Raising a family with multiple kids — and especially in a blended family — it makes sense that parents will want to put an emphasis on the new siblings learning to value one another and care for one another. And, when needed, being asked to step in and babysit or help out with younger siblings is part of being a part of a family and a good way to learn responsibility. However, one teen Redditor shared how her parents went too far in making her disabled sibling’s care her responsibility — and she’s struggling to set boundaries as she reaches adulthood and considers whether her role went above and beyond what someone should expect from another child.
“My dad and his wife sat me down when they were getting serious and told me her daughter would need me to look out for her because she’s special needs and has Down Syndrome,” she wrote. “They told me I would be her big sister now and it was important I be a good one because she would always have trouble.”
At the time, OP says she was just 10 or 11 and her parents made her feel very much that her new sister’s well-being was her responsibility: “I told them I didn’t want to be a big sister and they said what I wanted wasn’t important, because it was happening, and she would need me…So ever since that little talk it has been on my shoulders to make sure she’s okay. Kids being mean? I need to help. She doesn’t have anyone to hang out with her? I need to do it. I don’t want to? I get a lecture.”
OP, now 17, made the clear distinction that she resents the way her parents made her her sister’s keeper — but doesn’t resent her sister.
“I know it’s not her fault. But I never wanted to do any of this stuff. I never signed up to be a babysitter but especially now, that’s what I am. If they want to go anywhere I have to stay with my stepsister, And she’s very attached to me,” she writes. “Like she is clingy and needy with me and I know she loves me a lot. She’s more attached to me than she is to her brother, or her mom for that matter. She will choose me over her mom in a lot of things. I’m even told to hold her hand when we’re out if she doesn’t want to hold her mom’s hand.”
And all of this has weighed on her as she tries to make plans for her adult life. She feels strongly about moving out soon and putting some distance between herself and her family, but is already receiving pushback from her parents about those plans (telling her it will “crush” her stepsister) while also tasking her with additional full weekends of childcare.
She says she finally “lost it” and they all got into an argument where she reiterated her intentions of leaving and her dad told her she was in the wrong “for acting like being part of the family and being part of my little sister’s life was a chore.” Since then, she says the tension in the house has been extreme enough that her step-sister is bothered by it.
Similar to previous AITA where a mother was furious her adult children weren’t actively embracing a caregiving role they never chose, the commenters in the thread were supportive of OP setting boundaries with her parents and argued that they have long-since overstepped and made helping raising her sister such a core part of their relationship.
They noted that this situation seemed a lot like “parentification” — which, per the APA, refers to when a child is “a disturbance in the generational boundaries, such that evidence indicates a functional and/or emotional role reversal in which the child sacrifices his or her own needs for attention, comfort, and guidance in order to accommodate and care for the logistical and emotional needs of a parent and/or sibling.” And although there is an understanding that, as kids grow, they can take on the more “grown up” responsibilities (including caregiving of other siblings or relatives) — some research shows that there’s negative outcomes for kids’ development when these boundaries between parent and child responsibilities are so clearly blurred. Add in the guilt and stress that caregivers (even adult ones who are fully consenting to the role!) encounter and it’s a lot for a kid to handle.
“It’s honestly not uncommon in the special needs and disabled communities for adults (so-called parents) to shirk their responsibilities onto their children and it is NOT okay. It’s disgusting honestly,” one commenter said, while also offering advice for getting additional support and navigating the situation if it escalates further: “You need your space, your own agency and autonomy. Do you have any teachers or friends you trust to talk to this about so you can make an exit plan? The school might have some resources to help you in the right direction. Do you work? Are you able to safely stash away money? Do you have somewhere to slowly store your valuables? Also, when you finally do leave and have somewhere to go, if your parents try to stop you or keep your property you can call for a sherif to help escort you and get your property.”
They also said that the OP can absolutely have a good little talk with her sister to help alleviate the worry she’s feeling about leaving her: “As for your sister, when things cool down a little, maybe have a little talk. You don’t resent her and remind her you care for her and love her but one day you have to move out. Go from there based on your relationship.” (This also might be another thing the parents should be doing — focusing their energy on trying to make this life transition as positive and healthy for both children rather than encouraging one child to forgo parts of their life to avoid any difficulty.)
“Your parents are lucky frankly that you don’t resent her,” they add, “because a lot of the time when this situation happens, the siblings end up resenting their special needs sibling as well because of how stressed and smothered they feel.”
The top comment was in agreement with the above too: “NTA – Children are NOT autonomous responsibility modules. It doesn’t matter if she loves you. It doesn’t matter if they expect it. You DESERVE A LIFE. You have a great deal to look forward to in your future and being their auxiliary babysitter isn’t it…Frankly, there’s help for those who need a caretaker for handicapped individuals, and failing that? It. Is. The. Parent’s. Responsibility. Not yours. Not a child’s. Not anyone else’s. THEIRS. They wanted some rose colored love story free from tedious responsibility? Screw that.”
Setting boundaries is one of the most challenging things a young adult can learn to do! And it’s even harder when you don’t have other adults who can model that behavior. But here’s hoping OP is able to look forward to her bright future and know it doesn’t take away from the love she has for her sister.
Before you go, check out the mental health apps we swear by for a little extra brain TLC: