A typical dynamic with siblings in neglectful and dysfunctional homes is for one child, often the oldest, to take on the roles of the parent in providing for the physical and emotional needs of the younger siblings. Very often she or he also becomes the emotional and physical support for their parent as well. In essence, the child becomes the parent. We refer to this child as a “parentified child.”
No child should have to become the parent to her siblings and parents, but this is often the only way the family has survived. And although we view it as harmful for the child, the tricky part is that often the child likes the role of being in charge. This position has brought them control and has provided whatever level of safety they have had. They also often identify with being the responsible one.
Moving them out of this role can feel threatening not only to their safety but also to their very identity.
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All kids should have the right to be kids, so it is natural when fostering or adopting a sibling set for us to want to make sure that all the children are allowed to “just be kids.” Of course, we want our kids to have a normal childhood, but we need to gradually move the child out of the parenting role. It took years for the child to become the parent, but with patience and consistency we can give them back their childhood.
10 Parenting Tips for a ‘Parentified’ Child
- At the beginning set clear boundaries and define the roles of the parent and the children. State clearly what Dad and Mom are responsible for in your home, and what kids are responsible for.
- Talk with the child who has assumed the role of caretaker. Ask what it was like caring for her siblings. Acknowledge that it probably feels weird and uncomfortable not being in charge.
- If his siblings are not living with you, try to maintain contact with the siblings to alleviate some of your child’s worry about them and guilt at not being able to care for them.
- Plan on a gradual transition from parent to sibling. (It took a while to create and it will take a while to correct.)
- Ask the child to show you how to care for his siblings and allow him to feel important and respected for his knowledge. “What type of peanut butter does the little one like?” “What soothes her?”
- Allow her to continue some of the smaller responsibilities, such as giving baths, brushing hair, or getting snacks for her siblings.
- Parentified children are often competent at many things. Find ways for him to use these skills outside of parenting his siblings and let him hear you bragging about him to someone else.
- Get your child involved in activities with other children her age–school clubs, sports, church youth group, scouts, art class, etc.
- Find and continue therapy for the child and siblings.
- Be patient, supportive and understanding. Like other children in care, a parentified child is behaving in a manner that is normal for them, usually out of fear and survival. It will take time to trust and feel safe enough to let go.
Have you adopted or fostered a child that has assumed the role of parent to her siblings? How did you handle it? How long did it take for the child to relinquish that role? Did they ever allow you to fully be the parent?