When Children “Take care of” Their Parents and Siblings

I had this question from a foster mom yesterday.  “Should I be all right with my child comforting me and apologizing when we’ve had a disagreement, and there’s been some yelling?”

My answer is, mostly “yes.” But with some caveats.

Some children become “parentified” when they have lived in less-than-healthy situations.  If at a young age, their parent(s) have not fulfilled their emotional and physical needs, children will naturally take on the role of the “missing” need-fulfiller. This can be true whether the parent is present or not.  If the parent has mental health needs of his or her own, is abusing drugs to mask emotional pain, is too busy with work, or is physically not able to take care of the child, the child’s unconscious response is: “Someone has to do this. It must be me.”

Note that I said, “unconscious response.”  This is not a choice on the child’s part, but rather an automatic physiological mechanism. So often I hear the phrase, “She’s trying to manipulate the situation by being the ‘little mother.'” Believe me, if she’d had a mother who was able to do her job, she would have remained in the child role.  Yes, some well-loved children are just natural care-takers, and they are not the ones I am discussing here.  I’m talking about the ones who become extremely uncomfortable with adults caring for the younger siblings, or for themselves.

These children will rush to take care of everyone’s needs, without prompting.  They seem blind to their own needs, as well, and can’t seem to even think about them, let alone attend to them.  When prompted to care for themselves, and not get involved in others’ business, they respond anxiously with, “She needed me!” or “I have to take care of him!” If a new adult says, “You can relax.  I have it now,” this child will become very agitated and confused. This is not obstinance, but a normal reaction for a child who has seen a lack and tried, in his or her own way, to fulfill it.

Children will often act as their siblings’ disciplinarian. At first glance, one could judge the child as unduly harsh with the sibling, and label him or her “mean” or “controlling.”  What’s really happening is that the child again feels an internal imperative to protect the younger ones, and is not mature enough to determine which situations require intense warning, and which ones are not really dangerous. This is natural, as it addresses fundamental safety, and yet it needs intervention.

Another way we see this expressed is when a parent has not met the child’s needs, and the child insists on defending the parent. Even when no one is trying to blame the parent, the child is defensive, guarded, and secretive. The imperative to protect one’s parent is STRONG, as the foundational relationship was, at its onset, representative of the child’s very survival. To engage in criticism of that parent strikes a cord of disloyalty that the child cannot tolerate, as it implies a threat to the child’s survival that was established in infancy, pre-memory.

How do we help kids who seem overprotective of their adults or siblings?

  1. First, avoid asking the child to calm down. That will only escalate the issue, as he or she cannot just calm down on command after building protective responses over time.
  2. Second, build trust with the child.  Act as the adult, guiding decisions and providing structure. Regular bedtimes and meals may be foreign to the child, but over time they provide security.
  3. Third, ask the child’s advice on the sibling’s care. If you are new to this sibling group, the older child, most often, IS the expert on the younger ones, and can provide good information. Sometimes it will be immature, and you’ll have to say, “That’s a great idea.  And to be sure he’s safe, let’s also put these sturdy shoes on him.”
  4. If the child is caretaking to an adult, show appreciation for the care, and then ask, “Do you think I might be able to handle it from here?” or “Do you think she’s grown up enough to make her way through this?” Always start with appreciation, and then ask a question that draws out the child’s intelligence. If the parent has not proven to be adult enough, empathize with the child that it’s uncomfortable to watch him struggle.  Also, lightly let him or her know that each person has to find his way, but don’t get into a big discussion about it.
  5. Rather than repeatedly reassuring the child, ask questions that help him question his need to take care of others.  Reassurance can increase anxiety, as the brain immediately asks, “Well what if that other bad thing happens?”  So getting the child to think works a lot better.

    Back to the question above: if my child has gotten louder and more intense than she intended, is it appropriate for her to apologize and comfort me? Yes, if it’s from a desire to connect and empathize. You want your child to grow up with empathy. If you sense that the child is very anxious when you are upset, it’s time to sit down and talk, when this issue is not occurring, about how you are a big person, and can sometimes get angry or cry, but you’re also taking care of yourself.  Again, genuinely appreciate the child’s comforting gesture, but let him or her know that big people can cope with strong emotions.

    In the case of a sibling needing care, express how nice it is that the child is there for her.  Then ask some questions that imply that the child is the expert on the sibling, followed by a gentle suggestion that the sibling may be able to handle his or her own need.  You’ll sense how much of this the older child can tolerate by his reaction, and take the pacing from that. It will take time, weeks to months, for the older child to feel comfortable allowing the younger one to make a mistake or do something mildly dangerous.

    If you would like help with this or any other parenting issue, please click here for coaching information.   If you’d like to explore our findings on parent coaching, click here to see parents’ responses to the experience.

 

 

 

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