Helping the “Parentified” Child

My last blog talked about children who have assumed responsibilities inappropriate for their age, and now must learn to be children—to trust, to explore, to play, to allow the adopted parent to parent any younger siblings.

Most older children go through a “honeymoon phase” with their new family. When newly placed, they greatly desire to please these new adults who have the power to care for them and the hope of a family to offer. During this phase, behavior is generally fairly good.

“Parentified” children may be uncommonly good at chores and self-care activities. Conflict in the early stages of adoption is often not a problem when a single child is adopted, but older siblings in a sibling group may be used to being in charge. They sometimes wish to remain caretakers of their younger siblings and may resent adoptive parents taking over this role. This makes sense when you reflect that in a chaotic life with the birth family or in multiple foster homes, the younger children may be the first –or the only—other human beings to really love their older siblings.

It can be a tough balance for adoptive parents to promote the twin goals of making the children feel secure in their new family and of having the children to developmentally appropriate activities and allow the parents to parent.

If possible, adoptive parents should ask the social worker to facilitate some discussions before placement addressing what it will be like to be in a family, how the adoptive family’s habits differ from what the children have experienced, and how relationships in the family will change. Emphasize that the love of siblings will not end, but that the older child will be freed—or even gently pushed—to find and follow a path of their own rather than being the primary caretaker of younger siblings.

A consistent routine is especially helpful for children. Use pictures for younger children. Children who see mealtimes and snack times planned for can relax. You may also wish to indicate times when the siblings can expect to be together, so they will be reassured that they won’t be pressured to separate. But also indicate routines that the parents will do—for example, the siblings can have play time and perhaps bath time together but parents will give the baby his bottle. Include time—even if only a few minutes, although more ibetter—for the parent to spend with each child individually. Then after a while, you may ”push the envelope” a bit by having the older child do an enjoyable activity—perhaps playing outside or going to a movie with one parent– while a parent bathes the younger child, so that the parent gradually assumes most of the parental roles.

Both older and younger children may “regress”—back away from toilet training, speaking, or other things which were—at least on the surface—previously mastered. Realize that a child will want to “make up” some of the earlier stages of childhood that he or she may have missed, or that he or she wants to have with you. Try to be patient and enjoy it—the kids really do grow up fast.

Adoptive parents may wish to consult a counselor for ideas on helping these children feel safe and have a childhood. A support group or forum discussion with other adoptive parents can give helpful ideas.

Please see these related blogs:

The Importance of Routine for a Young Child

Developmental Vs. Chronological Age

Basic Nurture: Catching Up


When Children Regress, Part One

When Children Regress, Part Two

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About Pam Connell

Pam Connell is a mother of three by both birth and adoption. She has worked in education, child care, social services, ministry and journalism. She resides near Seattle with her husband Charles and their three children. Pam is currently primarily a Stay-at-Home-Mom to Patrick, age 8, who was born to her; Meg, age 6, and Regina, age 3, who are biological half-sisters adopted from Korea. She also teaches preschoolers twice a week and does some writing. Her activities include volunteer work at school, church, Cub Scouts and a local Birth to Three Early Intervention Program. Her hobbies include reading, writing, travel, camping, walking in the woods, swimming and scrapbooking. Pam is a graduate of Seattle University and Gonzaga University. Her fields of study included journalism, religious education/pastoral ministry, political science and management. She served as a writer and editor of the college weekly newspaper and has been Program Coordinator of a Family Resource Center and Family Literacy Program, Volunteer Coordinator at a church, Religion Teacher, Preschool Teacher, Youth Ministry Coordinator, Camp Counselor and Nanny. Pam is an avid reader and continuing student in the areas of education, child development, adoption and public policy. She is eager to share her experiences as a mother by birth and by international adoption, as a mother of three kids of different learning styles and personalities, as a mother of kids of different races, and most of all as a mom of three wonderful kids!

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