mental health professionals, teachers, or parents, two things happen:

1) I get lots of head nods or silent “I see you” looks from the audience; or

2) People pick up their pens and start writing furiously – because it’s something they have not heard before.

If you are reading this, I’m going to assume you are in category two (number ones keep reading too, and feel free to chime in on how you address it).

Adultification Bias is the notion that Black and brown girls are seen as much older, in need of less nurturing and less protection, and more capable than their white counterparts. The Center for Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law did a longitudinal study and found that as young as 5, our girls are seen as much older than they are – and treated as such by those around them (teachers, authority figures, etc).

Because of this, these girls are more likely to be punished for age-appropriate behaviors, to miss out on mentoring opportunities, to receive inadequate support, and to be mistreated. Imagine what this does to our girls’ self-esteem.

For clinicians, parents, and teachers (and really anyone who has a role in girls’ lives – read: everyone), it’s important first to understand what Adultification Bias is, and then to check which lens you are looking through specifically when working with Black and brown girls.

I’ve seen it often in my own office, or in referrals, I receive: a Black or brown girl is labeled as disrespectful, lazy, or that ugly three-letter word: ‘bad’. When doing consultations, I hear it as “she’s fast,” or “she acts too mature.” When we start to pull back the layers, here is a kid that has been responsible for her own caregiving since she was little, someone who has struggled in school since 1st grade but never given the help she needs – instead told “you already know how to do this” when they actually don’t - so they give up.

The best example I can think of is when I have a parent sitting across from me saying that their child is acting “too grown” when they display age-appropriate behaviors, then in the same breath say “you’re too old to act like this.”

Because our girls are seen as less innocent, when they are the victim in a situation it’s turned back to them for not doing enough to protect themselves, for example from an assault, being blamed for not taking responsibility for keeping themselves safe.

We assign labels like “incorrigible” and “oppositional defiant” and we ignore signs of depression, anxiety, and trauma.

Follow this train with me:

A 7-year-old Black girl asks her teacher for help with a math assignment, and is told to go sit down and that she’s “just looking for attention.” This child continues to struggle with math through elementary school and she starts to feel embarrassed about her inability to keep up with her peers, so she shuts down. Since we all have a need for connection, this little girl tries to find ways to feel like she still belongs with her peers by connecting how she can (talking, making jokes in class, etc). Fast-forward to high school and she is asked to complete a math problem in front of the class. She knows she does not have the ability to do this because she has never received the help she needed and each year in class she was labeled as lazy or incompetent and simply passed on to the next teacher to be their problem. When the teacher insists that she completes the problem on the board, this scared and hurt little girl who never got the support she needed is triggered and goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode and responds in one of those ways – most likely “fight.” She is then sent to the principal’s office and suspended because she is seen as “the aggressor” vs us taking a deep dive and understanding that this is a child who has been asking for help but was told she was capable when she was not.

I wish this was “just” a story, but I see Black and brown girls and young women in my office almost weekly where this exact story played out either recently or in their past.

We see Adultification Bias play out when our girls are stereotyped, i.e., she’s “fast,” she’s “so loud,” she “thinks she’s grown,” “she’s so hostile,” etc and also when they are sexualized and criminalized.

So what do we do about it? Here are some ideas as you continue on your journey of self-awareness and understanding of these concepts:

1) Advocate: When I was a case manager, I took pride in being hated by a principal at a local school because I would show up each time to advocate for fair treatment for my clients. If you work in an environment where you notice certain children are being labeled or unfairly treated, CALL IT OUT;

2) Mentor: Because our girls are seen as more capable and more independent, they are less likely to be referred for mentorship or toward leadership roles. If you have the ability to take someone under your wing and offer them a path to mentorship, do it. If you are a parent, make sure you are providing these types of opportunities for your child;

3) Watch Your Language: We often repeat what we have heard, and some of the labels we assign to others are damaging to our girls. Stop assigning adult behavior to children, stop victim-blaming, and stop shaming our girls – ones that you are connected to, but also others in front of them;

4) Dig Deeper: There is no such thing as a “bad” child, there are children who make ill-informed choices due to the lack of understanding or knowledge. Behavior is communication, especially in children. If a child is exhibiting a behavior, look deeper at what the behavior is communicating to you. Address the need the behavior is trying to get met; and

5) Let Them Breathe: Our girls deserve a childhood filled with wonder and awe, and it’s up to us to ensure they are provided with that. As a society, we are often too quick to take that away from them so as individuals we NEED to ensure that it happens because our Black and brown girls deserve the same right to childhood granted to their counterparts.

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