Children who Parent their Parents and Outcomes from Feelings of Abandonment - Papers & Essays



TOP > Papers & Essays > Children's Rights & Well-being > Children who Parent their Parents and Outcomes from Feelings of Abandonment

Papers & Essays

Children who Parent their Parents and Outcomes from Feelings of Abandonment


Children who experience the loss of parenting for various reasons have a sense of abandonment, which affects the course of their lives. Predictable behaviours usually result including becoming caregivers to their parent and siblings. The attitude of the adult closest to the child influences the attitudes and actions the child will take. Adults who have lived through early abandonment relive those painful feelings in times of change, but there are ways to minimize the painful consequences.

abandonment, secure, feelings, emotions, adult expectations, pretend to be in control, care-giving, excelling, meaningful suffering, responsibility, change

A child's greatest fear is to be unloved and abandoned by his/her parents. (Ginott, 161) The child needs to feel that he/she is secure and being cared for by someone who is bigger and in control. (Segal 79) This paper deals with how children develop when there is a parental vacuum created by a situation that impairs the effectiveness of the parents and, in particular, those children who become caregivers. It suggests how adults can recognize children who are having difficulty with their feeling of abandonment and help them to minimize the hurtful consequences. People who experience this sense of abandonment will have their lives changed forever. In times of change and uncertainty those feelings may surface again and bring pain. Adults may come to understand themselves better and find ways to minimize the hurtful effects of the early abandonment on their lives.

There are many reasons why the child may feel abandoned without sufficient care-giving from his/her parents. 1) Death of one or both parents. "According the the 1990 U.S. Census, 3.4% of children under the age of eighteen have experienced the death of a parent." (Winton 164) 2) Chronic illness or mental illness that leaves the parent too sick to function or means that the well parent has to devote all his/her time and energy into looking after the sick one. 3) Addiction to alcohol or drugs when the parenting ceases. 4) Dual workers where both parents are away much of the time. 5) Immigrant families where the child identifies with the new culture and feels his/her parents are useless. 6) Large families where the parents are too busy to attend to every child's needs. 7) Children of divorce where one parent is seldom or never a part of the child's life. (Winton 89, Granot 7,8)

Although the age, gender, personality, cultural background and physical health of the child play large roles in how each child reacts to his/her feeling of abandonment, there are reactions and behaviours that consistently appear: 1) They often exhibit anxiety and/or depression; 2) May regress in development; 3) May have disordered, even unlawful behaviour; 4) Worry about the things adults worry about; 5) May seek to excel in everything they do; 6) Often become caregivers of their parent and siblings. These children do not mourn the feeling of abandonment like adults do. They often appear unaware of their emotions and don't know how to express them. They try to go on with their lives as though nothing unusual happened, but they are vulnerable. (Granot 9) "They pretend to be in control and live in fear that it will be shown up as such."(Segal 79) Adults who as children sought to excel or became caregivers of their parent and siblings seemed to have overcome the adversities of their childhoods, and appear to be well adjusted, resilient survivors, functioning independently and autonomously. (Winton 183) Since they are competent, empathetic adults, and often make significant contributions to society, their plight is little recognized. The feeling of abandonment by a parent affects the development of the child`s personality and the way he experiences life from that day forward. (Granot 9) This paper deals with children who experience the loss of parenting and of adults who as child-caregivers missed stages in their development.

Relatives and close family friends can help the child through his emotional stages after abandonment. The child will react to the feeling of abandonment by becoming angry. For example, anger at the father for smoking and bringing on his own throat cancer, anger at a surviving parent, anger at God, anger at the doctors, the government and so on. There may be no grounds for those accusations, but the anger comes and precipitates thoughts or actions of revenge. Revenge may be directed at something not directly related. For example, the child may kick or mistreat the family cat or he/she may withdraw affection toward the adult who could give him the love he craves. The revenge may precipitate stealing to get money to buy love or property destruction, which will bring attention. Other children get a sort of revenge with the world by setting out to conquer an ill in society. The child often feels guilty. The child believes that he/she could have prevented the abandonment?the break-up, death, illness, or he/she could have helped his/her parents more. (Ginott 162).

To prevent or dissipate these feelings of abandonment, the child needs to be told the truth in age appropriate language and needs to have his feelings acknowledged. For example in the case of the death of the mother, if the child isn't verbal an adult can suggest, "You must miss your mom. Your mom loved you. We will never forget her." A young child who doesn't have sufficient language needs to play out the situation. For example when a mother dies, the child could sit on the lap of his/her dad, an aunt or friend and play sitting on Mommy's lap to hear a story and be told: "Mommy didn't want to die. She wanted to stay with you. Where did Mommy sit when she read to you? Let's read the book Mommy read when you sat on her lap." The child needs to feel free to express his feelings and nasty thoughts otherwise he will feel guilt for having them. The adult can say, "Sure. You hate the world for taking your mommy. Sometimes I feel the same way; I get very angry that this happened. I will miss your mommy very much." Adults who expect too much inhibit the child's freedom to express his feelings. One often hears a child being told to "be strong", "you can help your mother more", words which place an adult burden on the child and render the child unable to let his feelings show. (Winton 166)

The role model set by the healthy, surviving or dominant parent or adult parent-figure will influence the course the child will take. When the father talks about the loss or illness of his wife, he is setting a good example, and the child will feel free to discuss it. Denial can bring on physical symptoms and relationship problems later in life. On the other hand a parent can set a bad example. Edward, age ten, was in danger of getting too close to his Mom when his father became ill. He said that he would be happier if his father died. He regressed to earlier behaviour and clung to his mom. He needed an uncle or male adult to model so that he could form the appropriate sexual identity. Darien's father encouraged the idea that his sick wife couldn't look after herself. As a consequence, Darien was afraid to leave his mother to go to school. (Segal, 68,69,72)

Behaviour is resistant to change. It may not be easy to persuade the child that he doesn't need to sacrifice himself to save his parent, and it may not be easy for the ill or bereaved parent to separate from their children when they themselves depend on the child for affection and closeness. (Segal 83) Dealing with issues of power, aggression, discipline, violence and control may be more difficult when one parent is ill, handicapped or absent. (Segal 120) The parent may be afraid of losing the child's affection so that the child winds up taking over and running the house; or the parent may use approval and disapproval, moral blackmail, to get compliance. The child may deal with anger and frustration like the parent does or may deal with those feelings in an opposite manner, even going so far as to get into trouble with the law. Jail acts as a kind of safe containment and replaces the safety the children needed from their parents. The child needs to learn that anger is a normal reaction, but that there are limitations on what means are acceptable to express it.

The child who goes on to excel is often spurred into some creative activity. These children have great drive to succeed as a scientist, an artist, a musician, a writer. C.S. Lewis, author of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," lost his mother at age 12. He invented the story of Narnia where time stood still and there was need for super human sacrifice. (Segal 231) Other "abandoned" children may take on a mission to correct some fault in society. Children who parent their parent often follow the path set in childhood and choose a profession which is care-giving as the stories about Claire and Jane, related later in this paper, will attest.

The remaining parent or person closest to the child should become the child's primary caregiver when the child undergoes a loss, and that caregiver should receive help from the family or community if they are in difficulty. The child should remain, if possible, in his familiar environment. Adults should let the child express his emotions in his own way and work through the adjustment at his pace. They should find ways to help the child express his emotions; offer love with natural boundaries; answer questions truthfully; and find ways to help the child develop his abilities. They should not make the child their chief confidant or make him perform the adult duties of being their chief caregiver. (Granot 203-208)

Claire's story

When Claire was eleven years old, her father became ill with a brain tumour. Her mom went with him to a faraway city for the operation, while she and her sister, three years younger, stayed with their grandmother. No one told Claire that her mom was pregnant until they came home months later, and by then the birth of the new baby girl was imminent. The baby turned out to be docile, made few demands, and brought a lot of joy into the household. At the time, it wasn't apparent to Claire that the baby had Down's Syndrome, but she did realize that her mom was overwhelmed with financial headaches, anxious about her husband's recovery particularly since his tumour was of the reoccurring type, and tired from the added responsibilities of the baby. Claire felt anxious about how the family would survive and pitched in to help with household chores. Often, at night, she had a reoccurring nightmare about running beside her father to escape giant landslides. When the baby was eighteen months old, she got spinal meningitis, and died within two days. It was another heartache for the family, especially for their mom. Claire took on more family duties and sat with her mother when her mother cried. She had been put in charge of her younger sister who was albino with weak eyes, and had been treated almost like a blind child, unable to tie her own shoes or comb her hair, though she was physically strong and mentally capable. Claire resented this burden and resolved to teach the sister to be independent. She felt a lot of guilt about her attitude, but she proceeded to teach her sister to cook and to look after herself. She helped her sister study, taught her how to shop for clothing, encouraged her to participate in young people's activities at church and school. When her sister was a teenager, Claire persuaded her mother to pay for singing lessons and dance lessons thus giving her sister skills that bolstered her self-confidence.

Claire's dad had been the strength of the family; he was a caring father who often took Claire with him when he went to visit farm families in the community where he headed the local schools. When Claire was very young her mom had been busy looking after her handicapped sister, and he was the one she turned to to get answers to questions most children ask. He fostered her interest in history and science and introduced her to books. At first he seemed to be recovering, but during the fourth year after his surgery, the tumour reoccurred; he was again hospitalized and died. Claire was fifteen. She vividly remembers being summoned home from church and standing on their front porch to be told by her tearful mother that her father was dead. For Claire it seemed the end of her security and source of strength. She remembers feeling that she was on her own from that moment on, that her mom wasn't strong enough to take on the everyday care and concerns she and her sister would have. She resolved to make her life count. She has never cried for her father, always telling herself that he didn't want to die and leave her, that she had to be strong. For years she would think, "I'll ask Daddy." and then realize that he was gone. She had a reputation in the community for being hard working and dependable. She held down two part-time jobs as well as helping out at home. Her mom was resilient, got a job in a factory, then became a rural mail carrier and later managed the insurance department of a real estate company. That job meant that she lived in the city on weekdays and went home on weekends, which left Claire and her sister to manage on their own much of the time. In later life Claire said that she had no patience with teenagers because she had never been a teenager herself. She has a warm feeling for her mother? she believes that she did the best she could. At university Claire made good grades and also held down a job in the Zoology department. She was shy and didn't frequent the hang-outs of more sociable students. Her first boyfriends admired her for her reputation of being responsible and for her accomplishments, but it annoyed her that none of them seemed to notice her feminine qualities, yet when a few of the boys she met didn't react to her achievements, she felt unsure of herself, didn't trust that that boy would stick with her; she didn't trust that she was capable of being loved for who she was without the proof of accomplishments. She married a man who was obsessed with proving himself in business, but needed an organizer. His aunt once remarked that he had been looking for someone to organize him and "there you were, ready and willing." He had wide interests, was outwardly very sociable but was unable to give intimacy and affection.

When Claire was older she registered for a course at Landmark Education. The courses are group psycho-therapy sessions in which about 100 individuals are led to talk about their relationships. The participants see themselves in the problems and actions others describe and come to realize how they got to be the person they became. The trained leader, a coach, guides the group. On the second day when Claire told her story, the coach said, "You had no choice about your vocation as a nurse/teacher. You had to become a caregiver because that was the way you acquired a feeling of self-worth as a little girl. You were successful at raising your sister and looking after your mother. People who need your care-giving will be drawn to you and you to them, but you will lose out on love because you did not learn to get what you needed. You don't let people know who you are and what you feel inside. You keep yourself too busy care-giving." In the second Landmark course, Claire began to learn the hard job of discovering what she needed to make herself a complete person?to find ways to socialize, to play and have fun, to find friends who didn't "need" her. She began to learn to parent herself as John Bradshaw described in his book Home Coming, to give herself the things she had missed while growing up.

Jane's story

Jane remembers feeling very angry throughout her childhood. In preschool years her mother was inaccessible, preoccupied with looking after Jane's brother who was two years younger than Jane, and as a consequence, in those days, Jane spent hours at a friend's house across the street where they played in the sandbox the friend's father had made for them. Whenever she got permission she skipped down the street to her paternal grandmother's house to get a cookie. She had great fondness for that Grandmother who seemed always to have time for a visit. Her penny bank was kept at Grandma's, and whenever Jane's father gave her a penny she would ask permission to bank it at Grandma's. Then one day Grandmother needed some pennies and asked Jane if she could substitute a dime for ten pennies. Although Jane could count, and she wanted to trust her grandmother, she didn't understand how one coin could replace ten, and she wondered if her grandmother had her best interests in mind.

When Jane started to school full-time, she went home for lunch. Usually her mom was still undressed, often still in bed while Jane's brother played nearby. Her mother would give Jane money to take to the corner store to buy a can of soup or beans for their lunch, and Jane would heat the food and take bowls to her brother and her mom, still in bed. Jane's visits to her friend's house across the street stopped because her mother would beat her if she didn't come straight home from school.

I asked Jane if she read books or what she played when she was at home, and she said that she never learned to play?could never play. "Well once I gave myself a birthday party, got a cake from somewhere and invited four or five people. My mother never remembered my birthday."

"What was your father like?" I asked.
"He sold real estate, but, you know, it was hard times. He was on the road till late, seldom home, always arguing with Mom when they were together. Once he got angry because I had outgrown my clothes and Mom hadn't bought me anything new. He took me to town and bought ten new cotton dresses. Cotton makes the best dresses. They were so nice. I didn't feel that I deserved them." "Was he interested in your appearance, proud of seeing you in new dresses?"
"I don't think so. He was disgusted with my mother. He wanted to teach me how to make money. Once he bought a big bag of hats, and he had me put up signs and sell the hats for ten cents each. He'd give me pennies, which I wasn't to spend. I was to learn to save."
"Did you help with the housework?" I asked, and she answered that she couldn't remember. Then her voice became animated. "Well, after my second brother was born when I was fourteen, Mom turned his care over to me. I was the one to change his diapers; I toilet trained him. Mom let the house go to pot and lay around complaining most of the time. I was very angry except when looking after the baby. I've always liked children."

"What was it like when you went to university?"
"I was active in many organizations, particularly the Civil Rights Movement. Always have been. I was usually the Vice President. Didn't want to be President, but I was the organizer."
"What work did you want to do when you finished university?"
"I was going to be a lawyer, but I had a part-time job while in college at the YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association), and the Director recommended me for a job at a community center. From that position, I got a job oversees looking after refugees in a camp. And after that I studied to be a Social Worker and finally became a Child Analyst."

"What were your relationships to your brothers?"
"I was never close to Mark, the one close to me in age. Probably there was too much competition for my mother's affection. Unfortunately he drowned when he was seventeen. That was a terrific blow to all of us, but particularly to mother. I'm very fond of my younger brother. We are always in touch."
"You were his caregiver," I said. "I understand that when your mom was old, you took her to live with your family. How did that work out?"
"Yes. We fixed up a room for her in what had been our sun porch. She was quite unwell. Her way of showing appreciation was to keep complaining that looking after her was too much for me. She talked a lot about the early years and told me that she had had four miscarriages when I was in elementary school, that those troubles had made her feel helpless. She and my dad consulted the obstetrician. I guess they both wanted more children, but do you know what he advised? `Sleep on your stomach.' He was of no help. It depressed her. During the time she lived with us, we had a reconciliation; I felt that I understood her."
"You've been a very successful analyst," I said.
"I've loved my job," Jane answered.

Adults who are still affected by feelings of childhood abandonment

The adult suffers when the pains of abandonment resurface in later life at the time of new losses, but there are opportunities to better life though the suffering. The pain is invasive; Frankl wrote "the suffering fills the human soul and body," just as a gas can fill an entire room. (Frankl 55) Suffering is a part of life. The way man accepts his fate and the suffering it entails adds meaning to life. Suffering gives us an opportunity to change. Love is the salvation of man, to forget oneself. Happiness is a side effect of living responsibly in the moment. (Frankl 140) Living in the past becomes meaningless. The present gives us a chance to grow spiritually, and looking toward the future means we will not miss opportunities to experience something positive. (Frankl 76) Taking action can be: 1) creating a work or doing a deed; 2) experiencing something such as the beauty in art and nature or encountering love; 3) transforming our attitude toward unavoidable suffering into a challenge. (Frankl. 115) The value learned from the suffering (pain of abandonment) is useful in the present. (Frankl 151)

Bradshaw has advice for adults who continue to experience feelings from early experiences of abandonment. The person must set a new way to relate to others, give himself or herself permission to break old rules and assume new rules for discipline. Good discipline means living life more gracefully, to be the authentic person he/she is. It's okay to feel what he/she feels. There is no right or wrong; it`s okay and necessary to want what he/she needs; it's okay and necessary to have lots of fun and play including sex; it`s essential to tell the truth at all times; it`s important for him/her to know his/her limits and deny gratification some of the time; it`s good to balance responsibility and accept the consequences for what he/she does; it`s okay to make mistakes and learn from them; respect other people's needs and feelings; it's okay to have conflicts and resolve them. (Bradshaw 191-204). When we are not allowed to grieve the energy is frozen. (Bradshaw 69) First you must allow yourself to grieve. Trust yourself that you will come out okay. Allow yourself to feel anger about what actually happened and to forgive. We come to feel hurt, sadness, remorse and loneliness and ones true self remains alone, isolated. Get in touch with your true self. It is best to work through your grieving with a group or talk to someone as you work thorough your healing. (Bradshaw 66-80) Men need to have men friends and women need to have women friends who can hear their fears and disappointments and with whom they can be vulnerable. (Bradshaw 237,238)


Children who for various reasons feel that they are abandoned by one or both parents, experience emotional trauma that changes the course of their lives. Adult relatives and friends can help the child and minimize the hurtful effects these children experience. Adults who relive their own painful experiences from early feelings of abandonment can chart a different course, which gives meaning to the suffering.


Bradshaw, John (1990). Home Coming, Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child. Bantam Books, New York.

Ginott,, Haim G. (1965). Between Parent & Child. Avon Books, The Hearst Corporation, New York.

Granot,Tamar (2005). Without You. Children and Young People Growing Up with Loss and its Effects. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia.

Frankl, Viktor E. (1992). Man`s Search for Meaning. 4th edition. Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts.

Harris, Maxine Ph.D.(1995). The Loss That is Forever; the Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father. Penguin Books, New York.

Segal, Julia and John Simkins (1993). My Mum Needs Me, Helping Children with Ill or Disabled Parents. Penguin Books, London, New York.

Winton, Chester A. (2003). Children as Caregivers, Parental & Parentified Children. Pearson Education Inc., Boston, New York.