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).

Too Old ?

It is still Foster Care Awareness Month and today, the questions was asked – Should someone in their 50s be able to adopt infants and toddlers from foster care ?

I encounter this as an older mom from time to time. I responded – Recently, visiting my primary care doctor, my youngest son came up and she asked – how old is he ? I said 16-1/2. She did the math quickly – you had him at 50 ? I said, yep. I know this is about adoption and foster care but honestly, it really depends on so many factors. My grandmothers both lost their YOUNG mothers when one of them was 3 mos old and the other one when she was 11 yrs old. The length on any life is simply not guaranteed. I do think health matters. I was put through a whole battery of tests including a heart stress test before being allowed to conceive my last son at such an advanced age. Agencies could require additional health assessments for older persons.

Just before I responded, I was happy to see someone else reply – I was 50 when I had a newborn placed with me for a weekend due to an abuse allegation on a foster parent. I adopted him at 53.

One wrote – While I don’t agree with anyone over 55 adopting (I don’t agree with adopting at all) my state allows people to foster and adopt well into 65.

And of course, it is very common these days to see grandparents raising their grandchildren. I know at least one in that category. So this answer did not surprise me – I fostered my 3 grandchildren (4 & under) at age 53 and adopted them at 56…no way I was letting them go to strangers.

And this view from experience – My parents were that old and I did fine. Only disappointment was that all of my older siblings were my biological mom’s age or older. At 28, all my siblings are old enough to be my kids grandparents. Because they are in their late 40s, early 50s now. Other than that, I still did everything – with sports, dance, went on vacations. They kept up. With me and my little sister who they adopted when she was 1. And I was 6 at the time. Maybe they should have just stopped with me. But I wanted a little sister. So, when she was literally dropped at our door and the mother terminated her rights, they adopted my little sister too.

A concern was expressed but this smacks of ableism to me – I see it every day at work, as soon as our older ladies step in with the kids (especially the toddlers), the children do not get the kind of engagement they need from the caregiver. Toddlers and kids need someone who can physically be involved in their play and in their development. From my experience, older women and men are not usually able to do that for them. That’s not to say the kids don’t love the older ladies, but they know they can’t ask them to play or help because of their limitations. I’m very old school (you know, “get over it and go play”.)

I remember my mom always sent us outside to play – without her !! Out of hair and need for giving us attention – though we knew she loved us. It was just how she was (she had me at age 16 and my youngest sister at 22, so she wasn’t old). I would add until very recently, I will be 67 later this month, there were no physical limitations on the “play” part and we did “play” with our kids. I’ll admit my knees have crapped out a bit, so I can’t do the long hikes anymore. My husband just turned 69 this year and he runs every day – so the physical stuff he can still do with his sons – and he is always willing to have fun. The older one is now 20 and not so much into “play”, actually for that matter the 16-1/2 yr old isn’t either. They are pretty independent of us for entertainment. My husband does like to joke with the youngest one that he’ll be changing his dad’s diapers some day. It really isn’t funny – experienced this stuff with my in-law’s before they died and with my dad after my mom died. It happens. It’s reality.

One commented – How embarrassing would it be at your high school graduation having to explain to your friends that the old lady with a walker is your mom? Yet, I think, would they say this about a person in a wheelchair. In this week’s Time magazine is a feature on Rebekah Taussig – a disabled mom who has paralyzed legs. And she writes about such everyday things as learning to lift him (her baby born during the pandemic) from the floor to her lap, or in and out of his crib, or up and over the baby gate on her own.

I suppose appearances matter a lot when your life is determined by your peers. Maybe we’ve avoided a lot of that comparison angst because our sons are educated at home because we have a home based business and are here all the time anyway. They have grown up with mature conversations and exposure to people of all ages – from babies to people much older than us up in their 80s or 90s.

Of course, I liked this response too –

I’m 50 and have such an issue with this. I’m going to ask that you give your age with your response. I’m tired of people implying that I am too old to do anything. I ran a half marathon in February, I work a full time job and a part time job and just hiked for 4 days straight – over 20,000 steps a day. How dare you all restrict women and what they can do at any age! I am a teacher and an owner of child care centers. I have more patience and experience and knowledge than the vast majority of 20-30 year olds.

I had my daughter when I was 19. I find this too. I may have behaved more like a child with her than I have with my sons but I have gained so much from years of living that is also an advantage over how I was when I was that young.

Another one wrote – My grandma (just found out, not even biological, through 23 & Me) started raising me when she was 60 and I had the best life and upbringing I could have ever asked for. She never missed a beat and was way cooler than all of my friend’s parents. To this day she’s my best friend.

I think I’ll just end it here. There is no one size fits all on this kind of issue. One argument the person who asked the original question made – in response to the above was – Adoptees already have so much stacked against them, that older parents just add more layers. Fair but . . . . again, no one size fits all . . . . even with the experience an adoptee has in their circumstances. I’ll make my anti-ageism stand here.