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Parentified Child—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’m wondering if my older child, age 9, is shouldering too much responsibility for her younger siblings.

She often says things to them that sound more like a parent than a sibling, for example, “Did you remember to brush your teeth?” I should add that the children go back and forth between me and their dad, so maybe it seems to her and the younger ones that the Big Sister is the one constant in their daily lives. I am also a first born and remember, not fondly, having to keep an eye on the younger ones. Is there any harm in this for her or for them?

I’m The Mom

Dear ITM,

You may be seeing signs of “parentification” in which a child, usually the oldest, takes on functional duties normally handled by a parent. A child becomes parentified when she feels compelled, or is explicitly directed to, sacrifice her own needs for attention, care, comfort, and guidance in deference to her siblings. She must take on a parental role, to varying degrees, to assist or substitute for a parent so that the younger siblings are adequately taken care of. A single parent household, especially when children outnumber adults, can give rise to such a situation.

This phenomenon was first described in a 1973 book, Invisible Loyalties by family therapists and researchers, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy  and Geraldine M. Spark. They noticed that family interaction patterns in childhood had long lasting effects. Their work is credited with inspiring mental health therapists to look at individuals through the lens of a family system, in which present behavior depends on loyalties and commitments played out in the past.

On the plus side, being regularly responsible for a younger sibling can foster a sense of competence so long as there is sufficient nurturing for the older child from parents, extended family, and or other significant adults. This child can develop a greater capacity for efficiently taking care of herself so that she is available to take care of others. Childhood experiences have taught her to pay attention to others’ needs, as well as her own, and that doing so keeps the family functioning. Outside of the family and into adulthood, she may more easily connect to others than can a child who has generally been the center of attention in the family.

However, the negative consequence of making sure everyone else’s needs are met, at times to the neglect of her own, can deprive a child of her own importance. Positive self-esteem begins with attentive, nurturing care from loving adults. The child learns to depend upon her parent, and other loving caregivers, to meet her every need, including guiding her toward self-care and eventual independence. When a child has to raise herself, and younger siblings as well, a disruption occurs. Gregory Jurkovic, author of Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child  (1997) writes, “a child’s distrust of her interpersonal world is one of the most destructive consequences of such a process.” When adults can’t be consistently counted upon to take care of children and to do the tasks of adulting in the family, it takes away from the sense of safety and sense of freedom that a more normal childhood conveys. 

This is especially true if the child must fulfill emotional and/or psychological needs of her mother or father. She may find herself serving as confidante, cheerleader, coach, or consoler to her parent. She later will have trouble distinguishing between her responsibilities and those that belong to other people – in work relationships as well as personal relationships. She may, out of habit, always put others’ needs ahead of her own. Expecting others to be incapable, she may think it her duty to offer help, care, and advice even when it’s not asked for. She may be drawn to an emotionally needy partner.

It may be time for a discussion with your ex about keeping clear boundaries between the adults’ roles regarding the younger children and your daughter’s. Re-structure those situations where she feels she has to be the one in charge so that she no longer feels that way. (Teeth brushing, for example, is monitored by the parent.) Yes, she can have responsibilities, but so can the other children according to their ages and abilities. If you haven’t yet, consider going together to a parenting class or a parenting counselor. Parenting, even when you’re living apart, is a collaborative project.

It may also be time to review the family’s support network. What other adults can be counted on to surround your children with attention, care, comfort, and guidance? It takes more than two parents to effectively “parent” a child. Start with extended family members – their grandparents, aunts, and uncles – who will be in the children’s lives for the long haul. Other candidates could be your close friends, co-workers, neighbors, parents of your children’s friends, and those special teachers, childcare providers, babysitters, scout leaders, etc. who would be honored to be more involved with one or more of your children. A shared custody arrangement may determine dates on the calendar for you and their father, but it shouldn’t separate children from other beloved adults. Your oldest child, especially, needs to have relationships with adults outside the immediate family who will respectfully treat her as a child. And she will benefit from knowing that her younger siblings also have numerous caring adults in their lives.

She needs to know there is plenty of good parenting available to her and her siblings.

Dr. Debbie

Dr. Wood will be facilitating a 3-hour workshop for parents and other caregivers of children ages 0-5 with the support of a grant from the Million Dollar Round Table. Little Kids at Hope is based on the Kids at HopeTM framework which is being used in schools and youth organizations across Anne Arundel County. Workshops are scheduled for: Tuesday, June 11, 6:30-9:30 pm; Wednesday, June 12, 6:30-9:30 pm; and Tuesday, July 9, 9 am to 12 noon. The cost is $20 per person or $35 for two. Childcare can be reserved for the morning workshop at $5 per child.
To register, contact Chesapeake Children’s Museum: 410-990-1993 or visit www.theccm.org.

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