Forcing Kid to Become a Parent
Parenting: Make Certain You Don’t Turn Kids into the Other Parent after the Divorce
The divorce is final. It’s just you and the kids.Your oldest son has become “the man of the house.” Your oldest daughter now cooks and cleans and mothers her younger siblings. This behavior may be a big help to you.Your friends and relatives may think it’s admirable. But these kids are being “parentified,” according to experts, who say they maybe advancing through their developmental stages in a way that will cause problems for them later in life.
Pat Nowak is the author of The ABCs of Widowhood, a practical self-help book for those undergoing a loss from death or divorce. She has conducted numerous seminars and news interviews on the financial and emotional impact of being single in a world meant for two. In her view, “Now that [your significant other] is not there and your darling daughter or special son is willing to take on those babysitting duties or to begin the meal, stop right there before you head down a road to trouble! It is perfectly okay to ask an occasional favor from your children but don’t make the mistake of using them for your support system.”
Nowak advises the now single parent to give kids time to adjust, saying, “Children will have issues after a divorce and they must go through a readjustment phase just as you are. When you ask them to take on responsibilities that they are not prepared for, their first thought is that they must pitch in to help and they can’t disappoint you.”
In Nowak’s view, parents shouldn’t use their children as a crutch or support system. Says Nowak, “You come home late, and a hot meal is so appealing. Remember, your child’s role is to be a child who is now growing up in a newly divorced household. They must learn how to adjust to their grief about the situation, make new friends if a move is eminent and care for their educational, social and family needs. You should be the one offering the support to them.”
A little planning and consideration go a long way in taking the load off kids. “Make it easy on them,” says Nowak. “Instead of insisting on dinner being ready when you come home, pick up a dinner on your way home. If babysitting is a problem, there are now centers that you can use to drop off a child for a couple of hours. Use this time to discover new survival tactics so that your life becomes easier to manage. Additionally, by taking on these new tasks, you are discovering how strong you can become, which will help you in your healing process.”
Nowak makes the distinction between children picking up after themselves and performing adult tasks that “parentify.” Says Nowak, You can have them help with small chores and occasional projects. Just remember that they will also need some tender care to help the healing process, so try new things and explore different traditions. A fresh outlook on life for all makes the trauma much less daunting.”
Rosalind Sedacca, author of How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? adds a different perspective, saying, “Forcing kids to become the other parent after a divorce is one of the big errors parents make that is often overlooked in divorce discussions.”
Sedacca regards the parentifying of children as one of the most common and serious grievances thrust upon children after divorce. “It deprives them of their childhood,” says Sedacca. “Confiding in them about adult matters, asking them to spy on your ex and report back to you and giving your children adult responsibilities all burden your children emotionally, psychologically as well as physically.”
Many parents justify their behavior due to economic reasons. Explains Sedacca, “Your child takes on roles your spouse used to perform because you can’t afford to hire an adult. When children have to give up activities with friends, sports, school, etc., so they can take care of younger siblings, clean the house, and in other ways be the surrogate parent, there is usually an emotional price to pay. Parents need to understand this and weigh it heavily when making post-divorce decisions.”
Dr. Aimée Vadnais, a licensed clinical psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego, feels the short-term gains of parentifying a child — perceived as helpful, responsible or mature — can have devastating long-term consequences on a child’s development.
“These children miss out on their childhood and on forming healthy peer friendships because they’re too busy managing adult matters,” says Vadnais. This can result in the child becoming stuck in a particular developmental age, unable to be self-sufficient, while their peers mature and experience age-appropriate events around them.
“Or it can lead to the child growing up too quickly and, ultimately regressing back to a childhood state, acting reckless and irresponsible, once the child reaches adulthood. Oftentimes, these children have a need to be perfect and are unwilling to take chances or make mistakes. Or they feel so overwhelmed, empty and unfulfilled that they become depressed, withdrawn or anxious.”