In the great film Winter’s Bone, a girl (played by a pre-Katniss Jennifer Lawrence), is desperately trying to pass on her knowledge of hunting, food preparation and other basic survival skills to her siblings. She is feeling the pressure because, having lost both of their parents, she suspects that her investigation into the disappearance of her criminal father may well get her killed.
I am mostly telling you about this movie because you really need to see it (seriously). But it also paints in bold dramatic terms an example of parentification, which can be defined as “the process through which children are assigned the role of an adult, taking on both emotional and functional responsibilities that typically are performed by the parent.”
A recent article in The Atlantic highlights in similarly stark terms the long term negative effects of parentification on children: “a form of emotional abuse or neglect where a child becomes the caregiver to their parent or sibling. Researchers are increasingly finding that in addition to upending a child’s development, this role reversal can leave deep emotional scars well into adulthood. Many […] experience severe anxiety, depression, and psychological distress. Others report succumbing to eating disorders and substance abuse.”
Put simply, the experience of having to step into a caretaking role as a child can disrupt and even displace the normal course of development. In our culture we have terms for this: a child may have “grown up too fast.” We should therefore “let kids be kids.” Right?
But the situations described above are extreme. As with most things, there is a large middle ground from which we can still see the line no matter which side of it we’re on right now. Parentification happens when a child undertakes a role for which she is not yet ready, specifically taking on responsibility for another’s care or well-being.
Hold on there, cowboy. Isn’t there an appropriate time and place for kids to take on responsibility for others?
Of course! There are ways to know when they are ready. Though laws vary from place to place, generally speaking your child is ready to babysit his siblings around the age of 12. This is assuming that they have willingly, and successfully, practiced this with your proximity and/or partial supervision. Does the child know what to do in case of emergency? How to contact you if you’re not home? How to call emergency services? Who is a safe neighbor? Where are the band aids?
The key, I think, is that you and the child are both confident in their readiness to care for others. Be sure that you give clear parameters regarding where you are and for how long; what is expected of them and what is not. If this is a regular situation, or something that comes up repeatedly without warning, it is probably time to involve another adult (family or a trusted professional).
In the meantime, try not to disappear.