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Parentified children and anxiety: The child who acts like a parent

March 19, 2012

One of the issues I have recently been working with has been the topic of “parentified children.” Typically, a parentified child is someone who takes on many of the parenting responsibilities within the home. This sometimes happens when a parent, for one reason or other, is unable to follow-through with their roles and responsibilities within the home. One example occurs when parents suffer from an addiction: they’re inebriated and therefore unable to fulfill their duties and responsibilities as a mother or father. Other times, the parent is working several jobs and cannot be home when their children need them. As a result, one of the children (usually the eldest or the female in the family) begins to act like a parent to the other children (or a caregiver to the other parent). Hence, the term “parentified child.”

Physical exhaustion and a drop in academic performance are signs of a parentified child.

Physical exhaustion and a drop in academic performance are signs of a parentified child.

While it can be normal and acceptable to have children take on some extra responsibilities within the home, when does it cross the line? When is it inappropriate or “too much”? The answer has to do with functioning and occupation. Basically, a child’s responsibility is to be a “child” and to go to school. This is their job – their main occupation – during childhood. They are to regularly attend school, build friendships, and do the things that most children do at their age. When a child is unable to regularly fulfill this role, however, then one needs to look at what is happening in this child’s life. Specifically, one needs to look at

(1) Behaviour at school (is there an unusual decline in their marks?);

(2) Social and interpersonal life (Do they have many friends? Do they spend time with their friends outside of school?);

(3) Physical and emotional health (Is the child regularly ill? Does the child act depressed and disinterested in other things? Does the child seem anxious or nervous about things?).

While there are many things that can affect a child’s overall health, children who start taking on many of the parenting roles within the home can begin to develop anxiety, a problem that can remain with them as they enter adulthood.

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2 Comments
  1. This is a growing phenomenon in today’s society, especially if both parents work out of the house or other problem with caregiving or substance abuse. I see the example in my own back yard, with people i don’t know. What is the solution for the the child who gives care? And to be honest that happened in many societies in the past – when Mom and Pop use to work together in a family business, such as corner store, farming, etc. It takes a village to raise a child , and it is up to all of us to be aware of this problem…Thanks Doctor Richard for sharing and maybe we can come up with some solution for that Parentified Child….Bjs.

  2. Mary Maio permalink

    Hey Richard this is a very interesting article. There is a lot of truth, some children are forced to take on this role to protect their younger siblings from harm, and yes this does cause anxiety as the child becomes an adult. Love to read your articles and check your page periodically. Hope you’re well. Take care Mary Maio

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