Reflecting on my past, I realize the label of maturity that was thrust upon me at such a young age wasn’t always a badge of honor. I was frequently hailed for my precociousness and knack for handling matters, something that even now triggers a hint of pride. However, delving deeper into those memories, I see the impact of being a sibling’s parent on my life was immense and it transformed my childhood into an atypical journey that wasn’t always favorable.
When my parents split up when I was 12, I found myself taking care of my younger brother or sister. My responsibility was to keep my younger brother from being homesick, fed well, and protected whenever we visited relatives. I would then act as a go-between for my parents since they didn’t talk to each other. Soon, my trips away from home were less about me and more about making sure my brother or sister had a good place to live.
When I was a youth, I should have been most worried about what to wear to a party or what to study for a test. But on top of that, I worried about my parents’ health, their finances, and how to raise my younger brother. I didn’t feel comfortable being around individuals my own age because I didn’t have much in common with them.
My experience all comes under parentification. The Hungarian-American psychiatrist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy came up with the term to describe a situation in which a child stops being a kid and takes on the role of a caregiver. “The adult takes on the role of the child in the parent-child relationship,” says Jennifer A. Engelhardt, Psy.D., a psychologist in Philadelphia. “In return, the child is expected to take on what is usually thought of as adult responsibilities.”
Sophie Chung, M.D., CEO of Qunomedical, a digital health platform based in Berlin, Germany, that connects doctors and patients worldwide, says that when kids are pushed to grow up too fast, they skip over stages of development. Our personalities and the way we live as adults are shaped by the different times of our lives. When these are skipped or done quickly, our sense of who we are changes, which can cause problems as adults.
How Parentification Changes Things
Jana Bou Reslan, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology, says that parents who parent their children tend to use them as a release for their anger or as a shoulder to cry on. The problem is that young kids need help from their parents as they form their ideas about the world.
Up until they are about 7 years old, children can only see things from their own point of view. So, hearing things from a good point of view helps them deal with things better. This doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t tell the truth, which is important in a relationship with a kid. It’s about telling them about the world in the right amount and in a way that’s right for their age and not depending on them for mental support. The second option can lead to stress and pain.
Newport Academy, a therapy program for teens with mental health or addiction problems with locations nationwide, says that children and teens going through parentification may struggle with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, worry, social isolation, constant worry, and overworking.
I know this to be true. My 9-year-old self was overwhelmed by the realities of the adult world that I was introduced to. As a child, when I heard that my family’s finances were changing because of the cost of divorce, lawyers, debts, and alimony, I thought I could lose everything I owned and become homeless. I didn’t really understand economics at the time. It made me feel bad about things I couldn’t change. All it did was confuse people about what would happen next.
Experts say that becoming a parent as an adult can also cause problems, especially when it comes to making good relationships. Many people continue to help, give advice, or listen to others and become people pleasers. Researchers have found that they have a hard time dealing with rejection and sadness in relationships, and they worry about being left alone and losing something. They may also have trouble with trust, anger, worry, and low self-esteem.
When The Amount of Responsibility Is Too Much
There’s nothing wrong with giving kids age-appropriate chores to do around the house. In fact, study shows that it’s good for them. However, there is a fine line between educating a child to be responsible and assigning them tasks that are better suited to adults. During the pandemic, older brothers have taken on more responsibility because their parents have a hard time taking care of their younger children, and schools and other places where kids learn have closed.
According to Dr. Chung, there is nothing wrong with asking your child to help out around the house by doing things like washing dishes or tidying up or with asking your teenager to make breakfast cereal for your younger child in the morning. The problem comes when a child is supposed to clean, feed, and make sure their sibling gets up on time, eats, and goes to school every day on their own. Then chores are the child’s full responsibility, and there is a lot more pressure on the kid than there should be.
Dr. Reslan agrees, saying that if you need some help setting the table or watching the kids for a moment, it doesn’t have to become a regular occurrence.
We want kids to learn to be independent and responsible over time, which means giving them chores that are good for their bodies and minds. But experts say that a child can’t take on adult tasks, no matter how grown up or independent they may seem. The only thing they do in the house is be a kid.
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