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How Adultism Hinders Youth Empowerment

Recently, the United States has seen a rise in youth activism that has been particularly exciting. From the teens who stood up against gun violence to establish the March for Our Lives, to Marley Dias’ grassroots movement for #1000BlackGirlBooks, young people are enacting change and getting noticed. While these recent examples have been a positive force of empowerment for youth everywhere, the reality that faces many teenagers and children still remains; young people are oftentimes unable see a space for their voice or their work. This is primarily due to the fact that many adults continue to disregard young people simply because of their age. This specific form of systemic discrimination or bias is often referred to as adultism.

Not everything done in the world by adults in relation to young people is inherently adultist. For example, young people still rely on the guidance, love, and teaching of adult role models and leaders within their lives.

So, what makes actions towards youth adultist? Adultism is determined by multiple actions or behaviors that disregard or dismiss young people specifically because of their age. Adults can be easily guilty of adultism, primarily because it’s become a deeply entrenched part of our society. Think about it, how many times have you heard phrases like “It’s just a phase, you’ll grow out it?” or “When are you going to grow up?” Phrases like these, while very common in our society, can be viewed as adultist because of the assumption that a young person will be better once they age.

Adultism negatively impacts our youth by hindering the development of adult/youth partnerships and mutually respectful relationships. When we, as a society, view our youth as less important or inferior to adults, we fail to empower their voices, ensuring that their unique and essential perspectives are contributing to larger conversations.

There are many ways that adults can combat adultism or adultist behaviors. Here are some suggestions for acknowledging adultism:

  • Reflect on the ways in the past where you have been adultist. Consider different ways that you could have handled situations that would not have relied on the assumption that youth were inferior because of their age.

  • Listen to youth and validate their unique struggles and experiences in the world.

  • Take a step back and allow youth to implement their ideas and initiatives. Recognize that taking a step back will allow others to have a voice.

  • Recognize power dynamics (who has the final say and control) and how they impact your relationships with youth. Change these wherever possible. Allow youth to make final decisions and control aspects of their own lives when possible.

  • Always respect people and their different opinions, including youth.

Being mindful of how adultism has been a part of your life can help directly affect the ways that young people are treated. Remember that we can all be guilty of contributing to adultism, particularly because it has been established as a deeply embedded norm within our society, but education and knowledge are how we begin to recognize these issues and establish change.

For those who work with vulnerable young people who are striving to make positive changes within these individuals lives, check out resources and training provided by MCS Chicago.

Contributing Writer: Brittany A. Hamilton

Photo Credit: Christopher Boyd

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