Ages 11-18: Children Raising Children

After almost 10 years as a stay-at-home mom, Tenna Perry unexpectedly needed to return to work. In search of reliable and safe, yet inexpensive, child care for her two younger children, Perry relied on her oldest child. “Even though she hated the idea, my 17-year-old needed to step up to the plate,” says Perry, a mother of three.

While many responsibility-thirsty teens and tweens crave the chance to demonstrate their babysitting prowess, routinely caring for a younger brother or sister stirs a bag of mixed emotions.

A 2004 study conducted by graduate research students at Northwestern University highlighted a few interesting facts about children who care for their younger siblings. An estimated 13 to 17 percent of children ages 13 to 19 care for younger siblings for reasons other than social or entertainment events. Slightly more than 67 percent of sibling caregivers are girls. Of the 737 teen and tween caregivers who participated in the study, more than 75 percent did so for an average of 14 hours a week, and almost 27 percent were expected to prepare and serve meals, help with homework and tuck younger sibling into bed during the week.

“It was most interesting to see the significant difference in the number of hours that girls are left to care for their siblings versus boys,” notes Carinna Inuyde-Johnston, one of the study’s authors.

Individuals react differently

Health-care experts have begun focusing on the impact of giving a child too much responsibility or assigning responsibility before a child is mature enough to handle it. Some children do not function well under pressure, while others may not be mature enough to temper the inclination to boss around a younger sibling. “The child’s personality and nature has a lot to do with how he or she will handle this experience,” says family therapist Steven Bridge of South Bethlehem, Penn.

A naturally bossy child might need occasional reminders about the difference between being “boss” and being “in charge.” “It can be tough for teens to transition back and forth from being a child when their parents are home to being the caregiver and responsible party when they’re ‘in charge,’” Bridge adds.

A parent’s point of view

A range of emotions accompanies a parent’s decision to leave children home together. Fear that they will fight or be scared, worry over what they’ll eat and how they’ll be entertained, and parental guilt top the list for many in this situation.

“I would always feel guilty if my older daughter was missing out on a social event with peers,” shares mother of three April Lee Schmidt of Moundville, Ala., who also relied on her oldest for child care. Guilt seems to be the most common emotion associated with leaving older children in charge — guilt that they’ll resent the responsibility and are not able to enjoy a “normal” childhood or handle the pressure associated with the responsibility.

What teens think

Many teens in this situation often question what they are going to get out of caring for their siblings. Questions such as “How much am I going to get paid?” and “Can I use the car if I watch them?” are frequent refrains.

Adding to the situation is the potential for resentment about the need to act like an adult or miss out on activities with friends. While many older children do demonstrate varying levels of resentment, most do not exhibit any more resentment for caring for a sibling than they do for taking out the trash or performing other routine chores. “Although she does resent helping out, if I mention hiring someone to baby-sit, the thought of her losing out on the income sits even worse with her,” Perry says.

In some cases, teens and tweens relish the chance to be granted responsibility or to shower a younger child with attention for structured periods of time. “The older she got, my daughter would suggest my husband and I go out to dinner and offer to care for her siblings,” Schmidt notes.

Samantha Rae Glashaw, Schmidt’s 19-year-old daughter, says, “Honestly, it always felt really natural to take care of my siblings. I never resented the responsibility because I enjoyed it so much.”

“I think the most negative aspect of it is that my brother sees me more in a maternal/authoritative role and, even so, I wouldn’t really classify that as negative,” Glashaw adds.

By participating in a variety of roles as they grow up, teen caregivers and their younger siblings usually build a very strong foundation for the relationships they’ll share as adults.

Gina Roberts-Grey is a licensed clinical social worker and freelance writer.

Safety Precautions for Leaving Siblings Home Alone

– Make sure everyone understands your rules and expectations.

– Routinely discuss safety procedures for fire, tornados, bad weather and other potential emergencies.

– Tell your oldest child about medications and allergies for the children he or she will be caring for.

– Advise all children of the rules regarding having friends over or leaving the house.

– Conduct practice drills and discuss strategies for answering the phone and door.