I have written elsewhere that, not long after my parents divorced when I was eight, I, in effect, became my highly unstable mother’s emotional caretaker – a kind of pint-sized, fledgling, incipient counsellor, if you will. Indeed, even before I had reached my teens, my mother would, not infrequently, refer to me as her ‘Little Psychiatrist’ (apologies to those readers who have read that in other articles on this site – I mention it again for the enlightenment of new readers).
Being cast into such a role when very young, especially after a divorce of parents, when it is the child’s emotional needs that should be paramount, is, of course, extremely developmentally inappropriate. Indeed, many children who have been placed in such a position have, as a result, developed psychological difficulties and mental illnesses as adults, including:
– inappropriate guilt
– a proneness to outbursts of extreme anger and rage
(NB. The above list is not exhaustive).
The child who becomes the emotional caretaker of a parent is placed under severe stress and is enormously overburdened, during a period of his/her life which ought to be made as relatively care-free as is reasonably feasible.
Some children in this situation may appear to be coping on the surface ; for example, during the period I was caring for my mother, I did well at school due, at least in part, to the fact that I would immerse myself in school work as a coping mechanism : a diversion, distraction and temporary escape from obsessively ruminating on my mother’s psychological problems.
Also, I was fastidiously tidy around the house. For example, my mother demanded the bathroom always be left spotless and in perfect order. For instance, the towels had to be hung back on the towel rail perfectly symmetrically so that their ends lined up exactly and ran completely parallel to the floor. However, this meticulousness on my part was due mainly to fear of my mother’s wrath should I fail to complete such tasks with military precision.
The child who is the emotional caretaker is forced to grow up far too soon and to shoulder responsibilities which s/he is not emotionally mature enough to deal with. In effect, the child is turned into the parent’s parent (the child is, in the language of psychologists, parentified), forgoing his/her essential needs as a child : in effect, his/her childhood is stolen.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)