Interview with Maggie Olivares, ASW on Parentification

About Maggie Olivares, ASW: Ms. Olivares is an Agency Social Worker at EMQFamiliesFirst, where she has worked for over 15 years. As an Agency Social Worker, she provides counseling and support to foster youth and young adults in the AB12 (extended foster care) program within Santa Clara County, San Francisco County, San Joaquin County, and Alameda County. Ms. Olivares also provides support and guidance to foster families. Before her role at EMQFamiliesFirst, she was as a Probation Officer-On-Call in Juvenile Hall.

Ms. Olivares is also part of several committees and conferences at EMQFamiliesFirst that work to serve foster children and foster families. As part of the Cultural Competence Committee, she discusses and develops various trainings for staff and foster parents around cultural competence. She coordinated an Emancipation Conference for youths who wished to emancipate from their families, and also designed workshops and coordinated speakers for the conference. As the Foster Parent Support Group Facilitator, Ms. Olivares organized a monthly support group for foster parents seeking advice and guidance. She is currently the Echo Site Specialist, training and assisting staff with on the computer program that is used to write quarterly reports and enter progress notes and client data in the system.

Ms. Olivares earned her Bachelor’s Degree from California State University, Chico, where she majored in Psychology and minored in Latin American Studies. She earned her Master’s of Social Work from CSU, Sacramento, concentrating in Child and Family Services. Maggie Olivares was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] Could you please provide a definition of parentification, and in what scenarios this phenomenon typically occurs?

[Maggie Olivares, ASW] Parentification happens when roles of the parent and child/adolescent are reversed. Typically, parentification involves a child or adolescent taking on a level of responsibility (emotionally and physically) that is inappropriate for his or her age. If the parents are unable to care for their children, the older child/adolescent typically takes on the parent role and will lose sight of what responsibilities and roles are normal and healthy for his/her age.

In foster care, I have worked with several children/adolescents who have been parentified. Prior to being in placement, they had to take on the parent role for survival and safety reasons. Parentification is common when there are sibling groups. In my experience, it is more common in girls, but I have seen it with boys as well. The older child is typically parentified and cares for their young sibling(s). They will dress their siblings, prepare food, do house chores, assist with homework and re-direct and discipline their sibling(s). Even after being placed in a foster home the child/adolescent assumes this role even if the foster parent attempts to reassure them they no longer need to parent their siblings.

[] What are the typical causes of parentification?

[Maggie Olivares, ASW] The cause of parentification in my experience has been when the parent is not able to meet the emotional and physical needs of their child or children. The reasons vary–for example, the parents may be dependent on drugs and alcohol, or may not be accessible (i.e., mental health issues) to care for their child or children. Another common cause is when the parent is absent due to work. Parentification is common in foster children, especially when there are sibling groups. In my experience working with families in the child welfare system, I have seen parentification frequently in socially and/or economically disadvantaged families with parents who encourage the older siblings to help out with their younger siblings and make them responsible for household chores (i.e., babysitting, cooking, cleaning, laundry, assisting with homework, bath time, etc. in the home). When they are placed in foster care, and if the birth parent was absent for whatever reason, the older child/adolescent typically is parentified and will many times continue to stay in that role. If the parent is a single parent, it is common for the older child to assume the role of the parent while they are at work.

In foster care, we typically place children who are parentifield in a foster home due to the fact that they have had to care for themselves and their siblings because the birth parent was unable to. The most common reason to place a parentified child and his/her siblings in a foster home is when the parent is using drugs and/or alcohol and/or has mental health issues. Even after being placed in a foster home, parentified children/adolescents often feel they still need to care for their siblings. This is common when there is a history of them being placed in multiple foster homes, as in these situations the parentified child has had to assume the caretaker role for an extended period of time, even in foster care.

When a child/adolescent is parentified, this can be a problem in the foster home. Even though the foster parent(s) make attempts to parent the child(ren), the parentified child/adolescent often still feels they have an obligation to protect and care for their younger siblings. Sometimes the parentified child/adolescent struggles with the foster parent, and does not allow the foster parents to do their job. This can be challenging for both the foster parent(s) and child/adolescent.

I did have a child whom I worked with who was very parentified. He was only 8 years old when he was placed with our agency. As he got older he attempted many times to parent his foster parent. The child was removed from his birth mom for negligence and his mom being on drugs and being homeless. He was placed in a single female foster parent home and would make attempts to parent her (i.e. would tell her what he wanted to eat, dictate his bedtime, tell her what he was doing instead of asking). He did have younger siblings, but they were not placed with him when he came to us. His history did allegedly indicate that he was the caretaker of his younger siblings when they lived with their mom even though he was only 8 years old. His foster parent was very patient, nurturing, and soft spoken and he took advantage of her kindness. No matter how hard she attempted to change his behavior, he continued to be demanding and outspoken about how the home needed to be run. He received therapy, was in our Intensive Treatment Foster Care Program (so received extra support) and the team still could not change his behavior. He was in her home for three years, but as he got older his behaviors were too challenging and difficult. He was placed in a higher level care (group home).

Another challenge is, many times I see resentment from the older child towards the younger child(ren). When parentified children or adolescents begin to take on an age appropriate role, they see what they have been missing out on and will sometimes take it out on the younger children. They place blame in their birth parent or siblings for lost opportunities. If the foster parent is not clear and supportive of the roles, mixed messages are given to the younger siblings and many times the child(ren) will take advantage of this and manipulate the situation.

When there are mixed messages from the foster parent and the older sibling who is attempting to also parent them, the younger sibling will make attempts to split them. The younger siblings take the directive that is more desirable and will choose whom to listen to based on what they want. This is more common with older, school age kids.

[] What are the short term and long term effects of parentification on the child, the parent, and the family unit?

[Maggie Olivares, ASW] The short and long term effects really depend on how long the child/adolescent has been parentified and how old the child/adolescent is when they take this role on. If the child/adolescent has been parentified for a shorter time frame (less than a year) and is younger (less than 10 years of age), the effects on the child/adolescent in my experience have been less. The longer the child/adolescent has been parentified and if much older, the child/adolescent is affected more. The effects of parentification that I have seen are the resentment from the parentified child/adolescent for caring for their younger siblings and for missing out on things as a child. The resentment is typically towards the birth parents and the younger siblings. I have seen anger as an issue for the parentified child/adolescent and if not addressed, it can last until adulthood, affecting him or her in later relationships.

Also, parentified children and adolescents may not be in tune with their emotional and physical needs as a result of their caretaker role. They lose sight of their own needs when they take on a responsibility that is inappropriate for their age. The child/adolescent is also forced to grow up too quickly and become more mature than is appropriate for his or her age. I have seen this affect their social skills and relationships with peers of their own age. The child/adolescent is more bossy and has a more mature attitude which makes it difficult for them to get along with their peers and at times even other adults. The positive effects that I have seen are that the parentified child/adolescent does become more responsible, is more mature and can gain skills that can help them later in life.

The effects on the birth parent are that they become dependent on the child/adolescent to be the responsible person within the family. The younger siblings also develop a different relationship with their older siblings, which is inappropriate and can be stressful and challenging for both parties.

[] How often does a child welfare social worker encounter parentification during his or her work with children and their families?

[Maggie Olivares, ASW] In foster care it is common to work with a child/adolescent who is parentified due to the fact they have had to take care of themselves and/or their siblings. This is a result of their birth parent not being able to care for them or themselves. As an agency social worker I see this daily in this line of work. It is more common in sibling groups specifically when there is a much older child.

[] How can child welfare social workers help address the causes and effects of parentification when working with children and their parents?

[Maggie Olivares, ASW] Once a child welfare social worker has identified that a child/adolescent is parentified, a conversation needs to happen about the different roles and responsibilities of each family member. It is important to clarify the roles with the family, and specifically with the child/adolescent. Making sure the parentified child/adolescent understands that parenting his or her young siblings is no longer his/her responsibility is very important. When addressing this in a therapeutic way, I use the family systems theory, which focuses on understanding individuals within the context of their family unit, and which posits that all members of a family have certain roles. I tailor my therapeutic services to the child/adolescent’s age and developmental level. It’s a family issue and so I address it holistically, with the entire family unit. I also try to make sure the child/adolescent is reassured that he or she has done a good job and try to boost their self-esteem.

It is important to encourage parentified children to identify their interests and make them feel important. It is also important to help them recognize and meet their own emotional and physical needs. We need to reassure them that their siblings will be taken care of and be consistent with this. If a child is in therapy, it is important for the therapist to address the issue of parentification as a family, so that all family members can work together to have the child/adolescent break away from the parent role.

[] In addition to receiving therapy and support from social workers and therapists, how can children and their parents address and overcome the issue of parentification?

[Maggie Olivares, ASW] The length the child/adolescent has taken on the role of the parent determines how families (both the original family unit and foster families) can break the pattern of parentification. Also, in my experience, it depends on the age of the child. For the change to be successful, the foster parents need to be consistent and follow through in redirecting the parentified child/adolescent. The foster parents need to be positive, sensitive and supportive. The child/adolescent needs to be reassured that they no longer need stay in the parent role. The foster parents need to be present and involved and be consistent in meeting the needs of the children. They have to follow through with this responsibility gradually, proving that they are able to meet all of the children’s needs emotionally and physically. If the foster parents do not follow through and are not consistent, making the changes can be challenging. The services that have been used and have been helpful have been therapy and TBS (Therapeutic Behavioral Services, a short-term behavioral support program that some child welfare agencies offer to children who need additional mental/behavioral health support). Mental health service providers identify the goal and objectives and work closely with the foster parents and parentified child/adolescent to make the changes in a healthy and positive way.

It is also important for the birth parent(s) to be consistent and follow through with maintaining the parent-child role. They need to be supportive in re-directing the parentified child/adolescent. If in therapy, the birth family also needs to be involved and work closely with the child/adolescent and therapist to address the issue of parentification. The birth parents also need to re-build a rapport with their child /adolescent and earn their trust. They need to prove that they can do the job of the parent and follow through for the change to be successful.

Thank you Ms. Olivares for your time and insight into parentification.

Last updated: April 2020