Dear Dr. Debbie,
I’ve been under a lot of stress lately—at work and at home. I just realized that my nine-year-old, the oldest of the three kids, has been acting “too good” lately.
She not only does chores, homework, teeth brushing, etc. without me having to ask her, she often tells her younger siblings what they should be doing. This reminded me of myself at her age when my parents routinely depended on me—their oldest—to take care of my little brothers when I would much rather have been playing with my friends or reading a book. They were experiencing financial hardship, I later surmised, and eventually divorced. How do I make sure my daughter enjoys her childhood?
Something Else to Worry About
What you’re describing sounds like the role of “Responsible Child” or “Golden Child” or “Family Hero” of a dysfunctional family. And yes, it can rob a child of the carefree aspect of being a child.
Dysfunctional family roles came to be understood as Adult Children of Alcoholics started sharing their stories with one another. Psychologists and others began to find patterns for children in a variety of families who fell short of meeting children’s needs for structure, stability, and nurturing. Characteristic patterns of childhood behavior were also spotted when parents were dealing other adverse conditions for optimal child development besides alcoholism. These other parental conditions include domestic violence, divorce, severe health issues, depression, incarceration, drug addiction, gambling addiction, narcissism, or immaturity.
In short, when a parent is hampered by conditions that impair the ability to fulfill the needs of his or her child, that child overcomes the deficits with coping strategies. Often it falls on the oldest child to take on duties normally taken care of by a parent. Such duties might include making sure a younger sibling gets up and out with everything needed for the day.
Additionally, it behooves the child to refrain from causing any additional stress to the family. She will become “perfect” in her schoolwork or sport or musical instrument, and “perfectly behaved” anywhere she goes. She maintains her purpose of reducing the parent’s burdens by ever-striving to do the right thing at all times.
The problem, of course, is that this drive to have everything under control is too big of a job for a child. Anxiety can takes its toll on physical health as well as mental health.
Good thing you are paying attention. Take a good look at the stressors affecting you to see which ones you might lessen with some easy changes. A close friend or professional counselor can help you examine the issues that may feel overwhelming and out of your control. Once you have pinpointed a few problems and named them, you’ll find books, websites, and support groups with information and strategies to help you. A stressor from work might be addressed with a co-worker, your supervisor, or the Human Resources officer. Take a first step in reducing the pressure your daughter may be feeling to hold things steady while you’re not.
Use your support network – or work on developing one if you don’t have other adults in your life to share the joys and challenges of parenting. Girl Scouts and other organized activities give a child the benefit of having a handful of adults who provide the guidance, fun, and positive feedback a child needs. Informal relationships are great, too. Extended family members, your friends, the parents of her friends, and friendly co-workers and neighbors should be part of family time. The African proverb, “It takes a village . . .” wisely teaches that more than just parents and other relatives, a child is best raised through interactions with plenty of other caring adults.
Be mindful of the tasks you expect your daughter to manage and explicitly relieve her of the ones she shouldn’t have to worry about. For example, if she’s been packing lunches for her younger siblings, clearly let her know that you’ve arranged for them to buy lunch at school or let her see that you have plenty of time to pack lunches right after dinner. (Maybe because you’ve let go of some other time-stealing responsibility.)
Use that support network to lighten your parenting load by carpooling to school or after school activities or by arranging playdates for the younger siblings. Parent peers in your network are also good for advice on everything from the best parks and playgrounds to money-saving and time-saving tips for family meals.
Plan for your daughter to spend time with friends. As you recall from your own childhood, friendships are very important at this age. A friend helps you figure out who you are. Make your daughter’s friendships a priority in your week by helping her schedule times to have a friend come over or go on outings with your family. Likely the friends’ families will reciprocate so your daughter gets a glimpse of the variety of family life among them. Even as you work on reducing the stress level in your home, your daughter can be enjoying some time with less-stressed families. Give her this gift.
Does your daughter love reading as much as you did at her age? Books can be a magical escape from a reality that has its difficulties. A good read will put her in the shoes of characters with their own range of difficulties – all overcome, after some stressful twists and turns, with a satisfying ending.
Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.
What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.