When the Child Wants to Be the Parent


Bruce Brown
Focus on Adoption magazine

Our adoption story started in the fall of 1984 when I experienced a near fatal health emergency as a result of a genetic illness. My wife and I decided not to have biological children, as there was a strong possibility that my illness would be passed onto our children. We were aware of adoption, but never considered it seriously — we’d heard that it could take years and years.

In the spring of 1997, I came across a website about adoption while researching a project for work. This led my wife and I to investigate the idea a little further. A month later, at an AFABC information session, we were introduced to the idea of adopting a child from the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), an idea that would change our lives.

Eight months later, we had finished our homestudy and decided to adopt a sibling group of two — a four-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl.

It was during visits to our children’s foster family that I noticed that our son was an independent child and was very protective of his sister. On a weekend sleep-over, this protectiveness revealed itself as a more serious problem. On the first night, I asked my daughter, Alicia, to get ready for bed. She turned to look at her brother. I asked her again. She did the same thing. I asked her to look at me, which she did, and again asked her, a little more forcefully, to get ready for bed. She looked confused and turned to look at Jonathan, who was looking nervous. He gave her a little nod of his head. She jumped to her feet and ran to get ready. That was the first time I noticed that Jonathan was giving permission for Alicia to do whatever it was we were asking her to do. I was unsure as to why it was happening and what we would do if it continued after they came home. Lost in the excitement of everything that was happening, I forgot to ask our social worker about Jonathan’s behaviour.

Once the children came home our family went through the usual transitions, but the most testing was dealing with Jonathan’s “self-parenting” behaviour.

This behaviour is exhibited by some older children who have a history of neglect and or abandonment. It is especially common in the eldest child of a sibling group where the child has assumed the role of parent for their younger siblings. This is not necessarily a negative quality in sibling relationships and, with appropriate care, both children can develop appropriate roles with each other so that the older child can be helped to be a child again and both children can learn to trust adults.

Self-parented behaviour manifests in several ways, from giving permission to younger siblings to do as they have been asked, being resistant to parental help, comfort or rules, and temper tantrums when the child is questioned or disciplined. When children are younger it can be easier for them to relinquish the role of parent after they join their family. With older children it can be much harder.

My wife, Lori, and I began talking about the rules in our home as we drove the children home from Vernon where they had been in foster care. The first rule that we discussed was the wearing of seatbelts in the car. Jonathan and Alicia were told that we would release their seatbelts because it was safer. During the drive home, I stopped to get gas in the car. I reminded the children that they were to stay in their seats. I was pumping fuel when I noticed Alicia climbing into the front seat. Upset that she had disobeyed me, I told her to get back into her seat. She began to cry because I was visibly upset with her. I calmed her down and I asked her why she had disobeyed me. She said, “I told Jon that we weren’t allowed, but he said to do it.”

There were several more instances over the next couple of weeks when I noticed Alicia waiting for Jonathan to give her permission to listen to me, or Jonathan telling Alicia to disregard my directions and do as he said. Jonathan was especially defiant toward Lori. At preschool his behaviour was even worse. My wife and I could see that we needed help.

I contacted our MCFD social worker and asked for some suggestions. The social worker came to the house and watched the children for a few minutes and then asked me to tell Jonathan to ask his sister to go into the kitchen, which she did right away. He then asked me to tell Alicia to put a glass in the sink, which she hesitated to do until Jonathan gestured for her to do as she had been asked. I was asked to read a book with the children. Alicia settled right in, but Jonathan began to cry when I tried to help him identify some letters. He became very upset the more I tried to help him, eventually pulling away from me and sobbing on the floor. This happened every time we tried to help him do anything — it still happens when Jonathan is having trouble with home-work or learning new or difficult tasks.

Our social worker asked me if Jonathan questioned me when I asked Alicia to do something, or if he would offer to do it himself. He also questioned me on whether Jonathan asked where I was taking Alicia if we went out without him, and where she was if she was not home.

He suggested I talk to Jonathan about his new role in our family as Alicia’s brother and my son. He advised me to explain that Jonathan did not have to be in charge of Alicia any more; it was our job to care for them and he was allowed to be a little boy.

When Lori came home we talked to both kids. I told Jonathan that he needed to be a boy so that he could grow into a man and asked him if he would let me take care of them both. He did not answer right away, but after a few minutes said that it would be okay. When I told him that I wanted him to be my little boy, he replied that he could be a big boy for me. I told him that from that point on I was in charge of taking care of them, and he didn’t have to take care of Alicia any more except to help her and to be her friend and brother.

It took a few months before the behaviour improved at home. He still struggles when he is given direction and will  try to do tasks the way he wants, even when told not to.

At pre-school the behaviour changed in just a couple of days. The teacher met with our social worker and they developed strategies to help Jonathan.

Alicia has flourished since she was allowed to make her own decisions.

My wife and I asked her to help Jonathan with his new job of being a little boy and to come to us if she needs help. We encouraged her to make her own decisions and to be less dependant on him. It took a couple of years but she seldom listens to Jonathan’s instructions now and tends to argue with him most of the time. Despite this, her relationship with her brother is still very strong.

Today, my son still thinks that he is not a little boy (but he thinks the kids in his class are little); however, he is beginning to relate to himself as a child in our family.

He continues to have difficulty taking instructions from women unless they are very direct, and he responds better to one-on-one instructions. He forms strong relationships with his classmates and is invited to other children’s houses regularly. When he plays with a group of friends he still likes to be in charge, but seldom becomes emotional if his leadership is challenged.

by Bruce Brown