When children cannot be cared for at home with their biological parent or parents, other adults who have a caring concern for them, or children more generally, take on the caregiving role. In many cases this is a member of the child’s family (Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles, even older siblings). It might also be a family friend or other person who has a relationship with the child and/or their family. It might be a member of the community who has a caring concern for children and a desire to ‘give back’. It might also be a person who cannot, otherwise, have a child of their own and wishes to provide a loving home to a child in need. For those children and young people who are yet to be placed in a family care arrangement, it can be a paid carer.
The intent of all of these people is to provide care and protection to children and young people who are in need.
There are many challenges in providing care in these roles. One of these arises when the child or young person asserts “you’re not my parent (mum/dad)”. Often, this occurs in the context of the child or young person resisting parental authority. In many instances, it is an expression of feelings of hurt, loss, and abandonment that can be keenly felt by children and young people who cannot live with their biological parents. It is also a form of rejecting behaviour that stems from the child’s own feelings of rejection, which can occur irrespective of the reasons the child cannot be cared for by their biological parents and the love the biological parents have for their child.
It can be distressing to hear and experience as the caregiver for the child; the person or persons who are, in fact, performing the role of parent. It is important to keep in mind that the comment is not necessarily about you; nor is it a reflection of the care you provide. Rather, too often it is a reflection of the child feeling different and inadequate in some way; as if they were not loved or lovable enough to be cared for by their biological parents. Often, it is also a reflection of the child or young person’s displaced anger and frustration at their biological parents.
It is not healthy or helpful for the child or young person to maintain such thoughts and feelings. The low sense of self-worth that arises when children and young people think of themselves as unloved and/or rejected is implicated in a range of self-destructive and self-defeating behaviours that, ultimately, have a negative effect on life trajectory. It can also result in you pulling back a little from the child due to your own feelings of hurt, notwithstanding your best intentions. This can compound the child’s low sense of self-worth.
Three steps I use to support understanding that the child or young person does, in fact, have parents follow.
First, when the child or young person is relaxed and able to talk (such as when travelling for some distance in a car), ask them what does a parent (mum/dad) do for a child. If possible, keep some form of record of their answers. I anticipate that you will get a list of caregiving behaviours. Allow the child or young person time to process their own answers to the question (this can be a longer or shorter period, depending on the child or young person. It may also be appropriate to wait a day or so before proceeding to the next step).
After the child or young person has had time to reflect on the question at step one and their own answers, ask what you do for them. Again, a record might be kept. The child should again be given time to consider the question and their own answers to it before proceeding to the next step. It is anticipated that the aspects of the parenting role you are acknowledged to perform substantially overlap the list made in response to the first question.
Finally, acknowledge that though they sometimes feel different and feel like they do not have a parent (mother/father), a parent is someone who looks after them, and you are that person. You are their parent (mum/dad). And they are cared for (wanted/loved) the same as other children and young people.
The anticipated outcome is the child’s realisation that they do, in fact, have a parent.
(Note: In many instances it might also be appropriate to reassure that their biological parents love them too)