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