Dear Barb—Parent Switch

Dear Barb:

Hi, I enjoy reading your column every week, but I have not seen my problem yet, so I thought I would write, as it may help someone else.  I grew up as the oldest daughter in a family of four.  My parents separated when I was nine and we rarely see my dad.  After my dad left, my mom fell apart and started drinking and stayed away from home a lot.  I was left to care for my younger siblings.  When the kids were younger I made supper, did laundry, and cleaning. 

Now that they are older, I have to care for their emotional needs as well. It has been 10 years since my dad left and my mom has gotten worse and is barely functioning.  I feel so overwhelmed.  I tried to get my mom to go into treatment, but she is not interested.  I have told her I can’t keep doing this and that I am going to move out soon.  She starts crying and begging me not to leave.  I haven’t got the heart to leave my siblings alone with her.  I need some professional health.  I do not know where to turn.  Looking forward to your advice.  Thanks, Melanie. 

Hello Melanie:

You are experiencing what is known as “Parentification,” which is a parent-child role reversal, where you are required to take on the role of parent to your younger siblings and even your own parent.  After experiencing this for 10 years, it has become a part of your life, but you are realizing that you have to do something to change it.  You have to be able to live your life and your mother needs to get help.  There are treatment programs that can help you and hopefully help your mother. If you are firm, then when she realizes you are not going to continue in this unhealthy pattern she will have no choice but to step up and get some help for herself, or she will lose her children.

I found three types of therapy that you and your family would benefit from.  The first is Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, which helps people to change their thinking and learn to deal with stressful situations.  Another type of therapy is family systems therapy.  It is used to understand the dynamics in the family and will help you to understand what is going on and how you are being affected.  Lastly, psychoeducation will help you to understand and look for signs of mental health disorders and how they are treated.  To find out which type of therapy is best for your family, I suggest you talk to your family doctor, he will be able to point you in the right direction.  You have to start to look after yourself.  If you don’t, your adult relationships will be severely impacted.  I’m so happy that you are beginning to realize your family needs help.

Thanks for your email, Melanie.

Email your questions to Some submissions may be edited for length or to protect confidentiality; your real name and location will never be printed. This column is for entertainment only. The author is not a professional counsellor and this column is not intended to take the place of professional advice.