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No, you are not now the little man/woman of the house

“You have to be strong for your mom or dad” and “You are the little man/woman of the house now” are often phrases told by well-meaning friends and relatives, after the death of a parent. This blog aims to demonstrate why these statements do more harm than good.

Children still need to go through their own childhood to get to adulthood. From my experience of teaching for 32 years, as well as a parent, and a death doula, I think that it is so important that children are allowed to be just children and not assume the role of a parent. This can be harder than we think, especially in a time of crisis. Children have a natural tendency to want to protect their remaining parent. They have already lost a vital part of their life with the loss of their loved one.

Kari Weiler, from Weiler counseling quotes from her own experience in her blog. “My son wasn’t even two years old when his daddy died. I remember a friend coming over to my house shortly after the funeral and saying, “You’re the man of the house now.” You should have seen the weight on his shoulders. His little boy frame must have lost two inches in height as soon as the statement came out of her mouth. I knew enough that this was NOT going to happen to my son. He was too little. I don’t care if he was 18, I would not allow this to happen. I responded both firmly and quickly that: “He is not the man of the house. He is a little boy, and he needs to be a little boy.” You should have seen the change in my son. He was so relieved!”

You may be aware of long-standing research that has been done around birth order. After the loss of a parent, these roles often change too- from the role of a child to the role of a parent. The eldest sibling (especially girls) will often try to transform themselves “overnight” from a child into a caregiver or a mother figure. Boys will often try to transform themselves into a father figure. Kari Weiler elaborates on this point in her blog, “My oldest child, a girl, wanted to step in and mother her younger brother. For his entire childhood, he would wait up at night anytime I was on a date to make sure I got home safe. He was trying to step in as a father. I have had to keep reminding my children that they are not a parent, I am the parent. You are my child. I continued to remind them a decade later.”

Parentification occurs when children are expected to assume the role of a parent. One example of this process occurs when children often are told, again by well-meaning relatives, that they must be an adult now. The oldest child learns to “be strong for others”. One of the most common and difficult-to-overcome problems therapists see later in life is the child who was cast in or adopted the role of taking care of everyone else. It is one of the most heart-wrenching examples of loss-of-childhood experiences.

Parentification has many effects, both short term and long term. Rachel Fairbank’s article further elaborates on this point. “Parentified children can develop issues that last well into adulthood, such as anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem, as well as the inability to form healthy relationships of their own. For those who were parentified as children, breaking this cycle can be very hard, as most of us learn about family relationships from watching our own. In other words, for a child growing up in that environment, parentification can seem very normal.” Consider the effects of how a child, who has been thrust into a caregiver role at an early age, might continue to believe they need to continue this role into marriage.

In conclusion, while the death of a parent is traumatic, steps can and must be taken to ensure that children get the professional support they need to continue their childhood.

Sources: How to Recover If You Were 'Parentified' As a Child

Assuming a parental role as a child has longterm effects—here's what helps., By Rachel Fairbank, Published July 19, 2021

When Children Grieve, by John James and Russell Friedman

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