It came naturally — asking her eldest child to look after the younger ones. First, it was cute, explains Reina, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Then as she returned to work, it became a necessity. “My eldest was a few years older than her sisters and so she became the default parent when we were at work. She took on more and more chores — getting them to eat at the right time, doing their homework on time — years on, she still feels responsible for their joys and failures.”

“It's not unusual for parents to ask the eldest child to help in household matters (such as help feeding a younger sibling), so it’s natural that they assume a more parental role. Quite often, you will find that the eldest also attempts to apply discipline to younger siblings, and sometimes, this is not discouraged by parents. The eldest child may quite like the role of a parent figure as it often comes with a greater level of respect, but it can create challenges in the dynamics and relationships between the children,” says Ross Addison, managing director at Reverse Psychology.

It can also lead to parentification, where a child takes on adult responsibilities. “Parentification, a complex psychological phenomenon, occurs when children are made to assume adult responsibilities in the absence of adequate parental support, due to many factors, which are sometimes unavoidable and also due to lack of awareness on the parent’s part about the negative effects of parentification,” explains Christina Steinhoff, a Dubai-based Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) practitioner and the founder of COS coaching.

Often, parentification isn’t a conscious decision — it’s just something you slide into. Being an expat, for instance, you may find yourself without a friend circle and turn to your child for soothing conversation. “Parents might inadvertently parentify their child through actions like confiding in them about adult issues, relying on them for emotional support, or discussing financial problems or relationship issues.”

“Asking the child to take care of younger siblings excessively, expecting them to mediate parental conflicts, or making them responsible for household chores beyond their age-appropriate tasks can also lead to parentification. Additionally, relying on the child for companionship, validation, or to fulfill the parent’s unmet emotional needs can burden the child with adult responsibilities,” explains Steinhoff.

Unhealthy fallout

When she was young, Cathy’s mother’s chronic illness had led to her parenting her younger siblings. “This burden impacted Cathy’s self-esteem and hindered her ability to form healthy relationships in adulthood. Cathy was intelligent and successful in the outer world; however, she felt this inner sense of unworthiness of deserving love (subconscious programming),” recalls Steinhoff.

“By helping Cathy identify her relationship patterns, addressing the root causes, and rewiring her mind toward her desired relationship goals which required first healing her emotional wounds, she regained confidence around relationships,” she adds.

Parentification is a slippery slope — and for families that have neurotypical and neuro atypical children, it’s one that’s easy to find themselves on.

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 parentifying a neurotypical child when he has siblings with special needs. “You are naturally and unintentionally more lenient towards the special child. You expect an extra inch from your neurotypical ones. You expect them to behave, listen, be appropriate and frankly, you run out of patience with them. Sometimes, as a parent to both typical and atypical kids, you feel guilty of putting too much pressure and responsibility on the neurotypical ones. The best way out is to find the balance.”

“I usually tell my five-year-old, who I feel is still too young to be told about autism, that his autistic twin brothers are angels and they need to be protected and taken care of,” she says. “I acknowledge his every little help. My eyes well up when any one of his brothers is having a meltdown and he will come to me and ask, ‘Can I try to calm him down, mama?’ Finding the balance is not easy, but [we must] keep trying new things every day.”

Fortunately, the results of parentification don’t have to be negative. Nor does it imply a bad, sad childhood. There are some positives to giving someone greater responsibility. “Parentification has been linked to an increase in competency and maturity, according to research. If the child’s responsibilities don’t exceed their ability and the parent shows gratitude, this may be the case,” explains Dr Inas Salem, child, adolescent & adult psychiatrist at Dubai-based Open Minds Psychiatry, Counselling & Neuroscience Centre.

“An earlier study examined parentification’s long-term impact on kids who had an HIV-positive parent. Parentification was linked to better coping mechanisms, less substance use, in the six-year follow-up,” she adds.

However, it is a fine balance. In the case of extreme parentification, it can make the child more prone to misuse of drugs and eating disorders; show signs of dissociation such as forgetfulness and time loss; show signs of personality disorders, including problems controlling emotions or one's self-image. It may also take a toll on academic performance.

Pakistani expat Qurratulain Jawad, who has a child on the autism spectrum, says while it’s not right to parentify, if you find yourself expecting the same things of a child that you would from an adult, it’s time to reflect. “I have come across a lot of material on how our childhood traumas affect our parenting styles. We may forget what happened to us but the imprint that we have in our subconscious remains with us for the rest of our life if not healed. So first understand and heal your own trauma so that you don’t pass it on."

“Check if the tasks are appropriate for the age of the child. When assigned tasks that are suitable for their age and skill level, children are encouraged to develop a sense of responsibility. For example, while a smaller child may feed a pet, an older child might help with meal preparation,” recommends Dr Salem.

Be careful about delegating parenting responsibilities to them. “This might include managing finances and making decisions when things are tough,” she says.

“Establish and maintain boundaries. This might entail not leaning on a child for emotional support or not considering them as a confidant. For example, if you are divorcing, don’t insult your co-parent in front of the kids,” she adds. This not only affects their relationship with the other parent but may also skew their worldview and impact their self-esteem.

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