Dear Ms. Peirano,

I’m 19 and graduated from high school a year ago with very good grades. I then did an internship and got a scholarship to England, where I could study at a very renowned university. Two friends of mine live there. Actually my dream. By the way, we live in the countryside of Brandenburg and the nearest university city (Berlin) is 2.5 hours away and doesn’t offer my preferred course of study.

But my problem is my family. My mother has been a severe alcoholic for at least 10 years, my father left us when I was 8 and doesn’t care. My siblings (twins Dennis and Jaqueline, 10 years old) have an unknown dad (a pub acquaintance). Our mother drinks in the morning, lies on the sofa for days and sleeps away, has tantrums and screams at us or throws dishes around. She can’t stay in any job for long and so we live on citizen’s money. There’s not enough money either way. That’s why I babysit for a rich family and can give the twins pocket money or give them something. I took over the housework, she doesn’t cook and rarely goes shopping. Sometimes she doesn’t drink for a few weeks and then she tries, but she’s still unreliable and doesn’t know much about our lives. Or she washes all of our laundry as boil laundry and ruins everything, burns food, and buys messy things we don’t like.

She is often in bars, where I then look for her and bring her home, and she also often brings home a man (usually a drinker). Then things go well for a while because she is happy. She cleans, cooks, shops and takes care of herself. Most of the time, there will be an argument with the man at some point, maybe even a fight, and then the thing will be over. The men are really disgusting and I hate it when they sit in front of the TV in our house.

I’ve told her enough times that she should go through withdrawal, but she doesn’t want to and gets angry if you even bring up the subject.

I feel so bad when I think about leaving Dennis and Jackie behind and going to England. They’re going under the wheels! Dennis acts a bit cool and acts as if he doesn’t care about anything. He spends a lot of time at the sports club and with his friends (and his friends’ families). But Jackie is very sensitive and doesn’t do well in school. I help her with her homework or make sure that she can stay at school to do her homework. With me gone, she would probably be completely left behind at school. And she hardly has any friends because she is so quiet.

I keep thinking about whether I should go or not. But who will look after you at home? Our mother is completely hostile towards the youth welfare office and therapists, that would be out of the question.

How do you see that?

Kind regards, Sabrina F.

Dear Sabrina F.,

When I read your letter, I wavered between admiration and compassion. The admiration concerns your emotional maturity, your sense of responsibility for the Gemini and your foresight. You have cared for others a lot for your age and have worries that shouldn’t be the worries of a sister, but rather those of a mother or father! I find it very remarkable that you are still so interested in and committed to how your little siblings are doing! You really have empathy and your heart is in the right place!

I work as a behavioral therapist and love coach in private practice in Hamburg-Blankenese and St. Pauli. During my doctorate, I researched the connection between relationship personality and happiness in love and then wrote two books about love.

Information about my therapeutic work can be found at

Do you have questions, problems or heartache? Please write to me (maximum one A4 page). I would like to point out that inquiries and answers can be published anonymously on

And I feel sympathy because you have missed a bit of your youth and perhaps will continue to miss it because of the family burden you carry. Being youthful in our society and in our time means: being allowed to try things out, being selfish and primarily only thinking about yourself, having a lot of time for sports, music, hobbies, being carefree, flirting and gaining relationship experience, being allowed to make mistakes with that Knowing that the parents will sort it out somehow, go out partying, spend a lot of time with their peers. In short: find yourself.

How much of this have you been able to experience despite your good performance at school, despite your job on the side and despite the commitment to your family and how does that feel when you think about it? Are you sad and wistful, or do you feel like you’ve invested your time very well with the twins?

The coin has two sides, and the experiences you had in your childhood and youth have already had a big impact on you. You basically swapped roles with your mother. Her mother lies in bed and drinks, she goes to the bars, chooses unsuitable men and doesn’t do anything around the house because she doesn’t feel like it. When you hear the description, you would think of a 16-year-old, roll your eyes briefly and assume: “Yes, that’s due to puberty. She’ll become sensible at some point.” But your mother has not grown up to the point where she takes responsibility for herself and her children. And as is typical of the oldest children (or girl) in a family with a single, alcoholic mother, you have taken on the responsibility as best you can.

The most important thing would be to really understand and work through this role reversal, ideally in therapy. Because there is a high risk that you will not be able to get out of this learned pattern of caring and that you may eventually look for a partner who is not an adult and does not take responsibility. And then suddenly you have your mother, your little siblings, to whom you will always be mom, AND a partner to take care of. And possibly your own children, who of course have the right to have you look after them (but would have a father who doesn’t). And then burnout or a breakdown is not far away.

I would recommend that you seek therapeutic support as soon as possible in order to reflect on yourself and your role in the family and find solutions. One thing is clear: there are no easy solutions because the situation is not simple.

Let’s look at the black and white poles of this decision. For example, it would be black if I advised you: “Think about yourself and go to England! Your siblings are not your children and you have nothing to do with how they are doing.”

Given your family situation and the relationship you have with the children, that sounds very crass and selfish and would probably make you feel very guilty! And it also sounds as if your siblings would suffer extremely from this solution, both academically, socially, emotionally and health-wise.

White’s advice would be: “You can’t just walk away. In a family you have to be there for each other and your siblings and your mother need you.” I know many patients who have received a similar message, and it was a heavy burden that often led to depression and exhaustion.

It is important that you work out a solution that is workable for you and that you feel good about. And since you are a responsible, loving person who, on the other hand, is also ambitious and would like to study, it won’t be easy! Even with a university at least 2.5 hours away, you won’t be able to commute either. In my view, because you never had it, you need an adult, responsible person at your side to help you take care of yourself and find a solution. A good therapist that you trust would be the right one! And in addition, an employee from the youth welfare office could show you ways in which you could support your siblings. At this point I would see it as allowing you to ignore your mother’s dislike of the youth welfare office. Because you have the responsibility that your mother should actually have, and you need help!

For some children it is a solution if they go to a group home or a boarding school where they are looked after. I know children who have benefited greatly from this. And the twins are two and have each other, even if they sound very different. But that’s just a way of thinking and not a quick fix.

By the way, some time ago I read a novel about a young woman who had a very similar fate to yours. You might be interested in reading this book (I think it’s beautiful): “22 Lanes” by “Caroline Wahl.

Kind regards and all the best to you

Julia Peirano

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