Parentification

This was a new term for me and came out of one of the stories I read recently conveyed by a foster parent. Here’s the story –

I am currently fostering a 14 year old. They were removed because of trauma from a family member who is not their mom but who still lives with their mom. Mom refuses to ask this person to leave or to move into a different apartment, but is otherwise doing what is asked of her to work towards reunification. Today this kid told me they really want to be reunified, which makes perfect sense. I’m worried because this seems unlikely unless mom starts believing them and takes steps to cut their perpetrator out of her life. How do I support them? If you were in their shoes, what would you want from a foster caregiver? I’m also worried because many of the reasons this kid states for wanting to reunify are to care for their mom. It’s not my place to make the judgment calls, but it seems from the outside like a case of parentification. Add to this that I’ve heard this child talk about how much they wish they had been given the opportunity that their peers had to “just be a kid”.

So what is parentification ? Parentification is when the roles are reversed between a child and a parent, a toxic family dynamic that is rarely talked about and is even accepted as the norm in some cultures. However, research has found that it can have far-reaching negative psychological impacts. It is a functional and/or emotional role reversal in which the child sacrifices his or her own needs for attention, comfort, and guidance in order to accommodate and care for the logistical and emotional needs of a parent and/or sibling.

One response was this from experience – my parents put me in foster care briefly when I was suicidal from the pressure of being a “good kid” and experiencing their abuse. I wanted to go back to them to protect my brother. I feel for the teen. I would have this child in therapy now to begin processing those emotions of responsibility. I’m 24 and still struggle with guilt that my brother may have suffered when I was gone or what would have happened if I’d stayed gone. My mom would’ve likely lost her mind. She did – when I went to college. My best advice is therapy for the child while in your care, and perhaps talk to a therapist about how you could best talk to their mom about her removing that person in the home. My mom chose my dad over me often, so I feel for the teen.

Another one shared – Unfortunately this might be something that never fully goes away. I was like this, the eldest child who took care of the family from a very young age and getting rid of that guilt and the “needing to take care of them feeling” has been very very resistant to therapy. I think the best you can do is just try to be empathetic, don’t make them feel like they’re acting too old or whatever (mine did that and it really fucked with my head) just be kind and remind them they can relax and do things for themselves, even if they don’t listen.

This one touched my heart, because I am the oldest as well. I was not in an awful situation but I have always felt a sense of responsibility for my two sisters. Our parents died only 4 months apart (high school sweethearts married for over 50 years). From the first day I returned to my family after my mom died first, I found myself having to take over financial responsibility for my sisters that my mom had been financially providing, making me in effect “the mom”. Then, after our dad died too, I had to ask the court to appoint someone to assist my youngest sister with her finances. She is likely a paranoid schizophrenic with very weird ideas about the way money functions. The court agreed to appoint a conservator. My sister and I have struggled. What had been a really good relationship before was destroyed when our mom died. Our mom had a poor relationship with my sister for over a decade and my sister’s feelings about that transferred to me when my mom died and I had to take over the family finances.

Also this interesting perspective – I cared for a teen relative of mine last year similar situation. As soon as she could legally, she returned to mom and the abuser to care for her siblings again and her mom. This is what she had been taught was the only way to get attention, love etc from mom. The best way we found to help her was to enroll her in a group for teens about healthy relationships at our local Domestic Violence shelter. She also did therapy with someone she selected and equine psychotherapy which helped her with attachment a lot. While she was here, we focused on just reminding her of our unconditional love and building trust in our relationship. Even though she went back, it didn’t take long for all of that to help her see how to set boundaries with mom, identify unsafe situations with abuser and start to come out of some of the fog. It’s still complicated but she isn’t engrained and I see her setting more healthy boundaries. We (and her dad) are still safe people she can come too and does. It took about 6 months of us just watching from a distance and being supportive regardless. In your situation, maybe focus on staying neutral and asking for a CASA or Guardian ad Litem to help with the other side of the coin. Having a mentor also really helped my relative. It was someone closer to her age that she could confide in and she is still actively talking to that person now. Maybe your foster youth could use a mentor because they aren’t a therapist but can be a sounding board. Also a lifeline if the youth returns and ‘adults’ get cut off from that person. (I say adults because the mentors we have had are usually 25 or younger and parents don’t see them like they do a 40 year old caseworker).