What You Should Know About Adultification Bias

The story was originally published in Word in Black with support from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2022 Data Fellowship.

If you are Black or have Black children, it’s likely you or your child may have experienced adultification bias. Word In Black compiled this guide to help people understand what this bias is and how it impacts the Black community.

Adultification bias is a newer term that describes the experiences of Black childhood, its roots, and the mental health impact of this. Word In Black reports the real-life experiences of dozens of Black folks in our series, Lost Innocence: The Adultification of Black Children.

What is adultification bias? And why does it happen to Black children? 

Adultification bias is a stereotype based on the ways in which adults perceive children and their childlike behavior. It’s rooted in anti-Black racism that goes back to chattel slavery — as enslaved Black children were used for their labor, often working in the field with no recreation or means of gaining an education. This stereotype often treats Black children like they do not deserve to play. They need less nurturing, protection, support, and comfort.  

This bias presents itself in households, education, and in a society where Black children are expected to act like adults before reaching adulthood, by the adults they interact with; family members, teachers, and police officers. 

This adultification bias often overlaps with the hyper-sexualization and criminalization of Black youth. Those who (un)knowingly impose the adultification bias also expect children, specifically Black girls, to know more about adult topics and sex. Those who have experienced adultification bias are often labeled, “fast,” “promiscuous,” “curvy,” or labeled with another sexual comment about their young body that reduces them to a sexual being.  

Thus, imposing this bias on Black children oftentimes forces them to grow up faster, forgo a childhood, and push them towards independence at a young and vulnerable age. 

How does adultification bias relate to the criminalization and hypersexualization of Black youth?

Adultification bias can put Black youth in several harmful situations. Studies show Black boys and girls are more likely to be disciplined in school through suspensions, referred to law enforcement, arrested, and detained in juvenile detention than non-Black children.  

Oftentimes the infractions are the same or far less egregious than non-Black students, but the discipline is harsher. White teachers and police officers are often the main instigators of criminalizing Black youth. 

Because Black children are often viewed through the lens of being older, their humanity and childhood are easily dismissed. Black girls and women are at a higher rate of experiencing rape, molestation, and sexual abuse, and oftentimes, the abuse is perpetrated by a family member or an acquaintance.  

Their young bodies are often sexualized, with adults labeling Black girls as “fast,” “promiscuous,” “grown,” “curvy,” “sluts,” and “busty.” But, Black boys also experience being hypersexualized by adults on comments on their sexuality, penis size, and physical build. 

In what ways does adultification bias impact Black youth? 

For Black children and youth who experience adultification bias, depending on the frequency and severity of their experiences, studies show Black youth are at an increased risk for suicidality, self-harm, depression, anxiety, and any number of mental health issues.  

Those who have experienced child sexual abuse are also more likely to develop PTSD, problems in personal relationships, negative self-esteem, fear, sleep problems, and disorders related to substance abuse.  

The mental and physical toll, Black children and youth face through the adultification, hyper-sexualization, and criminalization of their bodies and beings have long-lasting effects. 

What can I do if my child or I have experienced adultification bias? 

If you have experienced adultification bias, know that you are not alone. Some simple steps you can take are talking about your experiences with loved ones. Seeking help from a mental health therapist to process your experiences and to heal from those experiences. 

If you have a school-age Black child, ask them if they have experienced comments on their bodies. Talk to them about what comments are appropriate and inappropriate for an adult to make toward them. And provide a safe space for your child to come to you with any concerns they have about school, sexual comments, or their childhood.  

Black children deserve a childhood, and it’s important that parents, teachers, and adults allow Black children to learn, grow, and play in a safe environment.

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