Ideally, families work from the top down. Parents provide physical and emotional security, stability, and predictability for their children. Sometimes, however, everything gets turned “up-side-down.” Whether because of parental illness, work demands, drugs, or some sort of trauma, children become the primary emotional support for their parents. Parents turn to their children to receive comfort from stresses of life rather than the children turning to their parents for comfort from life’s stresses. Parents seek their children’s approval and the children become their parent’s confidant in issues well beyond their emotional maturity. Children in an “up-side-down” family may even find themselves the only reliable cook or housekeeper in the home. Whatever the precipitator, the overwhelmed and overtaxed parent shifts the responsibility of managing their family onto the children.
As you can imagine, this has many detrimental effects for children and their families. Children in this position are more likely to drop out of school. The resulting lack of education will contribute to greater difficulty finding employment and likely result in significantly less income. This will impact future resources available to them for accessing health care as well.
Socialization also changes for children who find themselves forced to take on too many adult responsibilities in the home. As a result, they are at greater risk of earlier sexual behavior and pregnancy, as well as a greater risk for substance abuse. They may experience a loss of trust in other people, increasing their struggle to develop healthy, intimate relationships in the future.
What can we do to help prevent families from getting turned up-side-down?
- Parents, begin by taking care of yourself. Model a healthy lifestyle that includes getting appropriate rest, eating a healthy diet, and avoiding addictive behavior and substances. Children benefit from witnessing a parent’s healthy lifestyle. And a healthy parent provides a healthier family environment.
- Support other parents when you can and when they express a need. It’s easy to become overwhelmed as a parent. We all need a support group, a group of like-minded adults who can help us when things get rough or when we need a “break.” We need a “village” to help us when the stresses of parenting and life become overwhelming. We need wise adults who can help us stay on a healthy path in our parenting and family life. Develop a healthy support system of like-minded adults.
- Establish healthy boundaries around authority, responsibility, and caregiving. If you’re not sure where the healthy boundary lies, seek the counsel of other adults or even the counsel of a professional counselor. Remember, the parent maintains a position of “bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind” in the home.
- Continue to learn and grow both as a parent and as an individual. Read about parenting and personal growth. Attend a seminar. Continue to learn and grow.
These steps may not end all “up-side-down” families, but they will go a long way in helping your children benefit from a “right-side-up” family. In the process, your children will grow up in a healthy environment, gaining wise insight into healthy boundaries of authority, responsibility, and caregiving.