With the recent suicide of child acting star Lee Thompson Young, who played Jett Jackson on Disney’s “The Famous Jett Jackson,” it would do well to take a look at why it is that we hear more of these sad stories than we’d like. Child stars seem to fall from grace regularly — more often than not leaving havoc in the wake or their own dead bodies.
It would seem like the perfect life growing up; you play in TV shows and movies. You become admired by your peers and even looked up to, while the whole time making money — and lots of it (especially for someone so young). So what happens that these child stars grow up to be alcoholics, drug addicts and suicidal? The truth is that while being a child star is filled with fame and glamor, it doesn’t usually last. All the attention gets to the head of the child and his or her parents. Once that spotlight leaves and shines on another, the damage to their ego can be detrimental.
“Most child actors, once they hit 18, once they hit 21, that’s it. Even teenage kids often don’t make the transition. “-Cynthia Nixon
Some of the biggest contributing factors to the breakdowns of child stars are the parents. Being a child actor does not make you an adult, although they are often treated as such. Parents often at times feel overwhelmed themselves — in over their heads — and are unsure of how to handle their child’s newfound stardom. Many will leave the decision-making entirely to the kid. A child is a child no matter whether or not he or she is paying the bills. Children should never be allowed to make life decisions entirely on their own because they do not yet understand how the world works.
Being a child star inflates one’s ego to extreme proportions. Being complimented, given gifts, having fans write to you and scream and shout when they see you, this all goes straight to the head. You begin believing that you are better than others — that you are special. Often you will see a child star, after being handed the reins, distance themselves from their parents and begin to live almost independently before they hit puberty.
“There’s a constant flow of child actors. It’s kind of funny to watch the new crew come through. I think, you poor little things. You’re going to have to struggle for a long time.” - Tina Yothers
The problem is that once they do hit puberty, the chances of them remaining famous is slim. Child stars are loved because they are young and cute. What happens once they hit puberty and are no longer young and cute? They are replaced by someone prepubescent; someone who is younger and cuter than they are now that they’ve gotten “old.”
You’ll find that many times the parents are not only not there to help their children, but that they are taking advantage of them. Although you can work and make money at such a young age, you can’t spend or manage it yourself. Someone older who is believed to be wiser and more responsible — a.k.a. the parent — is to remain in charge of the money until the child becomes an adult.
However, many parents take advantage of their child’s success and splurge all the dough before the child reaches the legal age of adulthood. The Coogan Law was set up to prevent this after a child actor, Jackie Coogan, back in the 1930s had his fortune of $4 million (nearly $50 million in today’s value) entirely spent by his mother and stepfather. Once he turned of age, he was broke. He sued his parents and only recovered $126,000 of it. They had the new law named after him, but nevertheless the law only insures 15% of the child’s earnings.
“I could have gone the route of a lot of these former child actors, but I didn’t want that for myself. Like I said, when I was 14 years old, I decided to quit. I didn’t ever want to do it again.” - Macaulay Culkin
Today’s headlines become yesterday’s news. Child prodigies become wash-ups that no one has any interest in. The psychological effect that this has can be extremely damaging. You grow up being told — and believing — that you are amazing only to later be forgotten by the same people that told you how much they loved you. Your millions of fans find someone else to admire and you become a nobody — you go back to being average. Human beings have a hunger for constant progress.
We all start at the bottom and go through life doing our best to reach the top. The problem with these child stars is that they peak at a very young age and then everything they do post-stardom pales in comparison. They became so accomplished early on that everything that they do afterwards seems to have little to no worth. In other words, because they succeeded so early on, once they lose the spotlight the rest of their lives seem like a failure. Child stars have a problem with letting go of their pasts; they cannot live in the moment, but instead are cursed with this nostalgia of how good things used to be when everyone thought so highly of them.
“A lot of child actors keep acting for the wrong reasons.” - Nicholas Hoult
Hollywood sets these kids up for a great future and then rips it away from them when they are no longer needed. It’s a brutal industry to be working in no matter what age you are. Being sucked in at such a young age almost guarantees that if you do fail to become a longtime actor — which is almost always the case — you will be miserable for it. You have been exposed to a life filled with the highest of comforts, you get used to that lifestyle and the recognition, and then you get thrown out with the trash. These children don’t see Hollywood as a business, but rather as a dream come true. They are taught to believe that the opinions that others have of them are what is most important.
Their performances, their reviews and criticisms are what their lives revolve around. Once they are kicked out of the industry, they become has-beens and feel that people only see them as such. Imagine being recognized on the street for something that you did 10 years ago. Then imagine always being asked: Why don’t you act anymore? What happened? You get a constant reminder of your “failure” — even though you didn’t actually fail; it wasn’t up to you whether or not you continue to be a star. You hit puberty and weren’t the cute actor everyone saw you as. They didn’t believe that you could make the transition into an adult. You spend the rest of your life feeling that you are always being judged and criticized.
“Most child actors go through that. Unless you can transition into an adult star, your career is over.” - Morgan Brittany
We hear about child stars either becoming substance abusers or falling into depressions, committing suicide all the time. Sure, they aren’t the only ones — but that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter. It’s the movie and TV industry, and the way it is organized that allows such bright people, like Lee Thompson Young, to lose track of what is important. They are taught to believe the wrong things have value and then are stripped of those things. No one ever sits with them and discusses what their next steps should be and what they should do with their lives because no one cares any longer.
These actors are treated like cattle. What pisses me off is that this could all be avoided if they would only create a smoother transition for these stars — whether it be the parents or the industry itself. They should have a psychologist or life-coach sit down with them and discuss their future plans. Child actors are bright, intelligent people. Not making sure that they are mentally stable after they have served their purpose is wrong. Who’s to say that these child stars can’t grow up to make great contributions to humanity? Someone should be taking responsibility for the loss of their lives.