Helping Children with Parentification

In this episode of our Family Care Learning Podcast, we learn about parentification which is often found in children in the foster care system. Haley and Sarah, both therapists at Arizona Family Counseling discuss how foster parents can help children struggling with it. 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 kiddos just have this 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 and so 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 because it’s a caregiver’s job 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 on 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 do we help them navigate this and move forward,” Haley said.

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

“I think there’s 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 also mentioned that kids don’t have fully developed brains so oftentimes they can’t fully conceptualize the bigger picture.

Haley mentioned that oftentimes with traumatized kiddos they live in that fight, flight or freeze response all 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 and we see big meltdowns over mealtime or 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 or I have food out for them and it doesn’t seem like it’s enough or they’re hoarding food,” Haley shared.

“I think that’s a really good reminder that yes, 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.

“If we can see our kids not as they’re acting parentified, not as oh, they’re in a battle for control because I think that upsets us as adults, like no that’s my job but like they’re coming from a place of fear where they don’t really believe and trust that I’m going to be here to take care of what they need,” Sarah said.

Sometimes adults need to look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves, okay, what’s their history? What’s their trauma?And realize of course 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?


“You’ve got to do it for a long time of like here’s food, here’s food, here’s food. I think it’s hard to not have the expectation going in that this is going to change it, but that they’re coming from a hard place and my job is to do this because I know it’s the right thing and I think as believers, we can draw the Lord’s power and say, Lord, help me do this today. Knowing that my child’s behavior may not change but the only way that they’re ever going to have a turnaround is if I just be who I’m to be, which is really hard,” Sarah said.

Another parenting tip Sarah gave was to not shut a kid down. Instead of, taking care of little brother or sister, why don’t you go take care of that 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!” Haley agreed and said to encourage kids to play and even teach kids to play because sometimes they don’t know how to.

Help kids to have some healthy control, some 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 is some verbiage that we can use with our kids?

“I think some of it is just recognizing and naming it for them, like for example say, ‘It must be really scary for me to be 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.

You could also say something like, “I recognize that this is really scary, but remember, it’s my job to keep you safe and that’s what I’m trying to help you do right now.”

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

Try to recognize them, say, “I see you and hear you but things are different now and you are safe with me.”