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Acting as a Youngster: the Fun and the Frightening

By Amy Hernandez

Child actors give movies life, and throughout the years, we have been amazed by the performances of some incredibly talented child actors. Whether they're the lead or the supporting actor, child actors have the ability to steal the show. Understanding how acting affects children is important because patterns can improve acting conditions to ensure children are developing healthily. Sadly, we have seen some of our favorite child actors grow up and develop substance abuse problems or other psychological problems that make us wonder about the conditions children face when performing. However, we have also seen numerous child actors grow up and continue thriving in Hollywood. Acting is powerful, and many children have the time of their lives on set, having fun with their co-stars, and learning new skills every day.

For one, many of us can imagine that the pressures of acting at such a young age cannot be easy. We can also imagine that dealing with stardom during childhood is difficult to manage. Sometimes children become actors because they have a personal interest in acting; sometimes, their parents push them to perform. Certainly, we wonder if acting can have lasting negative effects on a child's development, or if acting, like sports and other activities, can be good for a child's development. We're also led to contemplate whether acting can impact emotional growth or if children show signs of being emotionally and physically at risk because of acting. In Psychology Today, psychotherapist Wanda Behrens-Horrell states that "the answers to these questions will depend on the motivation of the child and parent, as well as the child's age, length of time in the spotlight, level of commitment, work environment, and financial gains."

What Makes Child Actors Different?

Some of the circumstances that can make learning everyday tasks difficult for child actors are the overprotection and pampering they're subjected to during their developmental years. While most of us learn to cook, make our beds, and do our laundry during our developmental years, child actors may face difficulties relating to their normal peers. Moreover, the quick-paced environment of show business can make child actors feel overdeveloped when they grow up. It also does not help that children actors are exposed to drugs, alcohol, and sex at an earlier age than most others. Other pressures in show business include the overwhelming need to be perfect, rejection, and jealousy. As a consequence, these children are more at risk of abusing drugs, alcohol, or sex. Some of the early signs of mental and emotional problems in children ages 2-8 include indicators of stress such as depression, regression, anxiety, crying, temper tantrums, and clinging. Meanwhile, some of the signs seen in teenagers are isolation, poor grades, substance abuse, eating disorders, oversleeping, lying, and lack of honest and open communication.

On the other hand, having strong support systems can prevent the development of mental or emotional issues. At the end of the day, any child can face extreme pressures or pampering, so these are not factors that are exclusive to children who act. We've also seen how excited child actors are during press conferences, red carpets, and interviews. Look at Jacob Tremblay, Roman Griffin Davis, Archie Yates, Julia Butters, and Brooklynn Prince. They're all young but seem to be having so much fun even when acting alongside some of the greatest actors of all time, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Brie Larson, and Sam Rockwell. Not all acting conditions are toxic for children, and we have seen how some sets help child actors thrive to become the best versions of themselves.

Words From a Child Actor

In 2013, Mara Wilson, the child star from "Matilda," shared her experience as a child actor with Regarding the pressures of acting, Wilson stated, "you're also in this environment where you realize that, 'Hey, I can't really make a mistake because making a mistake is going to cost time and money, and it's not going to help out the production.' So you realize, or you think, rather, as a child that this is something that can't happen: I can't make a mistake. I have to be perfect. I have to get it right all the time. And that's not a healthy mindset for a child." As children and teenagers, we all face many pressures, but the demands placed on child actors definitely push children to grow up faster than normal.

Wilson also spoke on growing out of her "cuteness" and said, "you lose that praise. You lose what you had. And you are so used to it; it's almost like a drug. And all of a sudden, it's like withdrawal. You just go off of it, and you feel very rejected. I write in my piece that a lot of kids feel very rejected and very uncomfortable. They're going through puberty, but imagine if the whole rest of the world was basically saying, 'Yeah, you know what, you are pretty useless. You are pretty ugly.' And there's a lot of that out there." Being loved by people everywhere and gradually losing that attention when physical changes occur isn't easy for a person to go through. It makes us speculate if there is an internalized tension between performance and identity. It is easier for adult actors to separate themselves from their characters, but we cannot assume doing so is as easy for children. When a child takes on a role, especially a role they take on for a long time, they can start believing they are the character they're portraying. The problems and confusion these circumstances create can cause a child to struggle with their identity.

Although some child actors face challenges such as Wilson's, many child actors enjoy their work and benefit positively from their acting experiences. Two young actresses who have shared their acting experiences for Seraphina Magazine and Dreamlette Magazine are Aria Brooks and Isabella Blake-Thomas. Both Brooks and Blake-Thomas expressed their love for acting and singing and shared their fun and positive experiences on set and with their co-stars. Since these are two actresses acting today, it's possible that the industry has changed, and therefore, they did not face the same challenges child actors in the past faced. If this is so, it's good knowing that the industry is changing for the better. Of course, the film industry can be difficult to navigate even as an adult, but hearing positive stories from young actors working today is encouraging because it shows us that acting itself can be a source of happiness for these youngsters.

Bringing Awareness to the Struggles of Child Performers

After knowing the experiences and outcomes of many child actors, we might be led to believe children should not be on sets, but that is not the case because we have seen child actors transition into adults and have successful careers as adult actors. A shortlist of people who made the successful transition include Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Natalie Portman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ethan Hawke, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. One common factor that seems to be the key to helping child actors develop successfully is good parenting. Supporting children and listening to their needs is of the utmost importance. Any child who acts should act out of their own volition. The moment acting becomes unsatisfying, children should not be pressured to continue acting. I imagine it would also help if productions practiced being more patient with their child actors and created healthy work environments to make children feel safe even when their performances aren't perfect. If you are young and passionate about acting, be assured that acting can be rewarding, fun, and good people in the industry exist who will make your experiences positive.

Amy Hernandez is an editorial intern dedicated to researching and writing about all things skincare, film, and fashion.

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