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Parentifying children

When parents are unable to care for their children, they often give them up to relatives and friends to live with them and to be looked after.

This kind of care, which is recognised as the first form of care outside parental care, is used worldwide. Known as kinship care, it is a family-based care within the child’s extended family or close friends of the family known to the child.

This arrangement, because it is often informal, is usually not given the appropriate and necessary support. The variety of care arrangements includes care by grandparents, adult siblings and other friends or relatives of the family.

The challenges and benefits of kinship care vary from case to case. Compared to other forms of alternative care such as foster homes and orphanage institutions, kinship care can offer greater continuity, stability, a sense of belonging and identity and social networks.

Therefore, it has better outcomes for health, education and emotional well-being than the alternative forms of care. Carers also benefit from kinship care. Whilst the children are being cared for, they provide companionship and support to the carers in taking care of the home, and younger relatives or assisting in running a business such as a shop, etc.

Kinship care

Children in kinship care are often a marginalised group who need to be protected from harm and abuse. Such children must be made to feel loved, valued, respected, accepted and given a sense of belonging.

Studies have shown that the kind of love and care given to a child by kin is determined by the closeness of the carers to the child’s family. It is sad to say that some children experience violence, and can be discriminated against and exploited by carers.

In some cases, minors are given adult responsibilities that tend to rob them of their childhood, pressuring them to be adults prematurely. This includes situations where children have to care for sick incapacitated adults.

Rather than being cared for and supported by these adults, they find themselves as caregivers before they are physically, mentally or emotionally ready for such responsibility. This reversal of roles is known as parentification.

Parentification

Parentification occurs when a child takes on developmentally inappropriate levels of responsibility for their family’s emotional, physical and/or mental well-being. It is important to understand that children who go through this experience end up traumatised with long-term effects that can be devastating.

In severe cases, children are even expected to take on sexual roles or responsibilities of a partner or spouse. It also includes being exposed to sexual behaviour. The damage to the immature brain as a result of being overwhelmed by this abuse can be pervasive, leading to all forms of unexplainable physical and mental ill health later in life.

Feelings of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem are common as the child may feel responsible for their carer’s well-being due to the neglect of their own needs. Such children may also struggle with boundary-setting and have difficulty forming healthy relationships in adulthood.

They can end up as people pleasers who depend on the validation of others to live their own lives. Children who miss out on important developmental milestones, such as playing with friends or pursuing hobbies, because they have to take on adult responsibilities may struggle with chronic stress and anxiety, which can increase the risk of developing physical health problems such as heart disease and autoimmune disorders later in life.

Stressed or ill carers should be supported by other adults. Community members must look out for the best interests of the children around them. Social welfare services should be engaged for immediate intervention where children are being exposed to harm.

Where discriminatory social norms exist, these should be challenged and addressed.

5The writer is a Child Development Expert

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