On the outside, Joyce Wert wasn’t like other little girls. She was mature, polite and responsible, never complaining or asking anyone for help.
But she didn’t want to be that way.
Her mature behavior was a side effect of her traumatic upbringing, and behind her independent persona was a kid who lost her childhood. For as long as she could remember,Wert was emotionally and physically abused by her alcoholic father — memories that left her feeling unwanted and unloved. She wasn’t safe at school either due to relentless bullying, and she coped silently with disordered eating at 9 years old, battling thoughts of suicide by 11.
“The reason I say the trauma matured me is because I was never taught what love was. I was never taught anything really,” says Wert, now 22. “I had to grow up fast because I was in survival mode. I had to learn how to survive in a house that was incredibly dysfunctional.”
Children like Wert are often praised for their adult-like mannerisms. They’re “so mature for their age” or “such old souls.” But experts say these compliments can ignore a deeper issue: No kid should be forced to grow up so fast.
“Children dealing with trauma have to learn to escape a threat and make themselves as useful as possible, and this can be confused with signs of maturity,” says Jessica MacNair, a licensed professional counselor. This adaptive resourcefulness is “often mistaken for maturity when it’s not related to maturity at all,” she says.
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Alisa Oberauer was 6 years old when she learned what infidelity was.
“I can remember sitting at the dinner table and my mom was crying,” she recalls. “I tried to comfort her and be there for her, and I found out my dad cheated on her… My mom told me, ‘Yeah we’re not together anymore because of this new woman.’ “
A few years later, her dad also confided that he wasn’t the only one who cheated: her mother had done so as well.
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Some parents may find comfort in the parentification of their kids – or emotionally relying on their children regarding adult matters. (The Encyclopedia of Adolescence found that 1.4 million children in the U.S. between the ages of 8 and 18 reported feeling “parentified.”) But it can be damaging to kids.
“A person’s brain is not fully developed in childhood or adolescence, and they can’t handle those adult themes. So when they’re expected to, it’s like putting a child’s brain on overdrive,” MacNair says, adding it’s important for parents to set boundaries with their kids.
Research shows children of divorce are already at higher risk for anxiety and depression, but this can be exacerbated when kids are pressured to “take sides” and listen to negative things about each parent.
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‘Why was I filing taxes as a minor?’
Some kids are forced to become the parents they never had.
At 16, Shaniah Alexander was taken into foster care when her mother’s mental health deteriorated. But after being emotionally abused by her foster mother, she entered a transitional living program, where she taught herself everything to live on her own. This included everything from preparing her meals to scheduling her doctors appointments.
Outsiders praised Alexander for her maturity, and at first, she liked it. But with time and therapy, the 21-year-old realized it wasn’t a compliment; it was a painful reminder of the trauma she endured.
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“I should be allowed to make mistakes, to not know certain things, and have someone there who could teach me life lessons,” Alexander says. “Instead, I taught myself how to take public transportation, go to my dentist and doctors alone, and file taxes. Why was I filing taxes as a minor?”
MacNair, who also self-parented at 14 after her mother’s death, agrees that under no circumstance should a child become an adult— let alone be celebrated for it.
“A lot of kids and teens who hear, ‘Oh, you’re so mature,’ lean into it as a compliment, but what other choice did they have? They’re forced to grow up. They’re forced to handle mature themes. They’re forced to become a parent if their parent isn’t being one.”
Childhood trauma continues well into adulthood
Wert’s trauma erased her childhood. She missed out on what should’ve been a carefree time in her life when she was in treatment for anorexia. The same goes for Alexander, who never celebrated a birthday party because of her financial responsibilities, and Oberauer, who spent much of her childhood daydreaming and dissociating from her real life.
To this day, their childhood trauma still affects them.
“My trauma has made me very hyper vigilant, which makes me asses every situation I’m in and every person I meet,” says Wert, who was later diagnosed with anxiety.
MacNair says it’s common for victims to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms as kids that manifest into long-lasting mental health problems, like anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
However, it’s hard to spot because they often mask their vulnerability with hyper-independence, which MacNair calls “a common trauma response.”
“You’re just so used to being rejected, not wanted or not being cared for that you’re not going to put yourself out there. You’re too afraid of rejection, so you’re going to want to do everything yourself,” she says, noting that this can lead to feelings of isolation and distrust.
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Trauma doesn’t actually make you stronger. Healing from it does.
Alexander says her experience made her weaker at first: “Trauma breaks down a person, forces them into a harsh reality and gives us the decision on whether we let it consume our lives or if we grow from it.”
It takes years to recover and re-learn things you were never taught as a kid. In fact, MacNair says it’s impossible to erase the trauma altogether. But getting professional help can help you process the experience and move beyond the pain.
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What keeps Wertgoing is sharing her story to help other victims of childhood abuse and trauma.
“I want to show others that although my trauma is a part of me, it doesn’t define me,” she says. “Working through trauma is hard, but asking for help is the bravest thing one can do, and I just want to emphasize that anyone who’s been through trauma shouldn’t have had to be strong… Being mature for your age isn’t a compliment. Because you grew up too fast and through the worst type of experiences.”