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The little men/women of the house - the parentification of children

Published:Sunday | May 10, 2015 | 12:00 AMTyrone Thompson
Sasha, the 17-year-old who has to take care of her mentally ill father.

Psychologists at the Child Development Agency (CDA) are urging parents to stop burdening their offspring with responsibilities of parenthood as these are leading to developmental and psycho-social problems within these children.

Addressing a Gleaner Editors' Forum at the company's Kingston office last Friday, Cherene Forbes, clinical psychologist with the CDA South East Region, explained that the behavioural problems of a number of children seen by the agency could be attributed to the fact that these children had become 'parentified'.

"When we talk about 'parentification', we are talking about a blurring of the boundaries between the roles of the parents and the roles of the child, so you have children who are forced to take up the responsibility of either taking care of their siblings, or even taking care of their own parents," stated Forbes.

Forbes went on to explain that, in many instances, these parentified children are forced into these circumstances due to the fact that they are from single-parent homes or because of illness affecting either parent. This effectively leaves the child to step into that role, becoming the 'man or woman of the house', even though they are neither psychologically nor emotionally ready for it.

"Sometimes, it's because the parent is not there. Perhaps, it's because the parent is ill, either physically or mentally, and so they have to step up to take care of that parent's physical or emotional needs. (Sometimes) they have to leave school to pick up younger siblings from school or, in other cases, the parent takes them as confidante, telling them everything that goes on in their lives, whether it be financial or sexual problems, which the child is not ready to handle," said Forbes, noting that she had seen numerous instances where the emotional pressures of parentification adversely affected the psychological development of children.

"This is an enormous emotional burden for the children. This also gives them an enormous guilt burden because they believe it is up to them to hold the family together. They also feel resentment because they see other children doing activities that they would also like to enjoy, but they can't have that."

In April, The Sunday Gleaner profiled Sasha*, one such parentified child, who, at 17 years old, was forced to become the caregiver for her mentally ill father after the death of her mother. She told The Sunday Gleaner that the stress of taking her mentally ill father to the Bellevue Hospital for care, as well as providing for his needs, had her contemplating dropping out of school.




Sasha also confessed that anger and resentment, because of the untimely death of her mother, had caused her to be involved in numerous fights at school, inflicting stab wounds on five of her peers in those encounters.

Melody Samuels, regional clinical psychologist for the CDA North East Region, said cases such as Sasha's could only be fixed through a multifaceted approach.

"That is where the wider perspective approach from the society and Government is needed because we have to attack parenting at the grassroots level to really help people to understand what good parenting is," urged Samuels.

"Our counsellors on the ground are seeing the tremendous damage that is being down to our children, and the root of this is because of bad parenting. So, it's not just for the Government and the CDA, but for the communities in which these children live to identify these circumstances and seek help for our children."

*Name changed