Many of us got to play soccer, play with dolls, build a fortress, watch movies, play video games, and do hundreds of other things while we were kids. Others became adults before they were ready for such a role. Normally, parents are the ones who provide support and act as a backbone in the family. However, sometimes children take on the responsibilities of their parents and become the caregivers - a process known as parentification. (1)
What is Parentification?
In 1967, child psychiatrist Salvador Minuchin came up with the terms ‘parentification’ and ‘parental child’ to describe a common phenomenon in which the child becomes the parent and does the work of others, whether emotional or physical. (2)
The child becomes the primary caregiver and completely disregards his/her own needs, which results in him missing out on his childhood - possibly creating a range of negative emotional and mental effects.
Today, researchers define parentification as ‘a disturbance in the generational boundaries, such that evidence indicates a functional and/or emotional role reversal in which the child sacrifices his or her own needs for attention, comfort, and guidance in order to accommodate and care for the logistical and emotional needs of a parent and/or sibling.’ (3)
It is important to note that it is not uncommon for children to engage in household chores and tasks - at an appropriate age that is. (4) For some, chores are a part of the tradition while for others they are a way to show respect and develop a sense of responsibility. Just because you are doing chores or have certain responsibilities does not mean you are being parentified.
When in doubt, the co-Founder and co-Director of the Child Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Aude Henin, says you should ask yourself two questions: (5)
1. Whose needs are being met?
2. Is the demand age-appropriate?
Types of Parentification
1. Instrumental parentification
2. Emotional parentification
Instrumental parentification is when a child is being assigned tasks that are not appropriate for his/her age. Having an 8-year-old child who might not be even able to reach the kitchen counters - therefore leaving him no choice but to stand on a stool of some sort - to prepare food, pay for bills, and take care of the younger siblings is an example of instrumental parentification. Having a child do tasks that they are not able to comprehend and perform can lead to trauma and leave them with lifelong scars.
Have you ever found yourself giving advice to your parents and your older siblings? Were you the go-to child when things got messy? Were you the one they went to for comfort?
If the answer to these three questions was yes, you were probably emotionally parentified. Emotional parentification happens when a child acts as the glue to keep the family functioning as a whole by giving advice to family members on matters way beyond his/her age and comprehension level, by acting as reducing agents (pushing/reducing their own feelings away while donating empathy, reassurance, and love to a family member), etc.
A child might feel like he cannot share his feelings and like he does not have a safe haven where his needs are met because he has to step up his game for others. Just like instrumental parentification, emotional parentification can also negatively affect children.
According to Dr. Kennedy, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City, children who were parentified can appear as co-dependent when they grow up. Interestingly enough, because they are used to disregarding their own feelings and having their needs ignored or rejected, they might attract toxic partners and toxic relationships, since rejection is what is familiar to them. (5)
Why Parentification Happens
- Parent/parents might be emotionally, mentally, or physically disabled
- Parent/parents might suffer from substance or alcohol abuse disorder
- Financial hardship
- Parent/parents might be immature
- Physical/sexual/emotional abuse (1, 3, 5)
What Parentified Looks Like
- Parentified children and/or adults might be compliant, and happy to serve and help other people rather than helping themselves.
- Parentified children and/or adults might be codependent, caring, sensitive, and have a high emotional intelligence due to their early-acquired parenting skills.
- Parentified children and/or adults might be compulsively overworking, making sure to excel in all areas so that they can support their loved ones the way they deserve.
- Parentified children and/or adults might not be able to relax or let loose because they feel responsible for everyone and everything.
- Parentified children and/or adults might have trouble being flexible and spontaneous. They might feel guilt for doing something silly, something for themselves, and something that does not benefit anyone else. Moreover, they might have trouble being flexible because the structure is their safety net. (2, 6, 7)
Parentification Recovery Tips
- Tell your story
- Acknowledge the reality of the lost childhood
- Practice self-compassion
- Help/prioritize yourself before trying to help anyone else
- Take control of your life and get out of the victim mentality (7)