By Kaitlin Louie
About Katie Krause, MSW: Ms. Krause is a child welfare social worker who works for Contra Costa County Children and Family Services as a Continuing Services social worker. At Contra Costa County Children and Family Services, she provides case management services, including short-term advising and referrals, to families whose children need to be removed from their parents’ care. Before working at Contra Costa County Children and Family Services, Ms. Krause worked as an intern at the Department of Family and Children’s Services in San Jose, CA, where she assisted staff with dependency investigations. She also interned at Legal Advocates for Children and Youth, where she monitored the well-being of children who have experienced challenges such as abuse, neglect, medical issues, and emancipation. Ms. Krause received her Bachelor’s degree in Social Welfare from UC Berkeley in 2011, and her MSW from UC Berkeley in May of 2014.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Could you please provide a definition of parentification, and in what scenarios this phenomenon typically occurs?
[Katie Krause, MSW] In my work as a child welfare social worker, we use the term “parentified” when referring to children who are taking on more of a parent role than a child role. For example, a 5 year old who is cooking dinner every night for herself and her 3 year old brother and who is regularly asked by the parent to watch the brother, who looks to her for comfort and support, may be considered parentified. Other common situations where we may consider a child parentified include when this child takes responsibilities too advanced for his or her age–for example, if he or she babysits younger siblings instead of going to school or participating in age appropriate activities, does more cooking and cleaning than is considered age appropriate, and feels responsible for the well-being of younger siblings. In my experience, we generally see older, female siblings taking on this parent role.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] What are the typical causes of parentification?
[Katie Krause, MSW] In my experience, there is not one scenario that causes parentification. Every family is unique. For many of the families that I work with, an older sibling may take on the parent role because the parent is incapable of fulfilling that role due to substance abuse, mental health concerns, working many jobs, or other reasons that prevent them from caring for their children. It has been my experience that parentified children step up to fill a role that their parent is not fulfilling. I have noticed that parentification often happens in families where there is not a lot of adult support (maybe a single parent household or a family that is isolated from the community and does not have other babysitters to help support the family). Another situation that may lead to parentification is a trauma experience in the family. The parentified child may take on this role as he or she may feel that it is something they can control or they may want to protect siblings from experiencing more trauma.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] What are the short term and long term effects of parentification on the child, the parent, and the family unit?
[Katie Krause, MSW] In my job, when children are removed from their parents, a strong sibling bond is generally considered a good thing. We do our best to place sibling groups together in the same foster home or relative home. In extreme cases of parentification, the parentified sibling may be so concerned about his or her sibling’s welfare that he or she is not able to concentrate on his/her own well-being and healing. For example, a 10 year old girl may be so concerned about caring for her 1 year old sister that she does not feel that her sister is going to be taken care of properly at a foster home. The parentified girl might feel the need to stay home from school to care for her sister, as she is the only one who knows how to feed, bathe, and soothe her. In these cases, we have to weigh the consequences of keeping the children together and not allowing the 10 year old to experience a normal childhood, and causing extreme trauma when the children are separated.
We often notice that parentified children are very savvy, and know more than is typical for their age. We try to encourage the parentified child to let someone else handle the adult role. Sometimes this takes time, as the child needs to learn to trust that someone else will take care of them and their siblings. I am not aware of any consequences for the parents of a parentified child. We generally focus more on the parentified child than on the other siblings when it comes to consequences. We do consider the impact of separating the child from the sibling and encourage and model normal adult-child relationships for the siblings.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] How often does a child welfare social worker encounter parentification during his or her work with children and their families? How can child welfare social workers help address the causes and effects of parentification when working with children and their parents?
[Katie Krause, MSW] I encounter some extent of parentification on a regular basis. Sometimes it is just an older sibling who knows a lot about their younger siblings’ needs, which is often helpful if the parent is not around to inform us of the child’s needs. Other times, we have siblings who have to be separated so that they can each develop their own identity and learn what it is like to rely on adults. Most children in foster care participate in some sort of therapy. For a child that is parentified or showing some signs of parentification, we would recommend that the therapist address these concerns directly. The therapist and caregiver may model what healthy adult-child relationships are like in the hope that the child will start to trust adults and feel more comfortable letting trusted adults handle tasks they were previously involved in.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] 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?
[Katie Krause, MSW] Many parenting classes that we refer our families to discuss parentification. They do not refer to it as parentification, but instead talk about healthy family dynamics and the roles and responsibilities of each family member. Overall, I believe that discussion around these topics, even in subtle ways, is beneficial to families. In some families and cultures it may be completely acceptable for a 5 year old to open up a can of soup, pour it in a bowl, and put it in the microwave to cook. In other families and cultures, the parent may be seen as neglectful and asking their child to do something that is beyond their abilities. When child welfare services become involved and concerned about parentification is when the children could be in danger. Is the 5 year old lighting the stove to cook the soup? Does the child regularly use knives that could cut them? Child welfare is also concerned when the parentified child is so emotionally concerned about their sibling that they are not able to participate in age appropriate activities as they are so consumed by their siblings wants and needs.
Thank you Ms. Krause for your time and insight into parentification.