When you were growing up, did you often feel like you had to be the “responsible one”, the “good child”, “the reliable one”, the one that could be counted on to take care of others and to do “the right thing”? Did you have to look after younger siblings in fundamental ways such as getting them dressed in the morning? making them meals? getting them to school and ensuring they went to bed on time? Did you find yourself worrying about adult-like things like whether or not there would be enough money to pay the bills or whether or not your parents would make it home safely at night? Were you at home tending to household chores or working a part-time job while other kids were outside playing without a care in the world? Were you the teenager that always volunteered to be the “designated driver”? Did you feel responsible to make sure that other kids made it home safe and sound? Did you seldom feel that there was anyone that you could turn to for guidance or support? If some of these things are true for you, then you very well may have been a parental child.
Family systems theorists have observed that when parents for whatever reason (e.g. alcoholism, domestic violence, mental health problems, physical disability or recent immigration) are unable to fulfill their duties as parents, oftentimes, one of the children (often but not always the eldest) will step into the parental role in order to fill the void. It is instinct, unconscious and a matter of survival. If I can take care of my parent(s), then maybe, they will be able to take care of me.
Parental children bring into their adult lives some wonderful strengths. They often take on strong leadership roles. People rely on them because they get the task done and are reliable. Often they are excellent organizers and good at taking care of others. Working as a therapist, though, I am also aware that parental children face losses and challenges and need support to contend with these. For example, they do not easily ask for help because it simply is not in their repertoire. Their experience is that people count on them, not vice versa. However, once in the door and able to accept guidance, parental children work hard in therapy as they often have in life. Furthermore, one would think that being “super responsible” (a term used to describe feeling overly responsible for others) means that parental children know how to take care of themselves. However, this is often not the case. In fact, the focus on others’ needs often leaves the parental child ignorant of her own wants and needs. An important piece of her therapeutic work may well be learning how to identify and address her own feelings and building a more solid sense of self. Parental children often have to face real sadness about what they missed growing up. Many do not know how to play because they never experienced much of that as kids. Often being able to be carefree and spontaneous was and still is beyond their realm of experience. They are serious adults who do not know much about how to be light-hearted. They often worry far too much.
Many of the parental children that I have worked with in therapy have had to learn basics that come naturally to others like: how to receive from others, how to be gentle with themselves, how to tune in to their own needs and how to relax and have fun. As adults, we tend to do what is familiar, not necessarily what is healthy. We tend to lean into the familiar and go with what we know. It requires awareness and mindfulness to stop operating on automatic pilot and fill the holes of what has been missing in order to attain balance in our lives. While working with parental children has often meant helping them to navigate through rough waters of anger and loss, it ultimately freed them to create a life that was truly theirs, rather than one based almost exclusively on service to others at the expense of self.