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Who’s in charge here anyway?! – Parenting the Parentified Child, part 1 . . .

Updated: Nov 19

On an increasing level over the past few years, older sibling groups have been transitioned into foster care together in order to prevent them from being split up into separate foster homes. The same has been true in the foster-to-adopt arena, where potential adoptive parents have been encouraged to consider older sibling groups of two or more. This is a good thing; however, this scenario also brings with it unique challenges, one of which is parenting a “parentified” child.

Who is the parentified child?—Let’s call her Lilly. She is the eight-year-old who comes into care for the first time, along with her four-year-old little sister and toddler brother. For the past two years of her young life, Lilly has been the primary caregiver of her two younger siblings. This is because her father has been incarcerated since Lilly was two and her mother has a drug habit that caused her to be physically AWOL from Lilly and her siblings sometimes for two to three days at a time. During that time, Lilly’s maternal instinct was forced to activate. She microwaved the food that her mom left her, changed her baby brother’s diapers, and made sure both her siblings got a bath. Lilly also had to be hypervigilant at all times in their apartment, as her mom told her to never answer the phone, never leave their apartment, and never to let anyone in. Lilly saw herself as her siblings’ protector. She had no choice. She’s had to be strong and in charge. The slightest noise outside their apartment door caused her to be on high alert. This was true even when Lilly’s mom came back home, as she was seldom in good enough physical and emotional shape to take care of the children. Lilly took care of her, too.


Now, for the first time, Lilly and her siblings are in foster care. It is a strange and frightening new world for them—especially for Lilly. A stranger is now preparing their food, bathing the little ones, and setting the schedule. Lilly feels threatened, even though she knows that in some ways things are better and safer. It’s hard for her to let go of her survival instincts—they are deeply ingrained. Sometimes she lashes out physically in anger at her foster mom. On a daily basis, Lilly battles her foster mom for control over even the smallest of things, like coming to the dinner table, brushing her teeth, or just putting her dirty clothes in the hamper. But they’re not small things to Lilly. For her, to give up the control that was formerly a means of survival is a fate almost worse than death. In fact, she actually feels like she might die if she has to give up control.


Some of you reading this have experienced the above scenario in real-time. How would you parent Lilly if you were her new foster mom or dad? I leave you with this question to ponder, and I would love to hear your responses. In my next blog, I will discuss some practical approaches and strategies for helping Lilly to share her control, feel safe, and just be an eight-year-old little girl.