McLaughlin was raised in Carmel, New York. After attending Kent Primary School, he attended George Fischer Middle School for one year. After studying dance for a year at Happy Feet Dance School in Carmel, New York, he attended Seven Star School of Performing Arts in Brewster, New York. Following that, he studied at The Harlem School of the Arts under former Lion King producer Aubrey Lynch.
As a child, McLaughlin appeared at the Glimmerglass Opera House in Cooperstown, New York in Lost in the Stars. As Young Simba in The Lion King (2012-14), he had his first starring role on Broadway.
His guest-starring roles include Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Unforgettable, Forever, What Would You Do?, and Shades of Blue. The role of Lucas Sinclair in Stranger Things (2016–present) was McLaughlin’s breakthrough role in 2016. In 2017, he was nominated for the BET YoungStars Award, and in 2018, he won the NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Performance by a Youth. In 2020, McLaughlin starred in Concrete Cowboy alongside Idris Elba and Jharrel Jerome, which received positive reviews. Forbes recognized McLaughlin as an honoree in the Hollywood and Entertainment category for its 30 Under 30 Class of 2021 list in December 2020.
#EmbraceYourFace and #BeYourBiggestFan are social media campaigns McLaughlin has spearheaded to promote healthy body image, positivity, and self-esteem. McLaughlin said: “Feeling good about yourself starts with you first, before it goes to anyone else… You have to take the time to love yourself and appreciate yourself.” On his official Instagram account, McLaughlin also shared a video encouraging people to vote in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, linking to Vote.org, a non-profit organization.