Healthy boundaries and parentification

By Sarah Earles, MS, LPC, NCC | January 10, 2022

In this episode of our Family Care Learning Podcast, we learn about parentification which is often found in children from the foster care system. Haley and Sarah, both therapists at Arizona Family Counseling, discuss how foster parents can help children struggling with parentification. Watch the podcast or read our blog post below to learn more!

With all of the family coaching and consulting that Haley and Sarah do, they say the theme of “parentification” is a very common theme that parents present to them saying that they feel like their children have a constant need for control.

“Unfortunately, it’s just a common thing that happens when biological parents aren’t able to care for their kids in the ways that they need,” Sarah said. “Sometimes those parents haven’t had examples themselves, so then it’s “kids raising kids” kind of thing. Then, when our kids from hard places come to us, they are really struggling to know what their role as a child is,” she added. “We’ll see them trying to do everything from getting their own breakfast, to taking care of the baby, to changing diapers, to checking the locks at night on the door… things that should be the adults job to do… to make sure they’re safe, to make sure they’re fed, to make sure that they have what they need… but we’ll see our kids starting to do that and taking over those tasks,” Sarah added.

Haley said she sees this in her home as well.

“My husband and I always tease that we have no problem parenting with each other, but when our kiddo wants to parent with us, we’re like, ‘Oh boy, this is gonna’ be rough. We’re gonna’ get in all these power struggles with her because there’s such a need for control, but she’s not trying to do it. She’s not trying to take control away from us. That is probably what helped her survive at one point or another and so it’s really learning and educating yourself as a parent about why our kids have this tendency and how to help them navigate this and move forward,” Haley said.

Why do children feel like they always need to have control? or Why is it hard for them?

“I think there are a lot of reasons for it,” Sarah answered. “Again, I think an important thing in all of this is how do we remain curious? Because if we can remain curious, we remain compassionate, versus if we’re just completely utterly baffled and frustrated, then it’s hard to remain calm or regulated ourselves and then that just kind of upsets the whole family. So, I think my first question is, “Did they need to do this?” “Was there baby brother or sister crying and so they were legitimately trying to help, or maybe even the crying hurt their ears and they’re just like, how do I stop this? And if there was no adult who was capable in their home of doing that, they were just trying to do what it took to survive,” Sarah said. “Sometimes the survival mode is ingrained in them and sometimes it’s a protective impulse.”

Sarah mentioned that kids don’t have fully developed brains so oftentimes they can’t fully conceptualize the bigger picture.

Haley also shared that traumatized children tend to live in that fight, flight or freeze response most of the time, and as parents sometimes we forget that.

“One thing that we see in our home pretty frequently, and what I talk to a lot of parents about, is that need to have food all the time or have control over their eating habits. We see big meltdowns over mealtime, or them not feeling like they have any access to food,  and it can be frustrating as a parent feeling like they’re eating all of the time,” Haley shared.

“I think that’s a really good reminder that… God created our brains to do that, and it’s in helping empower our kids and helping build that trust and attachment that as adults, we will come in and we’ll meet their needs, but also accept that maybe you don’t have a trust that adults will meet your needs and that’s okay. We’re gonna’ work through this together,” Haley said.

Sometimes adults need to look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves… What’s their history? What’s their trauma? …and realize this makes sense that they want to take care of themselves. This helped them survive.

What are ways for adults to build trust with kids?

Consistency.

“You’ve got to be consistent with your children over a long period of time. I think as believers, we can draw the Lord’s power and say, Lord, help me do this today, Sarah said.

Another parenting tip Sarah gave was to offer alternatives. For example, instead of allowing the child to take care of little brother or sister, encourage them to take care of their doll.  Encourage them to do kid things and not worry about adult things. Say things like, “I’ll take care of you, and you can go take care of your doll!”

Help kids to have some healthy control… appropriate control over some things.

“You can take your bath now, or you can say goodnight to your brother or sister and then take a bath. This allows them to feel like they have the control to choose, but in appropriate ways.

What language can we use with our kids?

“…Some of it is just recognizing and naming it for them. For example, you could say, ‘It must be really scary for me to take care of the baby and you not being able to do that right now, but you know what? I’ve had lots of experience, and that’s my job in the house… to take care of the baby,’” Sarah shared.

Conversely, our natural response is to be defensive, and if you shut a person down or argue with them, they’re going to come back defensive and dysregulated.

Acknowledge your child by saying something like, “I see you and hear you, but things are different now, and you are safe with me.”

In this episode of the Family Care Learning Podcast, we hear from Brandon and Seth who discuss the importance of exercise in psychology and in our general sense of well being.

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In this episode of our Family Care Learning Podcast, we learn about parentification which is often found in children from the foster care system. Haley and Sarah, both therapists at Arizona Family Counseling, discuss how foster parents can help children struggling with parentification. Watch the podcast or read our blog post below to learn more!

With all of the family coaching and consulting that Haley and Sarah do, they say the theme of “parentification” is a very common theme that parents present to them saying that they feel like their children have a constant need for control.

“Unfortunately, it’s just a common thing that happens when biological parents aren’t able to care for their kids in the ways that they need,” Sarah said. “Sometimes those parents haven’t had examples themselves, so then it’s “kids raising kids” kind of thing. Then, when our kids from hard places come to us, they are really struggling to know what their role as a child is,” she added. “We’ll see them trying to do everything from getting their own breakfast, to taking care of the baby, to changing diapers, to checking the locks at night on the door… things that should be the adults job to do… to make sure they’re safe, to make sure they’re fed, to make sure that they have what they need… but we’ll see our kids starting to do that and taking over those tasks,” Sarah added.

Haley said she sees this in her home as well.

“My husband and I always tease that we have no problem parenting with each other, but when our kiddo wants to parent with us, we’re like, ‘Oh boy, this is gonna’ be rough. We’re gonna’ get in all these power struggles with her because there’s such a need for control, but she’s not trying to do it. She’s not trying to take control away from us. That is probably what helped her survive at one point or another and so it’s really learning and educating yourself as a parent about why our kids have this tendency and how to help them navigate this and move forward,” Haley said.

Why do children feel like they always need to have control? or Why is it hard for them?

“I think there are a lot of reasons for it,” Sarah answered. “Again, I think an important thing in all of this is how do we remain curious? Because if we can remain curious, we remain compassionate, versus if we’re just completely utterly baffled and frustrated, then it’s hard to remain calm or regulated ourselves and then that just kind of upsets the whole family. So, I think my first question is, “Did they need to do this?” “Was there baby brother or sister crying and so they were legitimately trying to help, or maybe even the crying hurt their ears and they’re just like, how do I stop this? And if there was no adult who was capable in their home of doing that, they were just trying to do what it took to survive,” Sarah said. “Sometimes the survival mode is ingrained in them and sometimes it’s a protective impulse.”

Sarah mentioned that kids don’t have fully developed brains so oftentimes they can’t fully conceptualize the bigger picture.

Haley also shared that traumatized children tend to live in that fight, flight or freeze response most of the time, and as parents sometimes we forget that.

“One thing that we see in our home pretty frequently, and what I talk to a lot of parents about, is that need to have food all the time or have control over their eating habits. We see big meltdowns over mealtime, or them not feeling like they have any access to food,  and it can be frustrating as a parent feeling like they’re eating all of the time,” Haley shared.

“I think that’s a really good reminder that… God created our brains to do that, and it’s in helping empower our kids and helping build that trust and attachment that as adults, we will come in and we’ll meet their needs, but also accept that maybe you don’t have a trust that adults will meet your needs and that’s okay. We’re gonna’ work through this together,” Haley said.

Sometimes adults need to look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves… What’s their history? What’s their trauma? …and realize this makes sense that they want to take care of themselves. This helped them survive.

What are ways for adults to build trust with kids?

Consistency.

“You’ve got to be consistent with your children over a long period of time. I think as believers, we can draw the Lord’s power and say, Lord, help me do this today, Sarah said.

Another parenting tip Sarah gave was to offer alternatives. For example, instead of allowing the child to take care of little brother or sister, encourage them to take care of their doll.  Encourage them to do kid things and not worry about adult things. Say things like, “I’ll take care of you, and you can go take care of your doll!”

Help kids to have some healthy control… appropriate control over some things.

“You can take your bath now, or you can say goodnight to your brother or sister and then take a bath. This allows them to feel like they have the control to choose, but in appropriate ways.

What language can we use with our kids?

“…Some of it is just recognizing and naming it for them. For example, you could say, ‘It must be really scary for me to take care of the baby and you not being able to do that right now, but you know what? I’ve had lots of experience, and that’s my job in the house… to take care of the baby,’” Sarah shared.

Conversely, our natural response is to be defensive, and if you shut a person down or argue with them, they’re going to come back defensive and dysregulated.

Acknowledge your child by saying something like, “I see you and hear you, but things are different now, and you are safe with me.”

In this episode of the Family Care Learning Podcast, we hear from Brandon and Seth who discuss the importance of exercise in psychology and in our general sense of well being.

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