What Is Parentification?
Parents are the guardians and caretakers of children – they care for the emotional and physical needs of a child to ensure that the child’s needs are met. However, for some, the traditional roles of parent and child are not followed.
Parentification may be defined as a role-reversal between parent and child. A child’s needs are sacrificed to take care of the needs of one or both of his or her parents. In very extreme cases, the parentified child may be used to fill the void of the parent’s emotional life. Parentification is a form of child abuse.
During the process of parentification, a child may give up his or her needs of attention, comfort, and parental guidance to care for the needs and care of logistical and emotional needs of his or her parents.
The parent, in the case of parentification, does not do what he or she should do to take care of the child or children as a parent and instead, gives up parental responsibilities to one or more of his or her children. Thereby the children are “parentified.” During parentification, the child becomes “the parental child.”
What Happens During Parentification?
Parents who have certain personality disorders are more at risk for transferring the responsibility of parenthood – the physical and emotional needs of the rest of the family – in an active or passive fashion.
There is an expectation of parentified children to forgo playing, making friends, school work, and/or sleep to better meet the needs of the rest of the family members.
In a family with more than one child, the eldest or most mature child is usually the child prone to be parentified.
In certain cases, a child of the opposite sex is chosen to meet the emotional needs of the parent and become a “surrogate spouse.” It may also lead to emotional incest.
Most children are anxious to make their parents happy, so a child undergoing parentification, often takes his or her new responsibilities seriously. It may even feel as though it’s a huge honor to have such responsibility given to them.
In the long term, however, parentification means that the child’s emotional needs are not met. This can lead to many, greater problems down the road.
There are subtle ways that parents can make the mistake of parentifying their kids. This term means to reverse roles, causing the child to parent the adult. There are two forms of parentification: instrumental and emotional. Instrumental refers to the child actually doing physical tasks that a parent should do, such as taking care of younger siblings or even an adult relative, maintaining the household, or paying the bills. Emotional parentification happens when the child becomes the emotional support for the parent and takes on the burden of being a confidant or friend.
Why is parentification bad for a child?
- It can take away their childhood. Childhood is the only opportunity a person has to allow others to care for them all the time and enjoy not having to be responsible and facing the world’s many troubles. Having a happy childhood sets the stage for the rest of a person’s life and identity. Being confused as a child about the role one is supposed to have can cause problems in the future.
- Anger, resentment and mistrust can emerge. Parentified children may recognize as they look around them at other children their age that these kids are not expected to do as much as they are, or that their parents don’t talk to them about certain things that the parentified child’s does. As they get older they may also realize that what they were expected to do was unfair, and feel anger and resentment towards their parents. They may not trust others due to these bad past experiences.
- It may hinder future relationships. A child’s relationship with their parents is the first and most fundamental relationship a person experiences. Children are supposed to be able to rely on their parent to take care of and protect them. A parentified child realizes that they cannot depend on their parent, and instead, that the parent relies on them. This feeling of only being able to rely on oneself may extend into future relationships for a parentified child.
- The child may feel guilty about leaving home. After having been the caretaker of the parent or the family for so long, a parentified child may worry about what will happen to the family once they grow up and leave home. This may hinder the child from wanting to leave and engage in the individuation process that young adults go through of trying to determine who they are and what they want to do with their lives.
How parents can avoid parentifying their child:
- Give age-appropriate responsibilities. It is good for kids to have responsibilities such as chores around the house or babysitting for a younger sibling. Responsibilities should increase when a child becomes a teenager to prepare them for being on their own eventually. However, when a young child is responsible for going to the store for groceries, paying the electricity bill, or raising a younger sibling, that is when problems arise.
- Maintain the hierarchy of the family. Know that as the parent, you are in charge. Caretaking, family decisions, and managing through hard times are all on you. It is important to be able to convey a sense of control and security to your child so that they can have a solid foundation in life.
- Remember that your child is not your friend. This means it is not appropriate to talk to your child about certain things, even if they are older. Emotional parentification often happens during divorces- one or both parents may talk to the child about what is going on between them to an extent that is not appropriate or bad-mouths the other parent. Your child needs to see you as someone who can take care of oneself emotionally in order to be able to confide in you about feelings.
- Allow your child to be independent. Emotional parentification can have the effect of enmeshing you and your child so that you depend so much on each other that it is unthinkable to break away. Do and say things that support your child becoming their own person, and do not say things that make your child feel guilty for wanting to leave home or do something different.
Parentification is usually totally unintentional and parents do not realize that it is occurring. Educate yourself so that you can see the signs and make sure your child gets to be young and carefree.
How Do I Know If I Was Parentified As A Child?
If you’re unsure if you were parentified as a child, ask yourself the following questions:
Were you made to feel responsible for your parents welfare, well-being, and feelings?
Was your parent indifferent or did he or she ignore your feelings most of the time?
Were you often blamed, criticized, devalued and demeaned by your parents?
When your parent was upset, were you often the target of those negative feelings?
Did you feel like you were always trying to please your parent – without ever succeeding?
Did you feel like your parent took all the credit for your successes?
If you answered yes to any of the above, you may have been the victim of parentification.
If those questions sounded familiar to you, ask yourself the following:
Did your parents ever say anything like…
- “Don’t you want me to feel good?”
- “You make me feel like a failure when you…”
- “You should care about me.”
- “If you cared about me, you’d do what I want you to.”
What Type Of Parents “Parentify” Their Children?
Parentification is often defined as a type of role reversal, boundary distortion, and inverted hierarchy between parents and other family members in which children or adolescents assume developmentally inappropriate levels of responsibility in the family of origin that go unrecognized, unsupported, and unrewarded. In the parentification phenomenon, the overarching role of the parentified youth can be described as that of caregiver – caring for others at the expense of caring for self. It is often clinically observed and empirically examined along two dimensions: instrumental parentification and emotional parentification.
Parentification is often observed in families where the parent or caregiver has experienced a serious medical condition or mental health disorder. Parental alcohol use and abuse is also common in families where parentification exists. More recently, parentification is often evidenced in families where children must serve as a translator (e.g., language broker) for parents and family members.
Many other circumstances can engender inappropriate levels of parentification (e.g., temporal or continuous familial financial hardship, divorce, and cultural settings which promote early childhood responsibility and autonomy). Excessive levels of parentification in the family of origin, often, but not always result in negative outcomes. More recently, empirical literature is beginning to accumulate on differential outcomes, negative and positive, related to parentification.
While all parents may run the risk of parentifying his or her child, there are a few types of parents who run a higher risk of emotionally damaging their child through parentification. These include:
Parents who suffer personality disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and dependent personality disorder.
Parents who are alcoholics or drug addicts.
Parents who have a serious, chronic illness.
Parents who have other mental illnesses.
The Narcissistic Parent and Parentification:
Lacking a moral compass or the ability to act selflessly, narcissist parents create devastating havoc and damage in the lives of their kids. Unlike emotionally mature parents whose priority is to meet their children’s needs, support their healthy development, and respect and nurture their individual identities, narcissist parents put their own needs first and do not recognize their children as separate individuals.
In the narcissistic family, although spouses often suffer excruciatingly, children are most vulnerable to the narcissist’s abuse because they
- are relatively helpless;
- are reliant on the narcissist parent for caregiving;
- are especially susceptible to the narcissist parent’s opinions; and
- are easy and manipulable targets.
Parentifying: The Upside-Down Parent-Child Relationship
Consistent, appropriate caretaking and unconditional love are beyond the narcissist’s scope. Rather than seeing those things as his responsibilities (and privileges) as a parent, the narcissist expects such treatment from his kids, often turning the adult-child relationship upside down.
In the narcissistic family, it is common for adults to parentify their children, expecting them to meet their emotional and even physical needs and fulfill roles beyond their maturity level or rightful responsibility. The parentified child may be placed in the role of therapist, confidante, or even surrogate spouse. That child, or others in the family, also may be burdened with excessive chores, caretaking siblings, managing finances, or earning money for the household.
Parentified children may feel flattered to be given adult responsibilities and honored to play the role of “special helper.” It may feel as though they are getting attention from their parent, which they can’t get any other way. But parentification is an extreme violation of boundaries, and the parentified child is being used at her own expense to meet the needs of the person whose job it is to meet hers. As they mature, parentified children are likely to struggle with healthy boundaries, fall into caretaking roles, and believe they can only “earn” love and approval by “working” for it.
What Are The Types Of Parentification?
Two types of parentification exist that may or may not occur together. These types of parentification are “emotional” and “instrumental” parentification.
1) Physical or Instrumental Parentification: In this type of parentification, a child takes up the role of the parent to meet the physical needs of the family and relieves the anxiety of a non-functioning parent. Instrumental parentification primarily involves completing physical tasks for the family such as taking care of relatives with serious medical conditions, grocery shopping, paying bills, and/or ensuring that a younger sibling attends and does well in school.
The child usually takes over the needs of the household, by cooking, cleaning, shopping for groceries, paying bills, managing the budget, getting his or her siblings ready for school, and caring for his or her siblings.
This differs from teaching a child to manage assigned chores and tasks, which is healthy for child development. The parent forces the child to become caretaker, dumping more and more responsibilities upon their child, whether or not the child is developmentally ready for such tasks. This leaves the physically parentified child without opportunity to behave as a child and engage in normal childhood behaviors. The child feels like a surrogate parent to his or her siblings as well as his or her parents.
2) Emotional Parentification: In this type of parentification, a child is forced to meet the emotional needs of his or her parents and siblings. This often involves a child or adolescent taking on the role and responsibilities of confidant, secret keeper, or emotional healer for family members Emotional parentification is the most destructive type of parentification as it robs the child of his or her ability to have a childhood. Emotional parentification also sets up the child for a series of dysfunctions that may incapacitate the child as he or she grows into an adult.
In the role the child is forced to try and meet the emotional and psychological needs of his or her parent. The child may become the parent’s confidant. Every child feels the desire to please his or her parent, even if it means not having his or her emotional needs met. This comes at a high cost – the child cannot develop normally or learn what an emotionally healthy bond is, which can lead to many problems in intimate relationships down the road.
Emotional incest is a type of Emotional Parentification that may occur if a parent selects a child of the opposite sex to confide in, openly discuss the problems and issues facing the parent as the parent uses the child as a surrogate spouse or surrogate therapist. Children should never, ever be treated as adults and exposed to adult problems in such a way.
How Do Parentified Children Respond To Parentification?
There are two major responses that children who have been parentified exhibit. These responses are the compliant response and the siege response and are discussed in greater detail below:
Compliant Response to Being Parentified: this behavior is a continuation of how you behaved as a child caring for his or her parents.
- Spend much time caring for others.
- Very conforming
- Hyper-vigilant about acting to in a manner that pleases others.
- Feel responsible for care, welfare and feelings of others.
- May be self-deprecating.
- Seldom get their own needs met.
- Rushes to maintain peace and soothe hurt feelings of others.
Siege Response to Being Parentified: a continuation of the behavior as a child who was parentified and rebelled by attempting to fight to be separate and independent.
- Work hard at preventing others from manipulating you.
- Withdrawn and seemingly insensitive to others.
- Work to avoid being involved by the demands of others.
- Assume responsibility for the welfare of others and feel diminished when you don’t meet their expectations.
What Are The Future Problems For Victims Of Parentification?
There is a difference between giving your child responsibility and parentifying them
Growing up parenting your parent, having your childhood taken away, never getting the opportunity to be a child, can lead to a number of bigger problems down the road. The two main problem facing parentified children as adults include anger and difficulty with interpersonal relationships and attachments.
With regard to potential outcomes, research that has examined the experiences of parentified children during childhood reveals that these individuals report a vast array of adverse effects in response to adopting the parentified role.
Extreme Anger – parentified children can grow to become extremely angry. They may have a love/hate relationship with their parent, but they may not understand why. Some adults who were parentified children may not understand the seemingly endless chasm of anger at others, including friends, partners and children. These people may explode with anger if the emotional wounds of their childhood are triggered.
Difficulty Forming Attachments With Other Adults: an adult parentified child may have a difficult time connecting with others. This difficulty can be closely tied to growing up without understanding healthy versus unhealthy attachments. This may lead to problems forming a healthy intimacy in relationships.
Other Problems Facing An Adult Who Was A Parentified Child:
If left unresolved, these symptoms of maladjustment can continue into adulthood, causing further dysfunction throughout the parentified individual’s lifespan instead, the majority of research conducted has focused solely on the effects of childhood parentification on individual characteristics in adulthood. Specifically, parentification has been shown to impede identity development and personality formation and to affect interpersonal relationships, including those with one’s own children. It has also been foundto be associated with later attachment issues, mental illness, psychological distress, masochistic and narcissistic personality disorders, substance abuse, and one’s academic and career choices.
However, researchers have speculated that in some instances, emotional and instrumental parentification may prove beneficial for individuals in adulthood. Specifically, parentification can lead to greater interpersonal competence and stronger family
cohesion, as well as higher levels of individuation, differentiation from family, and self-mastery and autonomy when the child experiences a low level of parentification and when the efforts of the child are recognized and rewarded by adult figures
There’s not a question that becoming the parent of your own parent can lead to some pretty heavy burdens. Losing your childhood, your innocence, turning into “little adults” far too young leads to many problems later in life. These problems can include the following:
- Low or poor self-esteem
- These children are more likely to report internalizing problems such as depressive symptoms and anxiety, as well as somatic symptoms like headaches and stomachaches
- Feeling of disconnect from their real self.
- Furthermore, parentification is also linked to social difficulties, particularly lower competency in interpersonal relationships as well as academic problems such as high absenteeism and poor grades
- Parentified children are also more likely to exhibit externalizing behaviors such as aggressiveness and disruptive behavior, substance use, self-harm, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
- Fears that he or she may not properly meet his or her own demands and expectations.
- Anxiety disorders
- Feeling incompetent
- Feelings of being unable to cope with adulthood
- Underestimation of his or her own intelligence
- Overestimation of the importance of others
- Codependency in relationships
- Becoming a caregiver
- Becoming a workaholic
Breaking the Cycle of Parentification:
Parentification occurs when a child feels obligated to act as the parent to their parent, whether it is in the practical way, like taking care of siblings, making dinner, or cleaning the house, or emotionally, when the child has to provide emotional support for the parent. This can occur for many reasons, but if a child is somehow forced into a parental role when they should have the freedom to behave like a child, it can delay their development and affect them through adulthood. Parentification can cause underlying anger, difficulty forming connection in relationships, and people-pleasing behavior. It can impact self-worth and the ability to form one’s own identity.
In learning about parentification, we can begin to identify and accept our own experience with it, building the foundation for healing and growth. But how can we then move forward in our lives and break the cycle so our children do not experience the same?
First and foremost, we must find a way to heal our own emotional wounds – likely through individual or group therapy. Even if we can identify the behaviors of our parents and the ways in which those behaviors affected us, it can take time to process the feelings of hurt and loss that accompany the realization that we were never given the care we as children deserved.
Sometimes we have to grieve never having a safe childhood in which we could be ourselves, make messes, and play irresponsibly. Sometimes we have to accept our anger and forgive our parents for not providing the stable foundation we so desperately needed. Working through the effects of parentification may take time, but we are able to take the first step of breaking the cycle.
As you move through your healing process, try to recall the ways in which you experienced parentification. For some, parentification is instrumental, meaning that as a child one was required to tend to many or most household chores and responsibilities, especially in the absence of one or both parents. Often these duties end up being asked of the eldest child in the family, simply because the eldest child is often the most “qualified” to be able to handle the household responsibilities.
If you experienced instrumental parentification, ask yourself, “How can I expect my children to complete chores in order to teach responsibility without placing too much burden on them?” Maybe you limit a child’s chores to one or two duties per week, so that the child has plenty of playtime and homework time to tend to their own needs. Another approach might be that you are actively mindful of not relying on your child to complete household tasks and instead asking them to help out only occasionally.
For others, parentification may have been emotional, meaning that as a child one was required to tend to one or both parents’ emotional needs. Often one parent relies on a child for emotional support and friendship, blurring the relationship boundary. Children who take on the role of mediator between fighting parents can also find themselves emotionally parentified, because they feel responsible for being “the glue that holds the family together.”
To break the cycle of emotional parentification, as parents we must be very mindful of the boundary between parent and child as well as our children’s need to feel that we are a secure place that they can return when scared, upset, or hurt. It’s important to show a child that even if he misbehaves, his parents will not stop loving him. Or, that if she establishes independence by playing with other children on the playground, parents will still be there waiting for her when she’s done.
Consider whether you received the kind of love and care you needed as a child. Sometimes it can be difficult to admit that our parents might have fallen short, even if they did the best they could. Just because they weren’t perfect doesn’t mean we don’t love them. But loving our parents doesn’t negate our needs and doesn’t mean that we aren’t entitled to feel sad or angry with them because of something we longed for but never received.
Acknowledging and accepting our experiences can help us break the cycle and move forward to give our children more our parents gave us.
Page last audited 8/2018