Modern Family: Leaning On Little
I knew it was being unfair.
And yet there I was, unstoppable as I described to my children, in unnecessarily depressing detail, the thoughts swirling in my tense mind about their 90-year-old grandfather who lives alone across the city. From physical frailty and safety, to his bowel problems and weight loss, I aired it all in a huge outpouring – cathartic for me, frightening for them.
True, they aren’t little. But mature teenagers, too, can be overwhelmed by second-hand responsibility.
Why was I painting every brushstroke of that grim picture of my dad? In the hope, hindsight tells me, that, pricked by a little guilt, they pitch in and visit him some evenings, lightening their frazzled mum’s load.
Was that relieving for me? Yes, momentarily. Was that right of me? No, definitely.
Yet such “oversharing” is a trap many of us walk into, wittingly or unwittingly. It may feel innocent enough, but there’s a fine line between mild venting and blurring the boundary line between the generations; kids are not sounding boards to relieve adult stress. When we treat them as such, it’s called Emotional Parentification. It happens when a child is responsible for the psychological needs of a family’s adults and sometimes its other children, when parents overly confide in the child, making them privy to personal issues, job insecurities or financial problems.
Therapists explain how these “overtalked to” children are weighed down heavily with a burden they don’t know how to shake. Years later, patients come reeling from being forced to listen to mothers or fathers talk excessively about relationships.
One friend, now in his 50s, is still visibly distressed when recalling mealtimes during his under-10 years. He was constantly asked to take sides with feuding parents, he says, who casually bickered at the dining table, asking him to play arbiter with questions like, “So, don’t you think [the other parent] is wrong?”
Only children, like my friend, may more often be the fall guy than most. But it’s not true in every case.
“We used to believe it happened to the firstborn child, but know that is not necessarily so,” observes marriage counsellor Susan Hartman Brenizer. “Usually, it is the more vulnerable or sweet-natured child who shows compassion early on and can be trained easily. Once parentified, this child carries adult secrets and stories that he or she is not equipped to comprehend.”
Each of us gets one childhood, she adds, “our time for innocence, to play with abandon, to make mistakes, to have one’s own fears soothed.” Instead, parentified kids lead lonely lives, not only unable to rely on stronger, dependable adults, but also filling that role for their parents. Worse still, siblings, taking their cues from the parent, may additionally unburden themselves on the child or resent the parentified child as they would a parental figure.
There are few feelings more fearful than that of being abandoned. A parentified child takes on this mantle in the hope that it will hold the family together by keeping mom and dad around and happy. Could this end up giving kids an exaggerated sense of their own importance, making them feel as if they are necessary for a parent’s survival or wellbeing?
As a child, I remember feeling loved and trusted when my mum considered me mature enough to share how she and my father felt in some sticky family situations. A bit of occasional cribbing to our kids never hurts. In fact, it may well be right for children to see parents falter and fall, more real than the heroic figures with the answers to everything that parents are often made out to be.
But as a parent myself, now, I have to say that my kids’ initial visits to their grandfather were more out of obligation, a desire to ease my load. Maybe that wasn’t an ideal start, but the outcome has been positive: a strengthened relationship with their grandfather. Last weekend, when my husband and I were out of town, the kids took it upon themselves to plan potluck Sunday lunch with my dad with relish.
So why spoil their childhood with any more than that? Better to chat with someone our size, with a likelier chance of eliciting empathy from someone who has gone through similar experiences.
Here are some of Hartman Brenizer’s suggestions to guard against parentifying a child:
- Should the family suddenly become a single-parent household, consciously pre-empt and shield any of your children from playing the other surrogate adult.
- If a sensitive, aware child shows signs of slipping into this role, reassure that you are fine and that a kid’s job is to play, not take care of mom or dad.
- After divorce or death, keep routines the same as before. This has children see that the parent is in charge.
- Showing some sadness is normal and healthy. But save the sobbing or ranting for trusted adults only.
- Talk to children frequently about their feelings. This gives you a good read on whether a child is feeling responsible or sliding into a parentified space.
- Consider consulting a professional therapist if a child shows signs of excessive worry, concern or depression – the sooner the better, so that the role does not become calcified.