One of the most common euphemisms and justifications for a certain type of childhood trauma is “growing up too fast.” It is a euphemism because it is used to minimize the pain that the person felt as a child when their needs weren’t being met by describing it in seemingly neutral or even positive language. It’s a justification because it is often used to argue that growing up faster and becoming “mature beyond your years” is indeed a good thing.
We will explore and address all of this here.
The Origins and the Mechanism
What is frequently called “growing up too fast” or “being mature beyond your years” is simply neglect and abuse. Many children grow up in an environment where they are neglected and abused in such ways that they become “little adults” who, not only can take care of themselves better or are wiser than others, but also take care of their parents, siblings, or other family members.
Its origins can be summarized in two main points.
Firstly, it happens because parents attribute unfair responsibility and unrealistic standards onto their children. Consequently, the child is expected, for example, to perform a task without anybody actually teaching them how to do it, and is punished if they fail. Or they are expected to be perfect, and if, naturally, they are imperfect, they then receive harsh negative consequences for it. This is not a one-time thing, but a persistent atmosphere the child has no choice but to live in.
And secondly, the child “grows up too fast” because of role-reversal. Role-reversal means that the caregiver assigns their role onto the child and therefore the child is seen as somebody who has to take care of the caregiver and possibly others. The adult, in contrast, takes on the role of the child. The child internalizes this role and it becomes their self-understanding. And so they start to act as a “mature, responsible adult” while the actual adult is taken care of as though they were the child.
The Consequences of Having to “Grow Up Too Fast”
As a result of this appalling psychological dynamic, the person eventually develops a myriad of psychological, emotional, intellectual, and social problems that can haunt them for the rest of their life.
Here are some of the more common beliefs and emotional issues related to it.
One, believing that you always have to be strong. This results in being disconnected from your needs, sometimes to the degree where you ignore being tired, hungry, full, depressed, and so on. Or, you become counter-depended, where you emotionally act in an overly protective manner and people can’t get close to you, which leads to unsatisfying relationships.
Two, believing that you can’t ask for help and have to do everything yourself. This often leads to you feeling lonely, isolated, unnecessarily distrustful, or that “you’re alone against the world.” It’s very hard for you to express your needs to others, or sometimes even recognize that you have needs.
Three, believing that if you recognize the trauma, abuse, or other injustices you suffered, that you will be weak, flawed, a victim—and that’s totally unacceptable. This blocks empathy for yourself, and especially empathy for the child that you once were because you are unable to connect with the feelings you felt when you were a child, and by extension makes it impossible to fully heal the original trauma that led you to have these problems in the first place.
Four, feeling empathy for the people who hurt you before feeling empathy for yourself. This also makes it impossible to resolve childhood trauma for the same reason. It is vital to emotionally connect and empathize with your childhood experiences without justifying the people who failed to meet your needs. It also leads to relationships and social environments where you may be mistreated in the same ways you were mistreated as a child.
The most common general effects of it all are poor self-care or even self-harm, workaholism, trying to take care of everybody else, people-pleasing, self-esteem issues, constantly trying to doing more than you are physically capable of, having standards for yourself that are too high or completely unrealistic, feeling toxic guilt and false responsibility, chronic stress and anxiety, lack of closeness in relationships, codependency, staying in—or even unconsciously seeking— abusive or otherwise toxic social environments.
Here’s a quick example of a hypothetical person who had to “grow up too fast.”
Olivia says she was a strong-willed, curious, and intelligent child. She describes her mother as a weak, incompetent person who always had numerous problems and tried to gather pity from those around her. She blamed her husband, Olivia’s father, for drinking and pitied herself for being in such an unfortunate situation where she had to take care of two children and constantly worry about everything.
Whenever Olivia expressed her dissatisfaction about how she was being treated, her parents used to shame and guilt-trip her by saying that she’s making her mother upset by saying such hurtful things. Olivia felt sad, anxious, and even guilty when her parents were fighting, usually because her father was drinking again. When she grew a little older, she was often expected to take care of her drunk father: help him get home from a local bar, hide all the drinks at home, help him get undressed and ready for bed.
Olivia grew up thinking that she had—and still has—to take care of both her mother because she’s so weak and dependent, and of her father since he’s a drunk and a danger to himself and others. Olivia tries to stay strong no matter what because she doesn’t want to be weak like her pitiful, child-like mother.
Now, as an adult, Olivia struggles with intimacy in her romantic relationship as she has found a partner who is emotionally immature and self-unaware, just like her father. She works way too many hours, oftentimes missing on sleep or overworking herself into terrible physiological symptoms because of lack of proper rest, an excess of coffee and energy drinks, poor diet, and chronic stress. It’s an extension of her history of anorexia and self-mutilation that started in early adolescence as a response to her overwhelming home environment.
Olivia associates things like living a slower, more relaxed, more self-connected life, or even participating in basic self-care, with “being weak.” She doesn’t even consider it as viable options because she doesn’t want to feel weak. And so she continues living a life she feels she has no choice but to live in the way it’s always been.
Bottom Line and Final Thoughts
“Growing up too fast” or “being mature beyond your years” is often seen as a neutral or even a positive thing. In actuality, it is a psychological prison that the child is put into by their caregivers, where they are expected to be perfect, meet unrealistic standards, or fit a role that doesn’t belong to them.
As a result, they develop many devastating problems that they often struggle with for the rest of their lives. Different people experience these things differently, and not everyone’s story is the same as Olivia’s, but the underlying tendencies are always the same, and the origins are always the same.
Some argue that all of it makes the person stronger, more mature, but we can’t ignore the fact that while some of the qualities the person develops can have positive effects, it fundamentally robs the child of their childhood and innocence. Moreover, you can get the same—and oftentimes much better—positive results by meeting the child’s needs and helping them develop a healthy sense of self-esteem without traumatizing them.
As an adult, the person can finally start identifying the origins of these issues and working on them to finally become free of them.