Uganda: Today, Six-Year-Olds Are Looking After Entire Families. Something Isn’t Right!

Bits of ME

A simple puncture of my car tire exposed a growing vice in our society that was revealed through a short skinny young boy clad in an oversized dark blue coverall.

It sheltered his undeveloped body with long sleeves folded half-way to his elbow as his little strong arms lifted the tool box off the boda boda.

He didn’t look a year older than my nine-year-old son.

His quick steps towards the punctured tire as he muttered, ‘nga olabye aunt naye ngenda kuza ku luguudo mu dakika ntono nyo’ (sorry for the discomfort aunty but no worries, I am going to get you on the road in a few) interrupted my reluctances.

I paused and watched as he quickly placed the tool box on the ground, pulled out a wheel spanner, car jack and went to work.

The boy told me eight, I shortly confirmed after chatting him up, his brother was ten and sadly both have been out of school since the age of six.

“My mother dropped us off at our father’s shop when we were young. Our father taught us how to fix car tires. He says we have to help put food on the table. There are other siblings but only two go to school,” the young boy innocently said.

Bits of YOU

A childhood sacrificed to take on ‘parental’ role for the still surviving parents, take care of the household, and other siblings.

Were you that child?

In families where the parents look to their children for emotional and/or practical support instead of providing, it is called “parentification”, according to Vivian Olgah Kudda a clinical psychologist with Minders Wellness and Psychological Center.

A discreet form of childhood trauma where the role reversal puts a child in a position of caring for their parents or caregivers or siblings.

“The numbers are soaring. It takes practical forms; children pay bills, school dues etc yet also take the form of emotional role reversal when “parentified” children may become the judges and magistrates in their homes, mediators when conflict arises,” Kudda explained.

Traditional Setting

Walabyeki Magoba an award-winning Luganda playwright, novelist and folklorist says that the issue of parentification did not arise in Uganda’s traditional social set up because a child belonged to the three social sets; the parents, the extended family and the community which had clear cut complimentary roles to play in the child’s upbringing.

“This is exemplified in the saying omuto embuzi elunda wa kamwa (a child is like a goat it needs constant vigilance to tame it). Children fending for themselves never arose because even when the parents died, the relatives appointed one amongst themselves as omukuza’ (a foster parent) to fill the gap’, Walabyeki shared.

Parentification therefore as Walabyeki relates it to today’s changed society is a result of the collapse of the traditional family system where individualism shattered the foundational fabric of the extended family replacing it with a nucleus family.

Walabyeki calls it a proverbial situation of things fall apart where ‘the center can no longer hold. The advent of money economy-made families caused parents to care for only their children with no more extended family obligations’.

Whereas the role of a parent is to give care and unconditional love as children receives, Nakiyingi Brenda 31, a tomato vendor and mother of four says, “I had to share the challenges of educating and feeding them early enough. I put them to work. I stay at the stall as two of them fetch water in the estate and the other two wash customers clothes.”

Nakiyingi’s husband resorted to drinking and offers minimal support to the family.

Kudda says parentified children are often perceived to be too mature for their age and in some communities this is a source of ‘pride’.

“Parentification is common in homes that have strained parental relations, primary care giver is disabled, or elderly, in the case where one or two parents is dead or is alive but emotionally unavailable, detached and households that face economic hardships,” she said.

Parentification stagnation

Kudda reveals, many parentified children have few, if at all, memories relating to their childhood or adolescence.

In some homes, children as young as six years become ‘caregivers’ or ‘parents’ as evidence points to a close linkage between parentification and mental health conditions and substance abuse. The onset of mental health conditions is often between 15-24years.

With the unfavourable social economic climate in the country, Walabyeki foresees an endless trend of parentification. He appeals to philanthropists to support and mitigate the plight of such children with love, time and resources.

Signs of parentified children and young people include;

Difficulties in interpersonal relationships

Often times, they are described as; ‘she/he is motherly/fatherly’

Substance abuse

Depression and anxiety

Suicidal thoughts

Lack of self-confidence and low esteem

Compulsive overworking to fulfil responsibilities at school and home

Social isolation


Be aware that children are children

Give age-appropriate roles

Develop boundaries; children shouldn’t be therapist/counselor, advisor or best friend.

Don’t drag children into adult conflicts

Develop a kinship/social support system

Seek help from professionals


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