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).

When Something Doesn’t Feel Right

From Slate.com’s Dear Prudence.

Titled – Help! I Think the Kids We’re About to Adopt Are Being Wrongfully Taken From Their Family.

Subtitled – The parents may be incarcerated, but the extended family seems totally qualified to raise them.

My husband and I (both white men) decided to become foster parents several years ago, with the ultimate goal of eventually adopting. We took the classes and our first placement came to us in September 2020, during the pandemic. In my estimation, we have done an excellent job with the day-to-day, but something has come up that I’m at a loss about. I’ll try to be brief.

In short, the agency has decided that the children’s extended family (they are two siblings, both parents are incarcerated for unknown “drug-related” reasons) is ill-equipped to care for them, despite owning a home, seeming to have a stable income, and already having raised two children previously. They have asked us to step in and proceed with a full adoption. My husband wants to do this as he has always wanted children, and these two are pretty awesome. I am very hung up on a number of things that can be boiled down to: I feel like we are stealing someone else’s kids. We don’t know (and the agency won’t say, for “privacy” reasons) why the parents are incarcerated, and we don’t know why the extended family has been ruled out and denied custody (they really seem fine, stable, nice, and they are interested in the kids), also for “privacy” reasons.

This seems insane to me. What if the parents are in jail for possession, or some other goofy crime that God knows I’ve committed 8,000 times myself (in bygone years)? What if the extended family is perfectly fine but has been precluded due to some bureaucratic nonsense issue like lacking paperwork? We live in a large urban area and the foster system is known, according to them, for its diligence, but this still feels icky. Both our families are pro the adoption, and I’m the only one pointing out red flags. They think it’s because I’m not “fully committed” to the idea of adoption or having kids, but I can tell you I’ve been agonizing over this and can’t get past the lack of data we have on how the kids have come to this point. They are Latinx kids caught up in foster care and the carceral state. Am I overthinking this? Should we trust the agency’s process? What should I do?

I don’t entirely agree with Prudence’s response – but here it is.

I think your concerns are very, very real and very thoughtful. But the thing is, they are about the system, not about this one adoption. Declining to move forward won’t free your kids from that system and all of its problems—it will (as far as I know; hopefully a reader will correct me if I’m off base here) simply lead to them being placed with another family that may or may not be as loving and sensitive as you are.

I think you should do it, and make it a priority to give the kids as much contact as possible with their family of origin, and as much reassurance as possible that they are not terrible people. So no, you’re not overthinking it at all. You are thinking about it the perfect amount. And I have a feeling you’ll put the same amount of thought into all the future aspects of raising Latinx kids and the many complicated issues that come with being an adoptive parent.

The Damage Done

I came of age in the early 1970s. I will admit that I have way too much life history with drug use. In fact, addiction was the primary cause of my first marriage’s failure. So many children are removed from their parents due to addiction issues. The money that should be feeding and housing and providing all the basics for their family goes into drugs. I understand. I remember food and housing insecurity because of that in my first marriage. Today’s blog was triggered by this story of a foster care child.

My 11 year old foster daughter is (understandably) having an incredibly hard time coping with feelings of abandonment by her mother. While I don’t agree with it and have advocated otherwise, she is not allowed to talk to or see her mom until she takes a drug test. Mom has refused and my foster daughter is feeling unloved and abandoned. I’m at a loss for how to help her cope. She often asks me to validate her feelings by saying things such as “If she loved me, she would just go do the drug test, right?” or “She must be on drugs. She loves them more than me, doesn’t she?”. She wants me to answer her yes or no. I don’t know how to answer to help her. I don’t want to speak negative about her parents by agreeing with her but I don’t want to make her feel like her feelings aren’t valid by saying something like “She loves you but drugs are powerful and affecting her choices.” I have reached out to mom and tried to get her to take the drug test so they can have contact and let her know what is going on with her daughter. She always says she is going to but hasn’t yet. It has been over a year now.

She ends with this request for advice – Those who have been through similar situations, how would you recommend I help this child?

The first answers are good ones. Is she in therapy? She needs somewhere to process feelings and learn about addiction. Does she have a therapist? If not, that would be very helpful. Someone who is trauma informed, addiction experience, and foster care and adoption competent would be a good thing for her. Sounds like you and her therapist need to have a discussion about addiction with her.

I didn’t know about this person but it sounds like reasonable advice – I highly recommended listening to and reading Gabor Mate and as an addiction expert and particularly his compassionate, scientifically based approach to addiction. It will help you (and your subsequently foster daughter) understand with compassion rather that judgement, anger, exasperation or frustration.

Personally, I saw this perspective immediately and am glad this was said – Her mom probably can’t pass a test and doesn’t want to make things worse. I would start by explaining that. We wouldn’t make an illiterate person pass a reading test for a basic human right…sad. Being a child of an addict there is a lot of pain and hard days for sure but she should be able to see her mom. All the therapy suggestions are on point and hopefully the therapist can also advocate.

I had not heard of this concept (except from link below) but it also seems right to my own heart – I would advocate for safe use with the social worker on the case about safe use, and creating a safety plan. Passing a urine analysis doesn’t equal safety and not passing a urine analysis doesn’t equal unsafe. I don’t think “she loves you but drugs are powerful….” would invalidate her feelings. That statement and her feelings can both be valid at the same time.

Traditionally, the substance use field has focused simply on substance use and ways to measure, prevent and treat negative consequences. This has led to a continuum of laws, policies and services that runs from restricting supply to reducing demand and, for some, continuing on to harm reduction.

Various versions of this simple continuum have been used over time, all of them beginning with a focus on a disease or harm that must be avoided. While this may seem completely sensible at first glance, it makes less sense when considering that many people use psychoactive substances to promote physical, mental, emotional, social and/or spiritual well-being. In other words, people use substances to promote health, yet substance use services focus on how drug use detracts from health.

Health promotion begins from a fundamentally different focus. Rather than primarily seeking to protect people from disease or harm, it seeks to enable people to increase control over their health whether they are using substances or not.

Since many people use drugs often or in part to promote health and well-being, health promotion along these lines involves helping people manage their substance use in a way that maximizes benefit and minimizes harm. (Indeed, this is how we address other risky behaviors in our everyday lives, including driving and participating in sports.) It means giving attention to the full picture—the substances, the environments in which they are used and in which people live, and the individuals who use those substances and shape the environments.

Someone else shares their personal experience – My kids (adoptees) parents have issues they go through and are not always on the up and up but we make time together happen. It’s always (right now) supervised etc. However soon my daughter will be 16 and she will likely want to drop by their house when she’s driving etc and I have helped her understand enough on ways to stay safe emotionally and legally by going to see her family and having open discussion with her on addiction. Some may not agree but they eventually grow up. I prefer to help her work through it now than stumble more later. She has a therapist who is mainly focused on addictions as well.

One more from personal experience – I would probably say screw the social worker’s orders and let them have a visit. My adopted daughters’ mom had the same type of demand and I followed the rules. Their mom died, and it had been so long since they’d seen her in person. I frequently regret not breaking the rules. Life’s too fucking short and unpredictable. Using drugs doesn’t automatically equate to being unsafe. It’s going to be way harder for this mom to get clean and sober if she’s not allowed to see her child.

Addiction is a VERY complex issue. My heart breaks for the young girl.

Evolving Approaches

Why are so many foster parents uneducated about trauma ? It’s 2021.

Yes, training is lacking but it’s frustrating to keep seeing things like the comment below from a foster parent. If I have a biological child with special needs, we change to accommodate her. We change for biological kids. Why not do the same for a foster child ?

The question above was raised by one foster parent, after reading this comment below in quotes from another foster parent.

“I don’t know. This is sad because the foster family shouldn’t have to change everything for a child. It’s give and take. Obviously the child should feel accepted, but that’s also a choice on their part. Half this stuff (sleep in the bed, no TV after bedtime, eat what we’re eating, bond with us, doing chores) is not unreasonable.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t bend rules for the ‘undamaged’ kids in my home, not everything changes for the new arrivals. Foster kids need to understand the world doesn’t evolve around them. In the real world people don’t care if you’re in foster care. They don’t care if you have trauma. You do what your boss tells you to do. They don’t make accommodations for you.”

“We need to stop making excuses for foster children and stop letting others feel sorry for them. Being in foster care shouldn’t be used as an excuse. Everyone is treated the same in the real world. So why should we bend the rules to foster kids? A foster child shouldn’t force you to change your household or your rules. You’re the boss of your own home.”

“They should follow the rules and the values that the family that decided to open up their home to them has in place. We can’t keep allowing foster kids to take and we always give. It’s unfair. It doesn’t teach them anything about giving back or teach them anything about following the rules in life”.

So why wouldn’t foster parents want to provide specialized care when traumatized kids need this so critically ? Why do they choose to be foster caregivers ? Oh right, it is the money, the stipends foster families are paid to take in stranger’s children.

There could also be another aspect. Some foster parents are there for the glory and accolades from other people. This person’s perspective is simply justification for a rigid response. In reality, what should motivate anyone to be a foster caregiver, would be to help the child heal from whatever trauma has put them into the system to begin with. Just removing the child from their parents and home and being put into foster care IS trauma to begin with.

Think about it – if the injuries were visible and the child was then refused help to heal because of BS excuses like, the “real-world” is unsympathetic to your pain and suffering, many people would judge such a foster caregiver (like the one quoted above) as some unfeeling monster who neglects the children in their care. There should be zero tolerance for an attitude like this.

Truth is, parenting should be individualized to the unique person each child is. As parents, we should give more to children who need more. Parenting is not about one’s self or selfishness. A parents job shouldn’t be to make the kid’s lives crappy, even if we ourselves feel we have it crappy.

Finally, this foster parent writes as though fostering wasn’t a choice they made freely. A child who is unwillingly placed in your home doesn’t owe you gratitude or deference. And “everyone is treated the same in the real world”….what a sad excuse for having closed off your heart. One gets the sense that this foster parent has come from a middle to upper class white family and has not experienced a whole lot of the “real” life they speak so freely of upholding.

When A Mother Doesn’t Want Her Child

Today’s adoptee story (not my own story) – Being adopted is having all of your rights stripped from you the minute you take a breath and become declared a human. That was my case. I had what is called a closed adoption.

There are many reasons people put their child up for adoption. Some women are coerced. Some have their children stolen. Some women just don’t want their child. That was me.

My birth mother named me, wrote down all of the non-identifying information about herself, her parents, my birth father, and his parents, and walked away to a fresh new start.

She had the child. She didn’t abort it. Many would agree that makes her a born again saint.

This is where no one wants to admit that the child will probably have many problems. That child was just given your epigenetics. The feelings you had while pregnant are now part of who that child is.

As for my mother, we have to assume things because she never used her words because she would never meet me or speak to me. She made me a living abortion by never having any responsibility or accountability for her actions. I assume she felt shame, guilt, embarrassment, anger, anxiety, and depression.

When my sisters and cousins met me, everyone said how much I looked like my mother and acted like her.

My emotions were torn.

I had always wanted to look and act like my family. Now I do, and the woman that gave birth to me is also the cause of my trauma. I wanted to rip my DNA out of my body.

I had suffered from anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation for most of my life. I had been given Prozac and Zoloft when I was in my mid 20’s. They caused me extreme pain in the back of my head. I came off of them and took an overdose of muscle relaxers one night and ended up in a psych ward over the weekend.

When I met with the doctor, he told me the prescriptions would have killed me had I not stopped taking them. I was having a reaction because of my low blood pressure. I did see a psychologist a few times after that, but it wasn’t any help.

I spent many years thinking I was fine after that. I had also learned not to let anyone really know what I was thinking after that.

I was in what is known as the “fog.” I went on with my life. I worked a lot and drank. I thought if I just stayed ahead of what I felt, I was ok.

The pain from adoption is there, whether we admit it or not. You can see it in people’s eyes when you say you’re adopted. They get that I’m sorry look. With so many people aware of the trauma adoption causes, you would think it would change.

As for me, I am doing everything I can now, to fix my epigenetics from my mother.