Babies start talking after months of work
It was a natural thing: asking his eldest son to take care of the younger ones. First, it was nice, explains Reina, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Then when she went back to work, she became a necessity. “My oldest daughter was a few years older than her sisters, so she became the default mother when we were at work. She took on more and more household chores: making them eat at the right time, doing their homework on time; Years later, she still feels responsible for “her joys and failures.”
“It’s not unusual for parents to ask their eldest child to help out with household matters (such as helping feed a younger sibling), so it’s natural for them to take on a more parental role. Very often you will find that the eldest also tries to discipline the younger siblings and sometimes parents advise against it. The older child may quite like the role of father figure, as it often comes with a higher level of respect, but it can create challenges in the dynamics and relationships between children,” says Ross Addison, CEO of Reverse Psychology.
It can also lead to parentification, where the child takes on adult responsibilities. “Parentinization, a complex psychological phenomenon, occurs when children are forced to assume adult responsibilities in the absence of adequate parental support, due to many factors, which are sometimes unavoidable and also due to a lack of awareness on the part of the parents about the negative effects of parentification,” explains Christina Steinhoff, a Dubai-based neurolinguistic programming (NLP) practitioner and founder of COS coaching.
Often parentification isn’t a conscious decision, it’s just something you slip into. As an expat, for example, you may find yourself without a circle of friends and turn to your child for a calming conversation. “Parents may inadvertently parent their children through actions such as trusting them with adult matters, relying on them for emotional support, or talking about financial or relationship problems.”
“Asking a child to excessively care for younger siblings, expecting them to mediate parental conflicts, or making them responsible for household chores beyond age-appropriate tasks can also lead to parentification. Additionally, relying on the child for companionship, validation, or to meet the parent’s unmet emotional needs can burden the child with adult responsibilities,” explains Steinhoff.
harmful consequences for health
When she was young, Cathy’s mother’s chronic illness led her to raise her younger siblings. “This burden affected Cathy’s self-esteem and hindered her ability to form healthy relationships in adulthood. Cathy was smart and successful in the outside world; However, she felt this internal sense of unworthiness of deserving love (subconscious programming),” Steinhoff recalls.
“By helping Cathy identify her relationship patterns, address the root causes, and rewire her mind toward desired relationship goals that required first healing her emotional wounds, she regained trust in relationships,” he adds.
Parentification is a slippery slope, and for families with neurotypical and neuroatypical children, it’s easy to find yourself on it.
Pakistani expat Ambreen Suhaib has three children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. She explains that it’s easy to fall into the trap of raising a neurotypical child when she has siblings with special needs. “You are naturally and unintentionally more forgiving of the special child. You expect an extra inch from your neurotypicals. You expect them to behave, listen, be appropriate, and frankly, you’re running out of patience with them. Sometimes, as a parent of typical and atypical children, you feel guilty for putting too much pressure and responsibility on the neurotypicals. The best way out is to find balance.”
“I usually tell my five-year-old son, who I think is still too young to be talked to about autism, that his autistic twin brothers are angels and need to be protected and cared for,” she says. “I appreciate every little help from him. I get teary-eyed when one of his siblings is having a meltdown and he comes to me and asks, ‘Can I try to calm him down, Mom?’ Finding balance is not easy, but [we must] Keep trying new things every day.”
Fortunately, the results of parentification do not have to be negative. Nor does it imply a bad and sad childhood. There are some positive aspects to giving someone more responsibility. “According to research, parentification has been linked to increased competence and maturity. If the child’s responsibilities do not exceed her capacity and the parents show gratitude, this may be the case,” explains Dr. Inas Salem, child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist at the Open Minds Center for Psychiatry, Counseling and Neuroscience, with headquarters in Dubai.
“A previous study examined the long-term impact of parentification on children who had an HIV-positive father. Parentification was linked to better coping mechanisms and less substance use at six-year follow-up,” he adds.
However, it is a delicate balance. In the case of extreme parentification, it can make the child more prone to drug abuse and eating disorders; show signs of dissociation such as forgetfulness and wasting time; show signs of personality disorders, including problems controlling emotions or self-image. It can also affect academic performance.
Pakistani expat Qurratulain Jawad, who has a son on the autism spectrum, says that while it’s not okay to be a parent, if you expect the same things from a child that you would expect from an adult, it’s time to reflect. “I have come across a lot of material about how childhood trauma affects our parenting styles. We can forget what happened to us, but the imprint we have in our subconscious remains with us for the rest of our lives if it is not healed. So first understand and heal your own trauma so you don’t pass it on.”
“Check if the tasks are appropriate for the child’s age. When given tasks appropriate to their age and skill level, children are encouraged to develop a sense of responsibility. For example, while a younger child may feed a pet, an older child may help with food preparation,” recommends Dr. Salem.
Be careful when delegating parenting responsibilities to them. “This could include managing finances and making decisions when things get tough,” she says.
“Set and maintain limits. This could mean not turning to a child for emotional support or not seeing him or her as her confidant. For example, if you are getting divorced, don’t insult the other parent in front of the children,” she adds. This not only affects her relationship with the other parent, but can also distort his view of the world and affect her self-esteem.