Updated: Dec 1, 2021
Parentification is a form of abuse where a child is forced to take on the role of a parent. It’s important to note that taking on responsibilities isn’t necessarily parentification. This comes when the level of responsibility given is more than a child should be expected to take on. This can be accompanied by a normalized attitude to it and a child suppressing their own needs and desires. There is a difference between having some chores and parentification.
There are two types of parentification, instrumental and emotional. A child may experience one or both types of parentification. Instrumental parentification involves physical things like cleaning, cooking and caring for one’s self, their siblings and/or their parents. Much parentification is parent-focused, but it can also be sibling-focused. This occurs when a child needs to take on a parental role toward their siblings in such ways as cooking for them, putting them to bed (including such things as reading bedtime stories), helping them with homework or disciplining them.
Emotional parentification is about a child being forced to take on the emotional role that a parent normally holds in a family. They may be treated a lot like being a therapist for their parent. In some cases, it may involve the child taking on the role of a partner to a parent, providing support that a parent would normally get from their spouse. This may include learning about things that are not appropriate for the child, like information about their parent’s sex life and the sexual frustrations that may go with that. A child may take on parental stresses like worrying about money for dinner and finding solutions to family problems because their parents react badly to the problems in such ways as getting upset, having anxiety attacks, etc. The child may also have to reassure their parents that they are “good parents.” They may have to be a mediator for conflicts between their parents. They might be a protector of one parent against the other or siblings against parents, especially if one or both parents are physically abusive.
One of the ways to note the difference between chores or “helping out” and parentification is the way the child’s role is received by their parents. If they are asked to do something to help out occasionally, perhaps given the message that this isn’t normal but is needed temporarily, that is not as likely to be damaging to the child. If they are frequently praised for the way they pick up some slack in the family, perhaps given allowance or other rewards, that is also less likely to make the child subconsciously feel like they’re taking over a parental role. If the action becomes normal and “expected”, that tends to make it more likely to be traumatizing and destructive.
Parentified children generally learn to neglect or ignore their own needs. They may be taught that there is no “space” for them to express problems or desires. They may be ignored or even punished when they show vulnerability. They may learn to worry about the way their parents will react if they express a need. For instance, they may need money for a school trip but believe that their mother will cry or otherwise get visibly upset or stressed if the child asks about it. In such a situation, the child may hide the trip and skip it if possible. Another example may be that a child will attempt to hide not being well from their parents (whether this is physically or mentally). Parentified children are expected to be strong and responsible. They may feel they are the only thing holding the family together.
Parentification may be caused by many different things, including but not limited to: parental disability or illness, divorce, an abusive relationship between parents, parental alcoholism or drug addiction, or the death of a sibling or parent. In many cases, the parents may not register the position they are putting their child in. They may be caught up in grief or stress about a different child’s life-threatening illness. They may be a single parent, working two or three jobs to financially support the family. In some cases, they may even convince themselves that they are teaching their child to be responsible, while not recognizing that they are putting too much on their child. The situation they are in may be a difficult one, where if one or more children did not take on some extra responsibilities, the family would have trouble surviving. However, even in such a case, parentification is more likely to be avoided if the parent(s) make sure to give their children emotional support and listen to their wants and needs, and avoid forcing their children to be therapists for the parent(s). It is important to note that parentification can be traumatizing even in the absence of other trauma, and that parents who do it may be fully aware, partially aware or completely unaware of the position they are putting their child(ren) in and the harm they are doing.
Parentification has many long-term effects. Children who have been parentified may struggle to deal with their own negative emotions. They may bottle them up until they come out explosively, as they were never taught to deal with those emotions in a healthy way. They may carry an attitude forward into adulthood that no one wants to hear about their problems, and that they should be quiet and keep any emotional issues to themselves. Parentification may cause many issues that are often associated with trauma, including anxiety, depression, personality disorders, eating disorders and C-PTSD. As adults, those who were parentified may find that they are always taking on a caregiver position in adult relationships, as they do not know how to avoid such a dynamic or feel that is the only way they can be worthy of affection. They may feel they have to be responsible for everyone else. They may be more likely to end up in abusive or otherwise toxic relationships. They may have trouble getting close to others, out of a fear that they will be exploited in the same way they were as a child. They may be codependent and insecure or afraid of abandonment. They may become hyper independant, as they feel they cannot count on anyone else. If they have children of their own, their parenting may be affected because they were not shown healthy parent/child relationships.
Parentification is a form of neglect and abuse that often is not recognized because it can seem like “just helping out”. It is important to recognize that parentification trauma is a valid form of trauma that can carry many lasting and harmful effects for an individual. An individual that has suffered from parentification trauma is deserving of help, support and understanding. A parentified child may not experience the unconditional love that can be so crucial to healthy emotional development. They may be taught, “If you do everything we need, if you never force us to deal with anything difficult from you, then we will love you.” Children deserve a love that says, “I/we love you. No matter what.”