Forming a Family: Siblings as Parents

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Have you ever taken care of your brothers and sisters? Do you know someone who has? When parents cannot take care of their children, sometimes an older brother or sister takes this responsibility. Adam Navis and Katy Blake tell about families where a brother or sister becomes a parent to their siblings.

Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Adam Navis. And I’m Katy Blake. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

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Voice 2

Parents do many things that children never see. Parents pay school costs. They buy clothes and food. They pay bills. They fix things when they break. They make rules that protect the children. Children do not always understand all the work it takes to be a parent.

Voice 1 

Young children sometimes dream about what they will do differently when they become parents. They may think they will stay up all night. They will watch movies and eat candy. And when they become parents they will let THEIR children have lots of fun. They will never shout at or punish their children.

Voice 2

But some children must learn very quickly that being a parent is not easy. In terrible situations, both a mother and father cannot care for their children. The reason may be death, illness, or even parents that are present, but too stressed. When this happens, the oldest child can become like the parent to the other children. The older child needs to learn about all the things a parent must do. A child is rarely prepared to do any of them. Today’s Spotlight is on forming a family when siblings — brothers and sisters — must act like parents.

Voice 1 

Kathy Borkowski was only nineteen [19] years old when her father died. Her mother had died three years earlier. She had a brother who was fourteen [14], a sister who was thirteen [13] and another brother who was ten [10]. Kathy was old enough to live by herself, but her siblings were not. She did have family, but they lived far away. Some of her family were willing to care for one child. But no one could take them all.

Voice 2

Kathy wanted to keep her siblings together. Her mother had died. Then her father had died. She did not want the rest of her family to be separated. So, she decided to become mother to her own siblings.

Voice 1 

Kathy had to become more responsible than most nineteen [19] year- old people. She could not go out with her friends on the weekend. She did not have time for a boyfriend. She had to worry about being a good parent. She did not even have much time to think about her own parents’ death. She told NPR:

Voice 3 

“Probably one of the most difficult parts is that we had to just keep going. It has taken a long time to understand the death of our parents. It was difficult for my brothers and sisters. They had this loss too. And suddenly, their big sister was in control. And they did not have any other choice.”

Voice 2

Kathy lives in the United States, but all around the world people take care of their siblings. Death, sickness or even events like earthquakes or flooding can separate families. For Gloria Affia, war separated her family.

Voice 1 

Gloria Affia was seventeen [17] years old. She lived in Juba, the capital of South Sudan with her brother, age 12, and her sister, age four. Her parents had died. The children were living with their uncle. In twenty sixteen [2016] there was a civil war in South Sudan. Soldiers killed her uncle. Gloria fled with her younger siblings to the country of Uganda.

Voice 2

Gloria and her siblings settled in a refugee camp. There, she began to understand that now she would have to take care of her siblings. She explained to the Danish Refugee Council,

Voice 4 

“When we arrived at the camp, a woman was supposed to take care of us. But she went back to Congo, where she was from. Now, I do not know what will happen next. There is no one other than me to take care of my brothers and sisters. It often feels like too much responsibility, but what can I do? There is no one else.”

Voice 1 

Gloria is doing the best she can in a difficult situation. She is not able to attend school because she must work. She is learning how to make clothes. But she is proud that her hard work means that her siblings are able to attend school. She is trying to give her siblings a good life, just like a parent would.

Voice 2

People who raise their own siblings have many challenges. They may need legal control of their siblings to make big decisions. And a sibling in authority is a still a sibling. And siblings often fight! They fight about big things and little things. But just because one sibling has authority, it does not mean that all the siblings are going to listen and obey.

Voice 1 

Siblings who act like parents need emotional and physical support. They have lost their parents. But older siblings like Kathy or Gloria do not often have time to stop and cry and be sad. These older siblings need to find food, money, and a safe place to sleep.

Voice 2

But no one raises children on their own. All parents need a support system – people and groups who can help. Help can be government programs, religious communities, families, or friends. Vicki Panaccione is a child psychologist and works at the Better Parenting Institute. She told NPR,

Voice 5

“The support system is very important for siblings acting like parents. And some people do not have one. They are alone. They are in this middle place because they are not with people their own age. But they do not fit in with the parents, either. Parents look at them as a child. It is important for that sibling to talk with someone who is in a similar position, or to family members or friends. No one should have to take this work all on their own.”

Voice 1 

Siblings that act like parents are dealing with tragedy. But a family formed this way does not have to hold only sadness. They can also hold love. Kathy Borkowski, from the beginning of this program, raised her siblings. Today, she says they are very close. One of her brothers has his own three children. Kathy says they are more than just her nieces. They are more like grandchildren. Families like hers are just one kind of loving family.

Voice 2

Have you ever taken care of your brothers and sisters? Do you know someone who has? Tell us about it. You can leave a comment on our website. Or email us at You can also comment on Facebook at radio. The writer of this program was Adam Navis. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called, ‘Forming A Family: Siblings as Parents.’ Look for our app in the Google Play Store and in iTunes. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.


Have you ever taken care of your brothers and sisters? Do you know someone who has?

Join the discussion

  • I used caring my sibling since I was teenager because my mom and dad are busy doing work maybe I missed a lot of fun with my friends but it’s okay my sibling are older now so I feel like they are my friends also.

  • My friend she name is Mira, when died parents mera because war، Mira had to take care of
    her siblings.

  • As for me, I did not take care of my siblings, but in my community there are many such cases. This is how life is. It is kind to people and harsh to people.

  • Yes I have.. my best friend is lost her mom and she care her brothers but when I heard her story I feel it very difficult but I proud of they because they responsible person ..any way I wish when I am being mother I want be great mother

  • Nowadays this issue may become more urgent because of the lots of wars,floods and violence in general so” siblings as parents” has become I believe that the international organizations must pay more attention to these difficult cases.

  • My older sister took care of me and my younger sister when my mom traveled to far place for 3 months.
    She was like a mother to us

  • Yes I do. I take care of my siblings becuase my mom often out not at home so I am the oldest sister but sometimes when I remember that most of my time was to take care of my siblings I feel that I didn’t have the life I deserve to have in that age. I was doing many things and take responsibility, I was only 10 years old.

  • I have 5 sisters and 2 brothers, and I am married, and I have one daughter, her name is Layan

  • Yes, I was take care of my brothers and sisters,I was 9 years when my father died
    My mom was work she was busy all the time and I try to help my mom

  • I take care of my brother and sister because my mother goes to her parents to take care of them and sits with them a lot, so the family must be taken care of until my mother returns.

  • Well, I didn’t and I don’t know anyone who took full responsibility for their siblings alone. Because our religion urges us to help each other. In these cases, mostly the large family and relatives intervene, provide help, and sometimes even strangers want to take care of one of the children.

  • Yes I was taking care of my nieces because my sister was sick and our mother was taking care of her
    It is hard specially when she has no family to help her

  • I take care of my little brother and I can say is a hard job to do when you don’t have no idea how to raise a child but I have to do it beause my mom and dad work all the time and they cant look after him

  • I don’t need to take care them because actually one girl is yourger me so i come this world and they are big and don’t need me.
    No, i don’t know someone in like this situation.

  • It’s so difficult to raise your brothers and sisters after your parents died, it will difficult to adapt with the situation. But you neen to do everything as your parents in order to teach your brothers and sisters and you must take care of them

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