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Adjusting to Parent/Child Role Reversal



"I’m struggling with a switch in roles--from being the child, to now feeling like the parent.

Up until just recently, I was considered a child in the eyes of my whole family. My siblings and parents treated me as such, even though I am an adult, living alone, and gainfully employed. The big switch came when my father died. My mother, age 70, now seems to rely on me for support and I feel a little bit more like a parent than a child. She asks my advice on everything, and even asks me to do things for her that she is quite capable of doing herself. 

This change is unhinging me a bit. How do I handle this switch in roles?"



You’ve got several things going on here, and they’re all quite common. They do cause discomfort, so I understand.

In a good marriage, concepts are discussed and decisions are made as a team. When a partner dies, it’s not at all unusual to feel that loss in regard to making decisions. That person you turned to when you wanted to mull over a life decision, major or minor, is now absent. That’s a profound loss.  If you have a positive relationship with a child, it’s likely that you might turn to them as that sounding board. Your mother is looking to you as her go-to for problem-solving, or just getting a second opinion. 

There is also a possibility that your father was more of the decision maker in their relationship, and making choices on her own is a foreign concept to her altogether. It would not be surprising for her to turn to her children, if that were the case.

Asking you to do things she can do independently is a little less common, though not much. Many who have lost a spouse simply freeze for a period of time. The shock of the loss is immobilizing. Providing support and assistance during a grieving period is necessary. What you should see is a gradual resumption of independence. 

What you can do to support your mother is be available as a safe second opinion during her decision making. This responsibility will not go away, though it may lessen as she becomes more familiar and used to her situation. Assuming your mother is cognitively alert (no dementia), asking you to completely make decisions for her at this age is a bit unusual. As your mother ages, though, expect her reliance on you to grow.

Gently prodding your mother to do things she is able to do is not wrong. As long as she is capable, you can gradually resist doing everything for her by slowly decreasing your instant availability.

I do recommend connecting your mother with grief support. Her loss is very real and connecting with experts in the area of grief support can be beneficial to her. It may be helpful to you as well. Your family has gone through a major life event. It takes time and patience to adjust to your new normal, which may be a little bit easier for you, whose world has only partially changed. Your job and household is likely still the same, whereas your mother’s has been completely upended.

I wish you well on this shared journey.


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