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Family Boundaries and the Parentified Child

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Email 2007:

“My 7 year old neighbor is extremely mature for her age. It’s as if she has no Id or Superego. She does things that an adult would do. One morning her younger sister woke up really early and she cooked for her sister on a stove, dressed her and everything. The way she speaks is very mature as well. She does not sound like a regular 7 year old nor does she act like one. Is there a possible disorder here or maybe lead to one?”

This Email typifies the type of thing that happens all too often. Children become the “parents” to their parents and younger siblings. These kids are referred to as “parentified children.” Indeed, these children do such things as: dressing the younger kids, house cleaning, preparing lunch and dinner for the entire family, caring for and supervising the younger children and, acting as parents to their own parents.

Hollywood portrays these youngsters as being very cute because they are precocious and mature beyond their years. Their adult behavior and wisdom is looked upon as entertaining because they seem to have naivete combined with these characteristics far beyond their years. In point of fact, these children are very unfortunate in many ways.

How do these children take on such very adult roles and responsibilities?

If there is one factor that is more fearful than any other for a child, it is that they will be abandoned. The adultified child takes on responsibilities in the hope that it will hold the family together by keeping mom and dad around.

First, given the fact that there are many single parent families, it falls upon children from some of these homes to carry adult responsibilities while their parent is out working. Often, in these situations, the parent is asking or expecting the child to take on adult responsibilities in their absence. They become the parent of the household in the interim between coming home from school and when the parent returns to the household.

Similarly, when a parent passes away, or when there is a divorce, the surviving parent either works or returns to work and becomes the sole bread winner for the family. Once again, it is left to the child to become the surrogate parent for the siblings and for the household.

Then, there are families characterized by having “boundary problems.” Human organizations and relationships have clearly set boundaries in which certain role expectations are assigned and fulfilled by appropriate people. For instance, it is for adults to work and earn a sufficient living to provide safety and security while children are growing up and attending school. This also allows kids to play and enjoy childhood so that they can go through healthy development and become normal adults who are ready to fulfill their roles when the time comes.

However, there are two types of families who adultify their children.

In one type of family, the parent uses the child as a confidant. I have worked with patients who complained bitterly about having been forced to listen to their mother or father talk about their sexual and financial problems. In all of these cases, the children felt a heavy burden placed on themselves, a burden they did not know what to do with. They also felt frightened to listen to things that were well beyond their ability to understand and that were totally inappropriate for them to hear.

In the other type of family, drug and alcohol addiction render the adults incapable of attending to their responsibilities. Consequently, one of the children take on that responsibility, not only caring for their siblings but for their helpless parent as well. In one case, an adult has described how she, as a child, worried about her mother getting home safely because she knew how drunk she could get after work. Her father had passed away several years before.

These children often suffer terrible consequences. For example, some of them parentify their own children, visiting upon them the same cruel burdens that they were once asked to carry. Being the parentified child is a lonely experience because they have no parent to turn to for help and guidance. These kids carry the full burden of the family trauma. They lose out on the chance to experience their own childhood and are often resented by the other kids because they are doing the limit setting and child rearing.

These circumstances often lead this child to choose a marital partner who is dependent so that, once again, they are in the role of parent to their spouse. This unhappy circumstance is often disastrous for the marriage because of the amount of resentment and conflict that results. Ultimately, no married partner really wants to find themselves acting as parent or child to their spouse.

Awareness is an important way for adults to prevent this from happening to their children. For example, in the event of death or divorce, people commonly tell the oldest child that, “You are the man or woman of the house.” It’s important for parents to speak to their children so they understand that they need not worry about this ever happening. It is important to look to friends or family to help out if it’s necessary to work. There are also after school programs for such children that go late enough so that they can be picked up by working parents. It’s always important to talk to kids, see how they are feeling and to reassure them that you, the adult, are in charge. For children, the greatest fear is of being abandoned which it is why it’s so important to give them that assurance.

Were you a parentified child? Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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