The dangers of “adults are terrible”

Content note: This post is about abuse in a way that may not be obvious from the first paragraph.

I’ve seen adults and teenagers on Tumblr and other places saying things like “adults are terrible” or “never trust adults”. Sometimes it’s a joke, but often people mean it.

I think this is creating a dangerous situation for teenagers. Predators can use that sentiment to isolate teenagers, and to groom them for emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.

If a predator convinces a teenage victim that adults are inherently untrustworthy, they have made it much easier to get away with abuse by making it harder to get outside perspective:

  • If an abuser convinces a teenager not to trust any other adults, they’ve effectively prevented them from asking any other adults for perspective if something feels wrong
  • Which makes it a lot easier for them to convince the teenager that abuse is normal, and that they have to accept abuse in order to get close to anyone
  • It’s much harder to get away with abusing a teenager who can ask other experienced adults “I’m feeling uncomfortable with this. Is this normal? What do you think?”
  • Teenagers who believe that they have nowhere to turn can be very, very vulnerable.

For teenagers, I think this is worth keeping in mind:

  • The adult saying “adults are horrible” is an adult. Saying that doesn’t make them any less of an adult.
  • They want you to think that adults are bad, and they also want you to think that *they* are good
  • So what they’re really saying, usually, is “trust me, but don’t listen to any other adults”.
  • That would only be warranted if they were somehow the only good adult in the world. And they’re *not*.
  • There are a lot of good adults in the world. Adults who can be good friends to teenagers will not want to be the only adult in your life.
  • People who try to isolate you are not good friends.

There are a lot of horrible adults in the world, but adulthood is not horrible in and of itself. Being an adult just means that you made it to a particular age, and that you’ve hopefully learned certain things about the world. When an adult who spends a lot of time with teenagers also goes on and on about how bad adults are, it’s usually a bad sign.

Short version: There are a lot of bad adults in the world, and also a lot of good adults. Some adults try to convince teenagers that good adults are very rare. Those adults are dangerous, and it’s important not to tolerate that kind of attitude towards teenagers.

Advocacy is not cute

Sometimes disabled people get treated like they’re not adults.

This is particularly true when people with disabilities are involved in disability related advocacy. And it goes triple for people who have intellectual disabilities. (Or are perceived to.)

If you’re doing advocacy and someone treats it as cute, they’re being rude. If someone treats your presentation like a game you’re playing, they’re being rude. People should have more respect than that, even if they disagree with the point you are making.

If you think someone else’s advocacy is cute, it’s probably important to work on learning to respect them more.

Dwarfism awareness – thoughts on doing right by adult little people

I wrote this post for Dwarfism Awareness Month (which was in October) in collaboration with a friend who is a little person. It wasn’t ready until now, so I am posting it now.

Here are some things worth knowing:

Adult little people are adults, but people often treat them like children. You might be doing this too, and it’s important to get over that. Many people strongly associate being a certain size with being a young child. It’s important to be aware that not everyone that size is actually a child, and to act to mitigate any reactions you might be having that lead you to see an adult little person as a young child.

For instance, at work:

  • If you’re in a professional setting and someone is wearing professional clothing and acting like a professional adult, they’re not ten years old.
  • If you keep viscerally responding as though they are a child, it’s important to realize that it’s not ok and get over it. Don’t express that reaction, and don’t try to justify it.
  • Treat them as an adult
  • Respect their professional competence
  • If they are above you in the hierarchy, do not treat them as junior
  • If they are at your level in the hierarchy, do not treat them as junior
  • If they are actually junior, do not treat them like a visiting child or a teenager getting work experience. Respect them as an adult professional.

Another example: bars:

  • If you are in a bar, and someone is wearing adult clothing, acting like an adult, and drinking beer, they are not ten years old
  • They are an adult drinking beer in a bar
  • This is not a problem. This is something that many adults choose to do.
  • Do not look around for a caregiver. Adults do not have to bring minders to bars.
  • Do not ask them if they are ok unless you have an actual reason to think they might not be. Being a little person in a bar is not cause for concern in itself
  • If they are flirting with someone, this is not cause for concern either
  • Many adults flirt with people in bars. This is a thing that people do.
  • (Also, do not make jokes about tossing them, ask to toss them, or in any other way treat them as a toy. Adults have the right to drink beer in bars without being treated as a novelty attraction.)

And when you’re setting up an environment, remember that some adults are less than 4’10” and some are much shorter than that. Adult little people need access to anything that other adults need access to.

More specifically:

Adult little people need to be able to get through doors:

  • If you use a latch high on the door to prevent children from entering or exiting, you’re also making it impossible for adults of the same height to enter or exist
  • Latches need to be in places that adult little people can reach
  • Adults with disabilities should not be locked in like little children
  • If for some reason this kind of safety system is unavoidable, there needs to be an alternative way in and out that is reliably available
  • And you need to make it clear what that is

Keep this in mind when you put things on shelves:

  • If you’re putting things on shelves that a four foot tall person could not reach, you need an alternative way of reaching the thing
  • Or to put the thing in a lower place.
  • Keep in mind that if you put something on a high shelf in order to prevent children from reaching it, you’re also preventing adult little people from reaching it
  • Consider alternatives such as using child locks or supervising children more closely
  • (Or reconsidering whether the thing actually needs to be restricted. Eg: It might not actually be so terrible if your 7 year old students can reach the copier paper. You might not actually need an adults-only candy jar (and if you do, it’s not so nice to keep it where kids can see it anyway.))
  • If putting things on high shelves for safety reasons is truly unavoidable, make sure that there is an alternative way for adult little people to access them *and that you make it known what that way is*.

More generally:

  • Do not simplify your language the way you might when talking to a young child.
  • Do not assume that an adult little person is unemployed or only employed in a sheltered workshop or in jobs that can be done by children and teenagers.
  • Do treat adult little people as the age they actually are. (Eg: if they are elderly, don’t treat them as though they’re 20).
  • Do not ask invasive medical questions.

Short version: Adult little people are adults. Since many of them are the same height as young children, a lot of people treat them like children. Don’t do that. Also, make sure that you’re configuring things so that short adults can do the things that adults need to do.

Liking things is never age-inappropriate

People get to like things. It’s ok to like whatever you like.

Even if it’s a show for little kids

Or toys. Or kids’ art supplies. Or picture books. Or YA novels.

When people like things, they’re being people who like things, not being age-inappropriate.

It’s wrong to invade spaces that are intended for young children, or to attempt to get children to accept you as a peer. That’s a boundary violation. Age matters when you’re interacting with others, and some things are genuinely wrong for adults to do.

But liking the thing is never the problem. It’s always ok to like things. Adulthood happens when you reach the age of adulthood. It is not something you have to earn by turning away from awesome things you like.

Making the point about therapy more sharply

Three year old children in preschool are some of the least socially powerful people in our culture. But, they are routinely given a lot of choices about what they do and how they do it.

They’re not usually required to do painful and boring things over and over with no regard to their feelings or their experiences. And, from time to time, they can say no to something an adult had planned for them and have it stick.

Preschool teachers know that their work depends in large part on getting the willing cooperation of most of their students. That doing things to them over their miserable protests over and over is probably going to end poorly.

All too often, therapy for people with disabilities is less respectful, consensual, and individualized than the average preschool class.

If you’re exercising more control over a ten year old kid with a disability than you’d feel comfortable exercising over a nondisabled three year old child, you’re doing it wrong. All the more so if you’re doing it to an older child or an adult.

Asserting adulthood

A reader asked:

(TW: possible ableism(?)) This may be a bit of a strange question, but I am an older non-neurotypical person who has a hard time being taken seriously or seen as the adult that I am, and it makes me very insecure and upset when I am talked to, by my coworkers, in a patronizing manner or as if I am a child when I have shown myself to be their equal when it comes to the work we do. Would you happen to have any tips, if it’s not too much of a bother?

This might be something readers have more insight about than I do.

It’s also a bit abstract for me, because there are a number of ways that people fail to treat others like adults. I’m not sure which form it is.

From the way you’ve asked your question, it kind of sounds to me like maybe you feel like you have to prove that you deserve to be treated like an adult. I think it helps to realize that this is not actually something you have to prove. People who treat you like a child are doing something wrong.

And it would be wrong even if you weren’t good at your job. Your adulthood should not be on trial here.

Keeping this in mind makes it harder for people to mess with you.

As far as changing what they actually do, here are some thoughts:

  • You probably can’t convince them that they’re doing something wrong, and explaining it to them is unlikely to help
  • Because they’re likely to make it into a conversation about your feelings, and explain to you in patronizing tones why you’re imagining it and being too sensitive.
  • There might be things you can do unilaterally that help. For instance, it’s ok to interrupt them when they’re speaking to you in a patronizing tone
  • For instance, if you ask them where a file is, and they launch into a patronizing explanation of the filing system, it’s ok to say, “Yes, I know that. But I’m not sure which category this particular file goes into because [reason], do you know?”

Also, changing the way you dress might help:

  • If you’re dressing less formally than most people in your field, wearing more formal clothing might be helpful
  • If you are a man, Men’s Warehouse can explain the default rules of professional attire and help you find something to wear that’s considered appropriate to your body type.
  • I’m not sure how to do this if you’re a woman, though. The rules of female attire are really complicated
  • If you’re in a field in which formal attire isn’t expected, changing some things about your clothing still might help
  • For instance, if everyone wears t-shirts, it might help to avoid t-shirts that have pictures of things associated with childhood (eg: Care Bears, pictures of cartoon characters (including things like Adventure Time or My Little Pony that are also popular among some adults).
  • This is not guaranteed to work, and might make matters worse if it means you feel like you’re stuck trying to prove your adulthood
  • In any case, it’s not a moral obligation and not a precondition for being an adult. It’s something that may or may not be advisable in certain contexts, and it’s a personal choice

If you use stim toys, it might help to change the ones you use:

  • Toys that are also used by children are more likely to be perceived as childish
  • Eg: silly putty, beanie babies, legos, beads, marbles
  • Neoballs (little neodium magnet spheres you can build things with) are specifically not for children. The silver, gold, or nickel balls are more likely to be accepted than the brightly colored ones.
  • Tangle Toys can look professional in some contexts
  • This is not guaranteed to work, and might make matters worse if it means you feel like you’re stuck trying to prove your adulthood
  • In any case, it’s not a moral obligation and not a precondition for being an adult. It’s something that may or may not be advisable in certain contexts, and it’s a personal choice

It also might be time to look for another job with people who treat you better. Not all jobs are created equal. Not all working environments have the same culture. There might be other people who would respect you and your professional accomplishments more.

Do any of y’all have further suggestions? (Or think I’m wrong about any of this?)

More about respectful therapy

This applies to both adults and children. Respect is really important.

Some of what this means is:

Understand that people who need therapy are going to have trouble with it sometimes:

  • People who have therapy have it because some things are hard for them. This is normal and should be expected in a therapy context.
  • Being in therapy doesn’t make things easy. It just means someone is getting help learning something
  • Expect that it’s going to be hard for the person you’re teaching to learn the things you are teaching them
  • And sometimes they will have trouble in ways you didn’t anticipate
  • When they are having more trouble than you expect, don’t get angry
  • And don’t make fun of them
  • And don’t accuse them of being lazy or wasting your time
  • And especially, don’t tell them that if they’d just *try*, they’d be able to do it
  • Help them find a way to figure out how to do the thing.
  • This means sometimes you might have to spend an hour or hours searching for a way to successfully explain something you think of as simple or obvious
  • This is part of your job. You’re there to help people figure out how to do things, and sometimes that’s hard.
  • It’s not ok to get angry at or frustrated with someone when they’re having trouble understanding something. If you’re feeling that way, it’s your problem and not theirs, and you need to find help dealing with it.
  • Treat people with consistent respect. That makes a huge difference.

Respect your client’s priorities:

  • Adults in therapy get to decide which things they want to work on
  • If they want help with one thing, and you think something else would be more helpful, it’s their call and not yours
  • It’s ok to tell them what you’d advise and why
  • It’s not ok to coerce them into doing what you want
  • It’s also not ok to treat them as less-than-human or unworthy of help if their priorities are different from yours
  • For instance, someone might care about reducing pain but not especially care about walking
  • Or someone might care about nutrition for cognitive functioning but not especially care about weight loss
  • And they get to decide that

Kids in therapy also have agency

  • Kids don’t get to decide everything the way adults do, but what they want still matters
  • It’s important to acknowledge that they have opinions and priorities
  • And it’s important to listen seriously. Sometimes they know something you don’t, and sometimes listening will change your opinion of what they should be doing in therapy
  • And sometimes, their opinions and priorities should be respected even if you think they are making a mistake
  • This is especially true of teenagers
  • Don’t equate kids with their parents. Sometimes kids and parents disagree. Listening to the parents isn’t enough
  • Do listen to the parents, though. They probably know relevant things about your child that you don’t know. Not always, but usually.