Military families face unique challenges. Dad was on his first tour in Vietnam. We lived far from family and any military installation. I was 11. The oldest of five, mom depended on me to help her run the household.
She had frequent migraines that made her hunker down in a dark room. I cooked dinners, bathed my younger siblings, read them stories, and put them to bed. I helped clean the house and do the laundry. I burned my fingers ironing. To this day, it is one of my least favorite activities.
Whether my mother intended it or not, it was during this time that I became a “parentified” child – a role I maintained in my family for years to come even after my father returned home.
Parentification is the process of role reversal, whereby a child is obliged to act as a parent. In healthy families, clear boundaries exist between parents and their children. Adults are the caretakers. However, a hole in the family caused by something like a long deployment can create a parental vacuum.
Children who are more emotionally sensitive or have a strong sense of responsibility can quickly become parentified. This often falls to the oldest child. Most parents do not do this purposefully. A military spouse can fall into this relationship with a child as a means of coping with stressors that happen during long separations.
Children can be parentified either functionally or emotionally, or both. Children who take over physical responsibilities like housecleaning or child rearing are functionally parentified. When a child takes on the role as a parent’s confidante, he or she is emotionally parentified.
When your spouse is away, it can be easy to lean on a child, especially if he or she seems mature.
Here’s what you can do to guard against it.
Shield children from taking on parental roles. This doesn’t mean you have to do everything. It is okay to assign a child chores or ask him or her to help out when needed. Just don’t allow yourself be become dependent on the child to maintain your family’s functionality.
Reassure your child that you are okay and don’t need to be taken care of. Make time for self-care (and I’m not talking about a bottle of wine here). Diet, exercise, balance – you know the drill.
Keep routines and discipline the same as before. This is a hard one because most families slip into different routines when one parent is absent. However, if you can keep routines similar it reassures children that you are in charge.
It is okay to show sadness around your kids; in fact, it is probably healthy. However, it is not okay to dump your emotions on them. Save rants and deep conversations for trusted adults.
If you are feeling overwhelmed (and you will), don’t turn to your kids. Children are usually helpless to offer advice and it can cause them to experience anxiety. Seek help from an adult friend, an MSAN Mentor, extended family, a neighbor, your church, or a counselor.
Talk to your kids about their feelings. One may disclose he or she feels a responsibility to step up into a more parental role. Discourage this. If your child is still experiencing worry or shows signs of depression after your discussion, consider counseling. Military OneSource is a good place to start.
Because of the unique challenges spouses face in military life, our children are often asked to “step up.” It is important to let our kids be kids. As adults, parentified children experience anger, perfectionism, the need to control, fear of incompetency, try too hard to please others, feel isolated, and accept too much responsibility. They almost always struggle with adult relationships.
If you are struggling please reach out to an adult, not your kids.