When Being Tall Means You Get Treated Like You\’re Older

Kids at school

My 6-foot middle schooler only needs to pick up a dodgeball to intimidate some of his classmates. He worries that normal gestures and activities—such as closing his locker too hard—will get him flagged for being aggressive, even when the same action from a student with a smaller stature is considered acceptable.

As I'm raising two kids who tower above their peers, I've seen that exceptional height can have drawbacks. It's not unusual for my kids to hear things like, "How's the weather up there?" "Whoa! What's your shoe size?" and "Why aren't you on the basketball team?" Taller kids may also be called out for doing things that don't appear to be age appropriate. For example, it was heartbreaking when my boys would go trick-or-treating while still in elementary school and get sidelong glances from strangers who assumed they were teenagers.

But it's not only outside influences that tend to treat taller kids differently; parents can also unintentionally fall victim to that. If you're raising a child at the top of the growth charts, here's what to watch out for and how to help your children navigate the different treatment they might receive.

The Trouble With Treating Tall Kids Differently

When you're dealing with a 5-year-old the size of an 8-year-old, or a 12-year-old who looks like an adult, you may unwittingly treat them as older or more mature. But medical professionals warn about the repercussions of expecting our kids to behave beyond their years.

"Expectations might be higher if children are treated as older than they are, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and failure for the child, and frustration and disappointment for the adults," says Erica Eugster, M.D., an endocrinologist at Riley Children's Health in Indianapolis.

There's also a "mismatch" in children whose bodies grow quickly, says Marcia Slattery, M.D., professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She explains that the brain develops much more slowly and steadily than the body.

Adults may expect larger kids to be able to work on complex projects, make responsible decisions, or have a grown-up sense of self-awareness. But when kids can't do that, it's stressful and can even lead to depressed moods due to feelings of failure. Adults, in turn, might think the child isn't paying attention or trying hard enough, or even intentionally misbehaving.

"In both cases, strained relationships and interpersonal experiences can ensue, thus contributing to stress and anxiety for both kids and adults," says Dr. Slattery, who is also the director of the University of Wisconsin's anxiety disorders program for children, adolescents, and adults.

Tall Kids and Body-Shaming

Another problem? Teasing. People may think it's harmless to poke fun at tall people, even when other forms of body-shaming are frowned upon. But pointing out someone's shoe size or inseam, which they have zero control over, just emphasizes their differences.

This is especially hard for adolescents. In fact, stress and negative experiences increase their risk of anxiety, depression, and stress-related behaviors, says Dr. Slattery. Girls, compared to boys, often describe feeling more self-conscious about their body size relative to peers, she adds.

When kids are made to feel out of place with their own classmates, they may become quiet or distant. Or they may start hanging out with older kids to fit in, making them vulnerable to risk-taking behaviors like substance abuse and sexual activity, notes Dr. Slattery.

How Parents Can Help Their Tall Kids

Our kids don't deserve ridicule. Nobody does. With awareness, openness, and discussion, we can help our children avoid issues that may arise from their height.

Start with your own behavior. Ask yourself if you're treating your child the way you'd treat their smaller friend of the same age. If not, work to fix that behavior and lower your expectations.

Correct others. Keep an eye out for adults who expect your child to act overly mature. I noticed this especially when my boys started towering over authority figures. It helps to gently remind others of your child's actual age and even acknowledge they only look older.

Talk to your child. Always try and keep an open line of communication. Speak to your kids about their experiences and your observations. Ask open-ended questions to help them open up. Really listen to them. If they're struggling or reluctant to talk to you, consider involving a school counselor or therapist.

Focus on their self-esteem. Take a positive approach to building your kid's self-esteem, which can be threatened because of their size. "Encourage them to do the things that they enjoy and are good at and put them in activities where their size is an advantage," advises Dr. Eugster. And very importantly, don't tolerate body-shaming. Period.

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