When adopting multiple children in a sibling group, often the oldest child—usually a female—appears to have assumed the role as the caregiver for the other children, especially if they have previously been placed together in an orphanage or foster home. Perhaps you have heard the term “parentification.” This occurs when a child is forced, either due to abandonment by the adult/parent or to dysfunctional family circumstances, to assume the caregiving responsibilities of the family. It is a role reversal of sorts, in that the child essentially becomes the parent and is now the “one in charge.”
In instrumental parentification, the designated child completes the physical tasks for the family such as caring for the younger child(ren), dressing them, supervising/parenting them, assuring they are fed, and cleaning the home. This burden typically falls to the older child in the family and often arises due to abandonment by the actual parent(s) or the parents’ incapacity (medical, emotional, physical absence, substance abuse, mental health) to do so. It can be quite common when adopting sibling groups, whether that is in the United States or internationally. The older child takes on this role of surrogate parent because there was a void (i.e. absent parent) in the family and the loving older sibling steps in to fill it. The parentified child wants to desperately “keep the family together” and she feels this is one way to do it. This will keep her and her siblings from feeling abandoned yet again. The sad reality regarding parentified children is that they essentially take on a full-time job fraught with adult demands and responsibilities and, because they are just children themselves, they are not prepared for it.
The challenges for a parentified child are great. By assuming this role, children lose the opportunity to experience their own childhoods. It is truly destructive for them because while they take on this excessive responsibility and the burden of these caretaking duties, they are generally never supported or acknowledged by others while they are doing this hard work. It is a lonely and alienating job! In the process of functioning as the family caregiver, the child loses her own self-identity, anger and resentment build up, and it is sometimes impossible for the child to develop any friends or a peer support system. In many ways, they constantly struggle—to meet the needs of their family/siblings, to carry such a large adult burden, to never feel that what they are doing is enough, to protect their siblings from feeling abandoned, to rise to the unrealistic challenges that this life has presented to them at such a young age. Parentified children often internally experience low self-esteem, high levels of anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation, a sense of inadequacy, fear, stress, extreme anger, have a history of unmet emotional needs, and significant difficulties forming personal relationships.
However, what you as the parent may see first in your older adopted child are the public by-products of being parentified. To those who are trying to help a parentified child, she appears to be difficult, withdrawn at times, rebellious, manipulative , insensitive to others, avoids meeting the demands or requests of others, extremely angry with your attempts to intervene, controlling, and hyper-vigilant. The child may even tell their younger siblings to listen to her, instead of to you, the parent. She will often try very hard NOT to relinquish their role as the “parent” because she is not completely sure you have the ability to be the parent. After all, other adults have failed her in the past. She has often had years to become quite comfortable in the role as “parent” and she sees you as trying to take that away. In the parentified child’s mind, you are taking away her identity! If you do that, you remove what little self-esteem she still has. Since she does not know how to be a child, she thus becomes “nothing.”
So, what can you do? First, please understand that this will be a process, not an overnight “fix.” It likely took several years for the parentified child to internalize this role as “parent,” and it will take some time and efforts for her to relinquish it. Likewise, you should expect the younger siblings to also be confused about this familial chain of command. They now do not know who is “in charge” at this point—you or their older sibling. Consequently, they may respond to parenting from both of you due to their confusion.
Here are some ideas of things you can do with your parentified child to help her reduce these behaviors:
Speak openly and honestly with her so she can understand that you will be the parent now. Allow her to see that you are capable of performing the parenting responsibilities effectively. Gently explain what your family is like and that you will now be in charge. If you need to redirect or correct her, do it in a gentle loving manner which will reassure her that it is OK.
Find opportunities to praise her, i.e. acknowledge that you can see how hard she has worked to care for the siblings and herself; tell her you are proud of them and they should also be proud of themselves. Begin to build their self-esteem and self-confidence. Let them know you understand the struggle they had with this task.
Assure your parentified child that feeling abandoned and being abandoned will never happen again now that you have adopted them. She needs to understand and feel assured that this will not occur. She needs to be able to trust what you are saying so she/he can begin to relinquish the role of parent.
Spend some time alone with your parentified child and engage in age appropriate activities. Let her experience being a child again. Introduce to her what it is actually like to be a child–to play, to enjoy, to laugh, and to have fun.
Allow your parentified child to keep at least one or two minor caretaking tasks—something that is not overly parental–to help assure her that she is both capable and valued. This can be something as simple as helping to get all of the children to the dinner table.
Encourage your parentified child’s individual abilities and provide opportunities for them to make friends her own age (They may need help with this!) and engage in age-appropriate activities so they can see that this is what a “normal” child does. The child needs to build a peer group and learn how to fit in and function effectively with those her age.
Check in on HER feelings. Ask how she is doing. Allow her to process this change at their own emotional pace. This is not an easy transition for her. Show your parentified child that you really care about her and you are there to help.
Understand that at times you may see your child revert to their old patterns of parentification. This is normal. Think about how many times you have tried to break a bad habit and had a moment of regression! Again, gently redirect her and explain why you are doing so, if needed. It takes time to assume a new role in the family unit.
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Photo Credit: Carissa Roberts