Yolie's World

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Parentified Child

I have always been the "parentified child." It seems odd to me that so many people (professionals, parents. etc.) view this as a negative attribute that needs to be broken, rather than a positive trait that can be a helpful tool when adopting a sibling group. Many times, the oldest child is removed from the sibling group because they are parentified and thus will interfere with the adoption process. I thank God that this was not the case in with me. Yes, it was difficult for my new adoptive Mother to deal with my constant "interfering" as she tried to establish herself as the mom with love, discipline and commitment. Yes, I took it personally every time she comforted one of my younger brothers, tied their shoes or put them in time-out. Who did she think she was? I was the only one who had ever taken care of them, and I was the only one who had EARNED the right to have their trust...and here she was trying to take that from me. In reality, though, I had no idea what a great Mother she would turn out to be. Instead of seeing me as a threat, she chose to accept my position in my brothers' lives and to use it to her advantage. She knew that if she could earn my trust then she had my brothers' trust in the bag. How smart is she! So many adoptive parents do the opposite, feeling threatened by the parentified child's position as "caretaker," choosing instead to focus on breaking that and establishing their position. This is a mistake. You see, as time went by and I began to notice that my new Mom meant what she said and that she could be trusted, I slowly began to allow her in, which meant that I also began to view her as the caretaker and to let go (little by little) of my sole desire to be the caretaker. My mom realized early on that I had a wealth of information about my brothers, after all I was the only one around who was there when they were born, who held the keys to their years before adoption. Why not view that as an asset and choose to honor that position? I am so thankful my Mom did.

Now, as an adult, I have never let go of my "parentified" personality. My mother and I joke that we co-parented them, both attending all their sports activities, being there for the good times and the bad, loving them through every minute of their lives so far. And what could be wrong with that? How can a child have too much love? Both my brothers know that in any bind, they have at least two people who will never abandon them. I am forever grateful to my Mom that she chose to honor my position in my brothers' hearts and in return, she earned a place right there beside me, which is a huge accomplishment in an adopted child's eyes.

I say all this to now explain how difficult yesterday was. My baby brother left for Basic Training. I cannot put into words how much I love Daniel. He and Joe were my entire world for so long. They kept me going when we were left alone in dirty apartments without any food and when we were in foster care and even now as a mom the love I feel for them is inexplicable. So, at 26 years old, I felt empty nest. My heart literally hurt as I watched him drive away, knowing that since the day he was born all I've wanted for him was success, and here he was growing up on me. I am so proud of Daniel. He chose to serve his country and he'll come back in 20 weeks to finish up his college education and then who knows. Life holds so much potential for him and my heart bursts with pride, but inside I remember that little boy looking at me to tell him everything would be okay. I don't think I'll ever be able to look at him and not see my baby brother.


  • At 10:31 AM, Blogger Yondalla said…

    All the boys I have fostered have been considered parentified. The first was the youngest of his siblings, but the only one home (the next one up is about 20 years older) during the years that their mother was ill, and he took care of her.

    The second two were separated from their siblings before I got them. One voluntarily separated because he did not think his younger brothers would be adopted if they came attached to a 15-year-old gay brother. The other's siblings were not in foster care, their mother having found other people to take them when she went to jail.

    Your post gives me a lot to think about. I have always found their parentification to be a challenge to parenting them -- not because I was trying to reach their siblings, I did not even MEET their siblings until I had had them for months, but just because they were so unaccepting of the idea that they needed parents. I don't mean that it was a terrible thing that they were parentified but if I had to make a list of the challenges, that would have been one of them.

    Like I said...you are making me think.

    Thank you.

  • At 2:15 PM, Blogger Process said…

    I've always thought that parentification is an asset for children, because it has given them the skills they need to be resilient and successful. But it's also important that parentified children learn to trust, as Yondalla's foster boys gradually learned to trust her.

  • At 7:24 PM, Blogger Christie said…

    Thanks for sharing that! I really needed to see that from someone who has lived it!

    Your post made me have tears in my eyes!

  • At 3:32 PM, Blogger Lisa said…

    I'm a former foster child and current child advocate...

    Your insights are so valuable. I wonder if you would consider working with me on a training for foster parents, based on issues like this one.

    Also -- do you know about Foster Care Alumni of America? www.fostercarealumni.org


  • At 1:37 PM, Blogger Northeast Iowa Mom said…

    Stumbled on your blog and just wanted to say hello and thanks for your beautiful writing. You are very good at expressing yourself. Bless you!

  • At 12:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I just finished a therapy session with a couple and decided to google "parentification" to see what kind of new research and info was out there. Thanks for writing about your experiences. :)

    I think you make a valuable point - it is certainly not a BAD quality to care for others. Our society needs more people who are selfLESS and compassionate. If we had leaders concerned about the welfare of others (outside of themselves) I believe our country would look a lot different.

    In my view, parentification does become problematic, though, when people are FAR more concerned with meeting the needs of others in lieu of their own. Many times parentification occurs in a family in the midst of alcoholism or other problems that result in a parent being unavailable or incapacitated in some way. So, parentification can closely resemble codependency.

    The urge to care for those we care about can very easily develop into codependency. I see plenty of adults who grew up with an unavailable or incapacitated parent who repeat the cycle they're familiar with by choosing partners who are broken, sick, or unavailable in some way. It's a familiar dynamic to care for those they love.

    Confusing love and pity and finding one's self in a draining, one-sided relationship IS an unfortunate potential result of growing up with the responsibility of caring for others when it's not really appropriate.

    So, it's a matter of degree as far as I'm concerned. It's hard to imagine a child prostituting herself to feed her siblings as anywhere near appropriate. I have worked with a child who this happened to. Nobody was parenting, so she had to wear that hat and do what she could to care for her siblings.

    Some children are more resilient than others, and everyone's historical circumstances are different. Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

  • At 7:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I too was googling parentification because I have an adult child who was a first born who I assigned a lot of power to because she was such an amazing child, I now think in adulthood, this has effected her life as she missed some parts a child needs.

    Being in foster care work I daily see parentified children and it pains me because siblings often do get separated. I am happy to be in a conversation where I can learn from you Ylie and those who comment here.

    Thanks..and I will be back!!

  • At 8:45 PM, Anonymous Melissa said…

    Thank you. Its definitely a new perspective for me. I work for attorneys that represent minors in Dependency Court (Los Angeles). Basically, I meet with minor clients at their placements. I've been a part of many cases that have included parentified children. I have shared your blog with co-workers who will have the opportunity to share it with caretakers of parentified children. Again, Thank you -Melissa

  • At 7:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Very though provoking. We are currently fostering 3 children and is obvious that the oldest has parented the youngest since he was an infant. We are dealing with extreme attacment issues and this gives me a different perspective. Thank you.

  • At 7:25 PM, Blogger Janell Moon said…

    I stumbled on your blog when I looked up parentified child because of a memoir I am writing. I was so touched by your writing that I wanted to say thank you. I have never thought of the good that could come from being parentified. And, your mom was just the best to accept the system as it was. I was a middle child used as the older "caretaker" child and it was very confusing. I too parentified my own child for some years when I went through a painful divorce. He has some problems with getting along with peers and feels easier with younger and older folks. Makes it hard on job interviews for him. He feels self-conscious with peers. He received a pink slip recently and is in the process of interviewing. Breaks my heart. I know I did my best but, at times, it just wasn't good enough.
    Best to you and the others who commented.

  • At 7:32 PM, Blogger Janell Moon said…

    Loving post read by a parentified child..was the middle child brought up to be the oldest. Very confusing.
    Writing a memoir now about identity problems with this being one issue.
    I too parentified my only child, a son, when I was going through a divorce from his dad! He has a hard time with peers and interviewing for jobs which has come up lately when he received a pink slip. My heart goes out to him.I know that I can't go back and redo but I really wish I could. I know he is a decent person and stay in touch with him and pull back on my regret to be there for him now.
    Best to you and all your readers, fragile and hearty all of us.


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