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How Does Early "Adultification" Affect Homeless Youth?

A young mother holding her child.

Growing up before their time: The early adultification experiences of homeless young people.“ (abstract). Rachel M. Schmitz and Kimberly A. Tyler. Children and Youth Services Review, Vol. 64 (2016).

What is it about: Early “adultification” occurs when a young person is forced into adult-like roles before reaching a mature level of mental and emotional stability. There are few studies on homeless youth’s experiences with early adultification because it is difficult to determine how many are affected, Schmitz and Tyler write. This study explores the complex processes that surround young people who have played adult roles such as premature caregiving, parenthood and family conflict prior to leaving home as well as during their time living on the streets.

Researchers Schmitz and Tyler held face-to-face interviews with 40 youth ages 19 to 21 years (16 males and 24 females). The questions centered on the young adults’ experiences and how early adultification shaped their lives before and after they became homeless.

Why read it: It is important to understand the process of early adultification because it can increase challenges and stressors that young people face in addition to existing barriers, Schmitz and Tyler write. The study’s findings may prompt service providers to consider young peoples’ past experiences in a new light and create more tailored programs for homeless and runaway youth as they seek a successful transition to stability. For example, knowing more about the process of early adultification may allow service providers to further connect with each homeless young person and better serve their individual needs using the information about specific life circumstances.  

Biggest takeaways from the research: Not all young people experience adultification in the same way, Schmitz and Tyler found, and the themes they uncovered were not mutually exclusive, meaning some youth experienced more than one form. The various “early-adultified” roles identified in the study are as follows:

Early independence. Early independence occurs when youth must provide for themselves once they are faced with neglectful caregiving. Seven of the participants from the study reported caring for themselves between the ages of 7 and 14. Receiving little supervision compelled them to provide for their own needs. Some youth saw these skills as beneficial skills once they were on the streets and rewarding because they viewed their struggles as character-building.

Family conflict. Family conflict was a common theme among the young adults interviewed. The young people reported various forms of caregiver abuse, neglect, and strained home lives (e.g., divorced parents) before they left home. Their family conflict experiences lead to increased stress levels making them feel older than they were, motivating their decisions to leave home.

Premature caregiving. Nine of the participants reported experiences with excessive household responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings or relatives, cooking, and cleaning. They were unprepared for the extent of these responsibilities, and unable to balance them with other expectations such as school work. The extra stress in these young people’s lives due to overwhelming caregiving pressure motivated them to exit.

Parenthood. The thirteen young adults in the study who experienced parenthood had already left their homes or were thrown out before they became parents. Becoming a parent at an early age with no family support can raise an array of emotions, stress, and uncertainty, Schmitz and Tyler write. Despite stressors, some young parents used early parenthood as motivation to positively change their lifestyle for their children while others carried resentment that affected their relationships with their children, the authors add.

Cultural differences. Although the study contained limited information on cultural differences, the authors note that it is important to consider how race and culture vary and influence life outcomes. For example, families of color may place more emphasis on family obligations and domestic responsibilities among young adult caregivers compared to other families. Likewise, some cultures may encourage early independence more than others as it is perceived as a subculture norm rather than abuse.

The authors suggest that it is critical to examine the timing of early-adultified roles.  While homelessness itself can be considered a form of early independence, many young people’s decisions to leave home were influenced by early-adultified roles while still at home. Youth who have experienced early adultification may be more likely to use services if such services allow them to maintain their autonomy and are nonjudgmental and inclusive of young people’s lifestyles, Schmitz and Tyler suggest.

Additional references: Look for more articles about poverty and homeless youth in our digital library.

View a slideshow on tips for connecting with pregnant and parenting teens.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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