It is common to hear a divorced mother proudly declare that her son has become, “the man of the house.” It is also common to hear a divorced father boast about how his daughter has assumed care taking duties in his home such as meal preparation and housework. Extended family members often remark about “how cute” these children’s grown-up behavior is.
While there is nothing wrong with giving children tasks and chores to do, but when we hear young children declare, “My mommy/daddy needs me,” experienced divorce attorneys worry.
Sons who are expected, encouraged or allowed to become the “man of the house” and daughters who are placed in similar grown-up roles are living up-side-down lives. They are taking care of parents when the appropriate role is for parents to take care of the children. Psychologists call these children “parentified.” We worry about them because these children tend not to advance through necessary developmental stages.
The developmental tasks of children are numerous. Cognitively, they are acquiring academic knowledge which will allow them to be self-sufficient adults. Emotionally, they are learning to develop relationships and how to balance their individual needs and goals against the needs and goals of others. Socially, they are developing friendships outside the family structure.
Basically, children learn about their world through experience. When they are in a home where the parent is responsible, they are free to explore and make mistakes while having the safety net of the parents to fall back upon. If they are parentified, children feel restricted and unable to freely explore their environment. They worry that they cannot afford to make mistakes. They must be perfect. The burden is enormous and far too heavy for a child. Children who feel responsible for their parents can become overwhelmed. This can lead to depression or frustration and self-doubt because they feel incompetent to do what is expected of them.
One primary task of childhood is socialization. Learning how to give and take in relationships with peers is critical to successful adult relationships. A parentified child often acts like the boss, so other children avoid them. The child can become isolated from age-appropriate peers and may associate with individuals who are older. This can result in the younger child being manipulated or used by the older person.
Parentified children often lead lonely lives and sometimes are hurt when others take advantage of them. Their adult relationships, including marriage, often fail as well.
Perhaps the greatest danger of children assuming grown-up responsibilities is the reality that children who are not allowed to act like children when they are children start to act like children when they are grown-ups.
I can’t begin to count the number of divorcing families I’ve seen where one of the spouses appears almost driven to behave irresponsibly. They appear to be sowing wild oats that were never sown before. These grown-up children can be the cause of terrible consequences as they abandon their spouses and children. Sometimes they quit their jobs and ignore their financial responsibilities. Sometimes they just run away. The result is chaos for everyone.
Even during the worst despair of divorce, parents need to act like parents and children need to be allowed to be children. Parents need to be the caregivers to their children, not the other way around. A parent who looks to a child for emotional support or leadership is robbing the child of his childhood and is perhaps dooming the child to repeat this cycle during his or her adulthood.
Have any questions about this topic, please call me 202-872-0400.