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When Older Siblings Step Into Parents' Shoes


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in Washington. When a parent is deported, goes to prison or passes away, an older child may step into the role to keep the family together. In an instant, thoughts of prom dates and sports matches are replaced with worry about finding work and paying bills.

The surrogate parent - sometimes just a teenager him or herself - must manage household logistics and make difficult decisions for siblings, all while dealing with their own grief and anxiety. How does this dynamic between a caregiving sibling and younger brothers and sisters influence them in later years? Tell us your story.

If you were raised by a sibling, or if you raised your siblings, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, we'll talk with actress Sally Field about her role in the new film, "Lincoln."

But first: siblings raising siblings. Kathy Borkowski is the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, and she became the parent to her three siblings after her mother and father died when she was a teenager. She joins us now from Wisconsin Public Radio.

Welcome, Kathy.

KATHY BORKOWSKI: Good afternoon.

LUDDEN: Can you just take us back for some background? When your father - I guess your mother died first and then your father. How was it that you became the caregiver, and how old were your siblings then?

BORKOWSKI: Well, my mother died in 1970, when I was 16. She died of breast cancer. And then my father never really got over that trauma. And then the years - a couple years passed, and he died when I was 19. He committed suicide.

LUDDEN: That must have been so hard.

BORKOWSKI: It was. And I think it was challenging - I mean, my mother's death, although that was really hard, was expected after a while. She'd been sick for about three years. But for us, my father's death was very unexpected. And my siblings at that point, when I was 19 - the next one down from me was 14, and then - my brother was 14, my sister was 13, and my youngest brother was 10.

LUDDEN: So you were having to deal with adolescents and teens while you were a teenager. How was it that you became the caregiver? There was no one else who - what happened?

BORKOWSKI: Well, we have relatives who are sort of spread from coast to coast, aunts and uncles. And at one point they did come together, and there was talk of, you know, each of them sort of taking one of the kids, which, you know, from a selfish standpoint, would have been awful. I would have been - really, I would have lost everything at that point.

And so fortunately, we all wanted to stay together, and we had a - the attorney who had been my father's business attorney was helping with all of this and knew that I had been doing - taking care of the family since my mother had taken sick, and so was really in our corner and said, no. We can make this work. And so we kept the kids all together and stayed together as a family unit.

LUDDEN: And by consensus, everyone - the four of you were - wanted this to happen this way.

BORKOWSKI: Yes, absolutely. I think there were maybe times later when they questioned that, you know.


BORKOWSKI: At that moment in time, yes, indeed.

LUDDEN: But you didn't have official legal custody.

BORKOWSKI: No. That was a little challenging, as it turned out. My - for example, my sister, when she was in middle school, soon after - and I want to say it was maybe that following fall. My father died in June, and so maybe in the fall, when she went to school and you have to fill out the beginning-of-the-school paperwork, and it comes to the part where you have parent or legal guardian, and my sister being who she is and kind of brat at times decided no, she wasn't going to fill in any name there, because she knew very well that I wasn't the legal guardian.

And they sent her home with a note saying she couldn't attend school until she came up with one. So, fortunately - again, this same attorney wrote this beautiful letter that said I was the custodial guardian and used wonderful legalese terms that it made it seem like I had some authority of some sort, and that was good enough for the school district.

And it turned out it was also good enough for things like going to get a driver's license and anything else where it required a parent's authority, because I didn't have any sort of legal leg to stand on.

LUDDEN: Hmm. Wow. You know, I'm curious: You had to deal with so much right after, as you said, the very sudden death of your father, both parents gone then. What did this mean for your own ability to grieve? I mean, you had to experience such a loss, as well, but how did that affect you?

BORKOWSKI: Well, you know, it's funny. I was thinking about - so that was probably one of the toughest parts, is we did have to sort of just pick up and keep going. And so it's been - yeah, it's been a long time to sort of come to grips that loss, I think, and how we managed. You know, and it was also challenging going - I think for my brothers and sisters, as well, having this loss, as well as, suddenly, their big - their bossy big sister really is in charge. It's not like they have any other recourse.


LUDDEN: Right. I'm going to bring someone else into the conversation now. Vicki Panaccione is a child clinical psychologist and the founder of the Better Parenting Institute. She joins us from member station WMFE in Orlando, Florida.

Welcome, Vicki.

VICKI PANACCIONE: Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: So let me ask you, as a professional here, when a sibling raises another sibling or several, what generally are the biggest challenges?

PANACCIONE: Well, I think from both sides, the sibling who is raising the children and from the children being raised, there are different issues. And for Kathy, for instance, for the sibling who has to step into that role, she was forced to grow up immediately, and she really didn't have an opportunity to be a teenager, an adolescent, even though she was an older adolescent. She had to give up that role and step right into the grownup world immediately.

And it probably was a culture shock, as well. For the siblings, as she said...

LUDDEN: What do you mean, culture shock?

PANACCIONE: A culture shock of oh, my gosh, I'm not a kid anymore. I'm totally in charge. There's nobody that I can go to. There's no one who can step up to the plate and help me. I'm it.

LUDDEN: Does it, in some way, strengthen the bonds of the siblings, or can that go either way?

PANACCIONE: It can actually go either way. There can be great resentment or very close kind of protectiveness among the clan. So I think for Kathy, when they decided that they wanted to stay together, that's it, OK. We're going to come together and work as a team. But for some, especially depending on the ages of the children, there can be a lot of resentment and anger, kind of like the one sibling said, no. You're not in charge of me. I'm not going to sign your name on the school note. And it can cause a lot of problems and a lot of arguing and discontent.

LUDDEN: Kathy, I'm curious: Who was your support system? Because, I mean, I don't - you know, going through motherhood myself, I just rely so much on other mommies who are going through exactly the same thing, more or less. Who did you turn to?

BORKOWSKI: Well, it was interesting because, you know, I often - especially later in high school - didn't have as much in common with my high school friends and found that I had a great deal more in common with other women that I had met that had teenagers or, you know, the parents of my younger brothers' and sisters' friends. You know, those were people who were struggling with the same sort of teenage issues that I was struggling with.

And it was kind of very bizarre. Most of my friends at that point, I often the very youngest of whatever circle I was in for just that reason, because I, yeah, I did need somebody to bounce some of those things off of.

LUDDEN: Did you ever call up the parents of your friends?

BORKOWSKI: You know, it's funny, not of my - not really of my age cohort. Most of the time, those people - you know, like, especially my own friends were busy worrying about what they were doing on Friday night. I was trying to figure out how to get dinner on the table. And so it was that - those relationships sort of ended at that point.

LUDDEN: So who was your support system? You talked about this family lawyer who was obviously very helpful for legal matters, but...

BORKOWSKI: He was very helpful. And my aunts and uncles, I think, despite the fact they didn't live in town, a lot of people checked in on me. You know, but it was funny. You know, when you're 19, you think you know how to handle - you think you know everything there is to know in the world. So at 19, I was also kind of surprised that they were so worried. Like, gee, do they have this lack of confidence in me? It really wasn't until my own daughter turned 19, and I thought: They left me in charge of those kids when I was that old?


LUDDEN: Vicki Panaccione, is there - you know, if you had to counsel someone going through this, is there a support system checklist of recommendations?

PANACCIONE: Well, I think the support system is very important, and I'm glad you had relatives, Kathy. And some people don't, and then they find themselves alone. And you're in this no-man's land because, yes, you're not one of your - with your peers anymore. You're really not 19, but you don't fit in with the parents, either, because they look at you as a kid.

And so if you can reach out for somebody who's in your position or family members or friends, it's really important, because you shouldn't have to burden - take this burden on your own.

LUDDEN: Kathy Borkowski, I'm curious your relationship with your siblings in adulthood after you all went through this experience.

BORKOWSKI: We're very, very close. My - despite the fact that we live from one end of the country to the other, my - the brother next down from me actually passed away in 1999 of leukemia.

LUDDEN: I'm so sorry.

BORKOWSKI: And my sister lives out in Rhode Island, and my youngest brother John lives in California. And he has three little girls who are sort of like, you know, they're like grandkids. You know, they're sort of more than nieces, I think, in some ways. So he and his wife and their three kids, we see a lot.

LUDDEN: And what advice would you give your 19-year-old self now, knowing what you do?

BORKOWSKI: Boy. A, to have some compassion, because I often think I made some bad decisions, you know, when I look back at that. And I think having faith in the fact that it would all - you know, it does all work out, in general. And, you know, I think that my experience of raising my brothers and sisters, certainly my daughter benefitted from that, because I kind of knew a little bit more about what I was doing when I got to that.

LUDDEN: Kathy Borkowski, the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, she joined us from Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison. Thank you so much.

BORKOWSKI: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And we'll be back, talking about siblings raising siblings, the good and the bad, with Vicki Panaccione, child clinical psychologist and founder of the Better Parenting Institute. If you raised brothers and sisters or were raised by them, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

Back in just a moment. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. Parents take care of a million things that kids, if they're lucky, are never aware of, from the big - paying for the roof over everyone's heads - to the small - a lost tooth magically transformed into a dollar bill. It's hard to overstate their role.

And when children lose their parents to the prison system or illness or addiction, so many of those responsibilities can fall to the older kids. So how does that change dynamic, older sibling and younger to caregiver and child, influence them later in life? If you were raised by a sibling, or if you raised your brother or sister, tell us your story at 800-989-8255. Or send us an email, talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation online. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Vicki Panaccione, a child clinical psychologist and the founder of the Better Parenting Institute, is my guest. And I'm going to bring a caller into the line right now. Lisa in Peoria, hi there.

LISA: Hi. How are you doing, Jennifer?

LUDDEN: We are good, thank you. Tell us about your story.

LISA: Well my sister, she was 17 at the time, and she was raising myself, which I was 15, I had a brother Ricky who was 12, Kedrick(ph) 11, and Jason he was five.

LUDDEN: Wow, that's a lot.


LISA: Yes, my mother, she died of lupus, and she had to, basically, she was sick for about three years, and they gave her six months to live, but six months, but she lived for three years. And my sister had to bathe her, feed her, dress her. She was on oxygen. And so she was paying bills and cooking and cleaning at the age of 14.

And just like in times, my brother, he - my youngest brother used to wake us up - well, we used to wake him up for school, and he used to tell us, well, I'm hungry. And we said, well, go fix your own food. And he'd get a chair and put it against the stove, and he'll fry eggs and bacon at the age of five.

And I'm looking back, and I couldn't believe it. And my - he also, another thing I remember is that because we live on the country, and they used to hunt a lot. And he used to - and so my mother had some rifles and stuff, and so he used to take these rifles, and he used to go hunting at five.

LUDDEN: Oh my goodness. And you all didn't stop him.

LISA: We didn't know. And so my uncle came along, and he took the guns away, and so later on, when he turned 14, he asked for his mother's guns. And so my uncle looked at him because they were kind of antique and stuff, and so - and he gave them to him. But he was so responsible.

We took diapers off of him, and as soon as we took the diaper off, he was trained. He never wet the bed. And so he was always the little man. He must have knew he had to grow up quick.

LUDDEN: Now what about you, Lisa? How did it affect you, do you think?

LISA: Well, it affected me, but I didn't have her pressure because I went off to college. And then later on in life, after I graduated, I had to give my siblings allowances. I had to buy the car. I had to pay their insurance. And so I really didn't have time to just basically to have that fun or just to waste money and because also we got custody of the kids, of my youngest brother and stuff.

And so we never did go to the dentist when we was little. So when I got insurance on them, and they came to stay with me during the summer, I made sure they went to the dentist during the summer. And so if they had to go to the doctor, wherever they went while they was in Peoria, when they went back to school, returned to - Zachary, Louisiana - everything was taken care of.

But it's just something that we did. On Mother's Day, we buy her a gift, and we are very...

LUDDEN: You buy your sister gifts.

LISA: Yes.


LISA: And so we are very protective of her, and...

LUDDEN: Do you still feel like she's like your mother? So you're only two years apart. Or do you have more a sibling relationship?

LISA: Well, we have more of a sibling relationship, but my youngest brothers probably look at her as a mother-sister because, you know, just like if they get in trouble, she cried - my middle brother used to have a drinking problem, and so every time he'll go to jail, they lock him up for driving drunk, and so she'll cry. I said you all just leave him in there, he hasn't learned his lesson because he'll take her car and wreck it. And he hasn't learned his lesson.

So she'll cry, and she'll be crying all weekend. I say OK, I'll tell you, Joyce, go and get him because...

LUDDEN: She's feeling a mother's pain there.

LISA: Yes, I guess I was a little harder because I kind of grew up kind of more, you know, just like I had to hide my feelings.

LUDDEN: Well, Lisa, thank you so much for sharing your story. Best to you.

LISA: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Vicki Panaccione, such a lot to handle there. The teenage years are so important developmentally, socially. What is lost here? And is there something that's gained?

PANACCIONE: Well, I'm a little overwhelmed by the story that she just shared because there's so many critical stages of development that get lost or has to be hopped over very quickly when everybody has to really become more independent and more self-sufficient at very young ages.

And you're right, the teen years are so critical for establishing their own independence and sense of identity and defining who they're going to be out in the world. And for this sister, it was defined for her, before she could even make a decision, her role became mother of these other three children.

And I think that a lot probably was lost for her. There's still a lot of innocence and naivete when they're teenagers, even though they don't like to think so. And she didn't have an opportunity to go through the rest of her adolescent years. Again like Kathy, you had to jump into - she had to jump right into a mothering role and of a 15-year-old, a 12-year-old and a five-year-old.

Taking on motherhood is difficult enough and a big change in one's life, but to take on three children half-grown is even much more of a challenge. So I think for her there was a lot lost. But I also hear a gain because they're very close. She has a lot of motherly feelings towards these younger children, and they needed that, and I'm sure she did the very best that she could.

So I think there are some gains, but there was I think a big price to pay, as well.

LUDDEN: We have an email from Noreen, who writes: My mom was a single parent and had to work very long hours to make ends meet. I had to take on a parent role for my younger sister. I was constantly on her back to finish her homework and clean up. Basically I was trying to help my mom with the parenting, and now as we've grown up, it turns out my sister does not look at me as a friend, but rather she always complains that she has two moms.

Let's bring another call in, Chris(ph) in Denver, hi Chris.

CHRIS: Hi, this is a really interesting conversation. I kind of bring together my personal experience of being the oldest of a blended sibling set, two biological brothers and a step-brother and step-sister that are 10 and 11 years younger than I am. And our parents worked out of town a couple of days a week. So there were always at least two days a week that I was in charge as a 15- and 16- and 17-year-old.

And then I worked in family court and with juvenile offenders, and in that realm, I also saw a lot of instances where an older sibling ended up being the caretaker for the younger siblings because the parents were incarcerated or, you know, had drug and alcohol issues. And I like what your guest has brought up about the concept of there are gains but also a price to pay.

One thing that I have seen as a through-line in, again, my personal experience and also some of my professional experiences, are challenges that come with adult relationships once that older sibling who kind of inherits responsibility early enters adulthood and also the idea that it's very hard to ask for help because you've inherited independence and a tremendous amount of responsibility so early in age, you take all of this on, and once you get into adulthood, it's very hard to ask for help, and you end up taking - continuing to take on things in adulthood without knowing how to enlist the help of others.


CHRIS: And I think a lot of that ties back to that, you know, that early inheritance of responsibility.

LUDDEN: That's interesting because I would have thought, on one hand, you would have been forced to ask for help to take on so much. But I guess you just felt you got - you had it. You became independent and - hmm. Vicki Panaccione?

PANACCIONE: Well, I think that this is what happens with kids who have to raise their sibs even in homes, and I have to say I see this even in the best of homes. There's two-parent families that are both working, and they just have long hours, and the older kids have to come home and fix the dinner or get the kids to start on their homework or their bath.

So this situation really runs the gamut, from the hardworking best of families all the way up to the worst case scenarios. And so I see a price. And I work with families a lot like this in my office, and I do see a price because I think you're right. Chris, you don't start asking for help because the actual unspoken message really is we need you to take care of this. So you do.

LUDDEN: Now what about - Chris mentioned it's difficult to form adult relationships.

PANACCIONE: I think that can be, first of all, that you could miss out on having the model of a mom or a dad or both of them in the home to see what adult relationships are all about. And also, again, they've lost that opportunity to develop into a functioning adult. You're just kind of thrown into it. And so I think that they're so self-sufficient and feel like they need to be in control and can't ask for help, that it may be hard to let someone else in.

LUDDEN: Chris, thank you so much for your call.

CHRIS: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And let's get another caller on the line. Marilyn(ph) in Oakland, California. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Marilyn.

MARILYN: Hello. My story is - and this is quite true - when I was 11 years old, my mom had a nervous breakdown. I'm the oldest of six children, and I actually picked up the telephone to call for help for her. I called the operator, and I'm from New York City. And Bellevue Hospital is the name of the insane asylum, and I had only heard references of - you know, jokes of if people were crazy, they were going to go to Bellevue.

So I asked the operator for the number to Bellevue Hospital. And so she was very astute, which is something that's absent today. You know, first of all, there's no operators that - you know, human operators answering calls. So she said, how old are you? I said, I'm 11. And she said - can you hear me?

LUDDEN: Yes. Go right ahead. Keep going.

MARILYN: And she said, what do you want the number to Bellevue for? I said, my mom's gone crazy, and I need to get help for her. And then she asked me, you know, what my mother was doing. She asked me my address. I gave it to her. She said, you're close to Metropolitan Hospital. She said, I'm going to call for help for you. When the people come, open the door. And that's what I did. I opened the door. Paramedics came in. Of course I didn't know they were paramedics, but they were men in white coats.

They questioned my mom. She was nonresponsive. They put her in a straight jacket and led her out of the apartment. And then they put her into the ambulance, and all six of us little kids tried to get into the ambulance with her. And the paramedic said, no, you cannot get into the ambulance. You have to walk to the hospital. So with me in the middle and my other brothers and sisters extended out - we were all stair-stepped - we walked to the hospital. And I, at age 11, signed my mother into the mental hospital...

LUDDEN: Oh, Marilyn.

MARILYN: ...at Metropolitan Hospital. But the interesting is you know this had to be like days gone by, the '60s. They allowed us - after I signed my mother in, we visited with her for a while. And then they allowed us children to go home. So we went home hand in hand, the same way that we came.

LUDDEN: And was there anyone home? Did you...

MARILYN: No. No, it's just us.

LUDDEN: No father around.

MARILYN: No. My dad, unfortunately, had become an alcoholic after fighting so valiantly in the Korean War. He could not find work and just took to drinking and became an alcoholic. So family court had actually separated my mom and dad, and he was living somewhere else, and we were just living with our mom. We were on welfare, very poor.

And this happened, by the way, on Thanksgiving, and at that time, there was nothing called food stamps. We had to stand in line and get government surplus food. So I stood in the line, as I normally did. Good thing my mom had me trained like that. I got the government food, which included shredded turkey in a can, and that's what we had for Thanksgiving.

LUDDEN: Oh, Marilyn, thank you so much for calling with your story. And we're so sorry.

MARILYN: And - but the bright side is I'm a good, functioning adult now. I went to college, thanks to people in the community who cared about sending inner-city kids to school. I was given a pair of college-educated parents for one night, and they helped me fill out college applications and actually paid the fee, and that's how I went to college. And my brothers and sisters still rely on me today. It's like I'm the mom that they call for whatever they have going on.

LUDDEN: Oh. Thank you so much, Marilyn. Take care. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Vicki Panaccione, so many issues raised there. How does it change things, maybe legally or otherwise, when there is a parent who's alive, but, as in Marilyn's case, just cannot care for the kids?

PANACCIONE: Well, I'm not a legal expert, so I am going to stay away from that issue. However, it changes things so much because it's - you have a parent, but the parent is not functioning, so he's sort of there but he's sort of not. And in Marilyn's case, it sounds like they just, well, he - at that point, they were separated from him. So she really had to step up to the plate. And my gosh, she is 11 years old.

And I have seen this time and time again where the young ones and - we don't even know how do they know to do this? And it becomes instinctual, almost, this I'm in charge. I have to take care of my younger siblings. And they just do it. But it's a remarkable story.

LUDDEN: And the financial burden came up. But someone helped her, you know, apply to college. I mean - we just have a moment left, but are there, you know, what is the advice that you would have for someone who is facing a difficult situation like this?

PANACCIONE: Well, there are services out there, social services and so on, out there now that you can go and apply for and so on. And so find an adult who is willing to take you through the system, meaning she was able to find that and I think that was great. There are services out there, food stamps and other welfare services and social services, that can come in and help. The difficulty is if social services came in to a family like this, I think that they would try to place the kids, and the chances of them all being together, I think, would be very slim. I mean, what family is going to want to take in, what, six kids?

LUDDEN: Right, right. We have to leave it there. So much more. But Vicki Panaccione, a child clinical psychologist and the founder of the Better Parenting Institute. She spoke with us from member station WMFE in Orlando, Florida. Thank you so much.

PANACCIONE: My pleasure.

LUDDEN: Coming up, critics really, really like the movie "Lincoln." It stars Sally Field as Mary Todd, and she joins us after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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