Care and Feeding

I’m a Teen, but I Feel Like I Need to Be the Parent in My House

What should I do about this?

A teen lifts a box in a messy garage.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I, 14 and a guy, just started high school. My family (dad, aunt, and uncle) all just moved because of my dad’s work, and we all live together. The house is cramped because Dad is the only one who works regularly, and his job is good but he’s not rich. My dad is nice but not the most responsible. Same for my aunt and uncle. I feel like the parent here, and like I’m the oldest and should really be in charge, in a way—like things would go better if I was. It’s also hard getting used to a totally new environment. It’s a lot. What can I do?

—Far From Home

Dear Far From Home,

Starting high school is hard enough; you shouldn’t have to also worry about managing the adults who are supposed to be taking care of you. It’s concerning that you lump your dad in with this irresponsible behavior, even though he’s working and supporting this household. I’m guessing this means that you don’t feel like you can talk through these feelings with him.

A lot of how you should respond depends on what you mean by “not the most responsible.” Is that eating fast food every night? Watching television all day, every day? Or are they leaving the door unlocked at night, inviting shady friends over, stashing things in your space that don’t belong there? The real question is are you stressed out, in danger, or both?

I’m not really getting “danger” from your letter, but only you can know that. If you think there is something going on that could threaten your safety (like family members are drinking heavily, smoking in bed, etc.), first try reaching out to another relative or close family friend, someone who wouldn’t want to see something bad happen to you or your family. Someone who knows and loves your whole family—even if they don’t live close by—might be in a position to help all of you make your home safer and less chaotic, by talking to your dad from a place of love and concern. They could even have you live with them for a while. If that doesn’t help or the danger feels more extreme, you can talk with a teacher or school official, who may decide that the authorities need to intervene.

If you’re only stressed out by the way the household is run, try to minimize your time in the chaos, and structure your time away from home. Join an after-school team or activity that will help you make friends, relax, and work off steam. Spend as much time as possible in the library so you have a quiet place to do your schoolwork. Also, give your dad a real chance to fix it. Talk to him about how you’re feeling and how things at home could be better with some changes.

One thing you should absolutely not do is try to manage everything yourself. I know kids who step up and do this, and the best-case scenario is that you develop adult-level stress and health issues, and you train these irresponsible people around you to be even less responsible. If you spend your time like this, your schoolwork may suffer, potentially making it more difficult to go to college or otherwise escape your situation. You’re 14; you need to learn how to take care of you before assuming that kind of responsibility. Focus on giving yourself the best chance to build a better life for yourself.

—Alicia