Helping A Kid Be A Kid: Guiding Your “Parentified” Foster Child
Some teens in foster care had to take on adult responsibilities at a very young age. This typically occurs when a teen had to take care of younger siblings because the adults in the home weren’t functioning as parents. Your foster teen may have been routinely responsible for seeing that younger children were fed, bathed, put to bed and cared for when sick. In these circumstances, the caretaking youth has been expected to take on the role of parent to such a degree that his or her own developmental needs as a child have been neglected.
Youth who grow up having to do the work of a parent are described as being “parentified.” A foster parent who welcomes such a child into their home understandably has the urge to relieve the parentified child of her responsibilities and let her experience being a “normal kid”. However, when such a youth is placed in a foster home being expected to “just be a kid” may be very difficult. If the youth is placed with her younger siblings she may resent losing her position in the family and compete with the foster parents for the role of caretaker. If she has been placed apart from siblings, she may be overwhelmed by guilt and feel she has abandoned her siblings.
As in most foster parenting challenges, awareness of the youth’s perspective is vital in to being helpful. Acknowledging the loss of the parental role is important. It may be helpful to ask your foster youth the specifics of what she did for her siblings and what that was like for her. Your social worker can provide guidance about ways to do this. If you are caring for the foster youth as well as her younger siblings, expect times when there will be confusion about who is in charge in the home.
If your foster youth’s siblings are not living with you she may enjoy having fewer responsibilities but worry about her brothers and sisters and feel guilty that she is no longer caring for them. Do whatever you can to see that she maintains regular contact with her siblings.
Remember that the parentified child has had to learn how to be competent at many things at an early age. Acknowledge her competence and let her use her skills in ways that demonstrate her abilities and talents. At the same time, provide her opportunities to be a “regular kid” and praise her for things that she does that are more age-appropriate. It may take a lot of effort for her to try out the role of a regular teenager by getting involved in a school activity or developing friendships which provide opportunities to hang out with peers. With your support and guidance she will get there and you will get to see her have the experiences that will help her move successfully from adolescence to young adulthood.