Role reversal: Teens as caregivers

I loved to hang out with my baby sister when I was a teenager. I used to take her everywhere, even to some social activities at my high school. I really enjoyed the “mommy role,” even when she did something out of the blue, like kicking one of my guy friends in the shin at a winter carnival.

I realize that I probably enjoyed her tagging along with me, because it was my choice. It may have been an entirely different story if I was obligated to care for her on a regular basis, especially if the care got in the way of my own activities.

Sometimes, teens are responsible for younger siblings for long hours after school due to their parents’ job schedules or their family’s financial situation. This can be a catalyst to a teen becoming responsible at an early age; however, in some situations, a teen might feel resentment for having to assume a parental role. Is there a limit to how much responsibility a teen should take on?

The benefits

Beth H. Garland, PhD, a licensed psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, reports, “Benefits may include increased responsibility and an opportunity for increased trust between the adolescent and his parent.”

Pamela Garber, LMHC, a Manhattan-based therapist who works with adolescents regarding family issues and other life stressors, believes that teens can gain important life skills while caring for a younger sibling.

“The benefits can be the to development of a strong sense of responsibility, an understanding of choices and consequences, and a value system based on family,” she explains.

Amy B. Acosta, PhD, a licensed psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, agrees.

“Some teens may respond to caretaking roles in ways that promote skills for nurturing others, and these responsibilities may increase feelings of closeness within the family,” she says. She feels that there is a potential for family connectedness when there is a sharing of responsibilities.

Too much to handle?

Most experts agree that teens need time for social activities. This can be a challenge when teens are spending a great deal of time outside of school hours watching over younger siblings.

“Often, the negative consequences, such as resentment and an over-developed sense of responsibility, are linked to other issues and problems,” warns Garber. For instance, teens might begin to exhibit negative behaviors because they feel their own needs are not being met.

Garland finds that social experiences help teens learn skills that enable them to navigate situations as adults.

“The balance between childcare responsibilities and activities associated with adolescent development (e.g. social events, dating, free time) may be one potential challenge,” she says. Parents should also talk to their teens to be sure their teens are not overwhelmed.

Finding a balance

“It is helpful for parents to make sure their teen has structured time that is strictly for him,” instructs Garber. Ideally, teens should be able to allocate time in their schedule for both school and social obligations. This will help them feel cared for and valued. Additionally, teens will have the opportunity to mature socially, so the peer disconnect will be limited.”

Parents should consider community resources, such as support groups and churches. Another idea is to work out childcare swaps where families take turns with childcare.

“Some cities offer free or low-cost after-school and weekend programs at city parks and recreational centers,” says Garland.

Acosta suggests extracurricular activities.

“School sports and clubs may provide a logistical solution to childcare while simultaneously honoring a need to explore new interests and create bonds with other children.”

Tips and tales

“I used to babysit my younger siblings all the time. Every family is different, but I grew up way too fast and never really had time to be a child.”

Renee Falanga Brenner, New Paltz, NY

“I think that taking care of a younger sibling could be favorable. However, the teenager could build resentment against his younger sibling and rebel.”

Charles Knapp, Brooklyn, NY

Share your ideas

Upcoming topic: Tips for dealing with the day your teen leaves for college.

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Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer, columnist and author of the newly released book, “Lions and Tigers and Teens: Expert advice and support for the conscientious parent just like you” (Unlimited Publishing LLC). Visit www.myrnahaskell.com.