Parentification is a form of neglect or emotional abuse that can create lasting effects on the parentified child.
As someone who grew up with a narcissistic mother, one common abuse tactic was parentification. I was expected to take care of my younger siblings and keep my mother happy. I was also expected to play mediator between my parents.
My parents often fought. My mother would force me to choose sides or expect me to defuse the situation. I was the one who grabbed the knife out of her hands when she chased my father with it.
She also often complained to me, expecting me – a child at the time – to comfort her. And if I can’t or won’t, then I don’t love her. Or it might even result in “punishment”, which was just her way of taking out her frustration on me.
Of course, not all parentification is this extreme or even intentional. And a lot of the time, it’s actually subtle to the point that you might not realize you were parentified until years later when the effects catch up to you.
In this post, I’ll discuss:
- What parentification is
- Types of parentification
- Signs and examples of each type of parentification
- Causes and factors of parentification
- Effects of parentification in adulthood
- Possible effects of parentification
- How to heal from parentification
I hope this post can give you a better idea about whether what you experienced was parentification, how it affected you, and how you can heal.
What is Parentification?
Simply put, parentification is the process of role reversal between a parent and child. It places the child in situations where they feel or act like parents to their parents or siblings.
With parentification, a child has to step up as the caretaker, mediator, and protector of the family – responsibilities that are supposed to belong to an adult.
There are two types of parentification: instrumental and emotional.
Instrumental parentification includes functional responsibilities and physical tasks given to a child that isn’t age-appropriate.
Some signs and examples of instrumental parentification are:
- Taking care of younger siblings in a parental way
- Taking care of a sick parent, sibling, or relative
- Physically taking care of parents
- Paying bills
- Serving as a translator
- Housework such as cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping
- The child taking themselves to the doctor
- Being in charge of responsibilities not appropriate for a child
Emotional parentification is when one or both parents turn to their child to fulfill their emotional needs. This is considered the more problematic and damaging type of parentification.
Some signs and examples of emotional parentification are:
- Serving as a mediator or referee in parents’ arguments
- Pulled into arguments or issues between adults
- Listening to parent’s complaints, frustrations, and dissatisfactions and expected to provide support and advice
- Witnessing a parent hurt themselves or others
- Shared information that is too much for a child to handle
- Serving as a parent’s confidante
- Providing emotional comfort and support to an upset, depressed, or angry parent
- Forced to keep parent’s secrets
- Listening to a parent talk about their dating life, intimate relationships, and bedroom activity
- Listening to one parent complain or vent about the other parent
Causes of Parentification
Not every parent who parentifies is abusive or toxic. In fact, many parents who parentifies their children aren’t aware that they’re doing it.
Parentification can arise from:
- Financial hardship
- Parent(s) who was abused or neglected as a child
- Immature parents
- Vulnerable or emotionally limited parents
- Unavailable or depressed parents
- Parent(s) with attachment trauma or difficulties
- Death of a parent or sibling
- Alcoholism or drug addiction
- Disability or medical condition in parent(s) or sibling(s)
- Parent’s lack of emotional support from other adults
- Mental illness in parent(s) or sibling(s)
- Immigrant parents with difficulty integrating into society
- Abusive relationship between parents
- Abusive relationship between parent and child
Even if parents are unaware or have issues that cause them to parentify their child, it is still not an excuse or justification. In the end, they are the parent. Once they’ve chosen to become a parent, it is their responsibility to remain a parent.
Parentification vs. Parenting
Parentification is considered a form of neglect or emotional abuse. But it does occur on a spectrum. Some behaviors are more severe than others. For example, emotional parentification is usually more damaging and traumatic.
How damaging a parentifying behavior is depends on what the behavior is, how old the child is, how long and how often it occurs, and how the child perceives the treatment.
For instance, research found that a temporary period of increased responsibility might be more tolerable for a child. It only becomes harmful when it occurs frequently and is something that’s expected of the child.
Also, parentification should not be confused with teaching children responsibility or emotional intimacy.
For instance, giving your child age-appropriate chores or having a teenager babysit their younger siblings is seen as proper parenting. It can give the child a sense of satisfaction and competence.
However, once responsibilities start to take a toll on the child’s health and/or disrupt their education, relationships, and other things needed to grow and thrive, then that becomes a problem.
In addition, parents expressing their feelings to their children isn’t bad. In fact, kids may feel confused or even blame themselves if they know a parent is struggling emotionally but doesn’t understand why.
It’s okay to open up to kids when it’s appropriate. This can help foster emotional intimacy and healthy communication. It also teaches them that it’s okay to express their feelings rather than bottle them up.
However, parents should not expect or ask the child for advice or support on what to do or how to cope. And most importantly, above all else, parents should be emotionally available for their children.
Healthy communication and connecting with children are encouraged and beneficial for their growth. Leaning or relying on them, however, is not.
Effects of Parentification
Researchers found that perception was a key factor in how parentified children react. If children felt that their experience was unfair and that there was little acknowledgment or appreciation, they tend to have more mental health problems than children who didn’t feel that way.
Cultural factors and children’s personalities might also affect how a child might react.
So in the end, how parentification affects someone depends on various factors. But for many children, parentification does leave some lasting effects that remain till adulthood.
Loss of childhood
The biggest effect of parentification is that the child loses out on being a child. Parentified children are forced to grow up too soon.
As a child, because you were pulled into a caretaking role, you may have struggled to play or have fun. This likely continues into your adulthood when you have trouble being spontaneous, having fun, or letting loose.
Maybe to you, structure feels safe. So you might have trouble relaxing, adapting, or being flexible.
Lacking a sense of self
If you were forced to constantly take care of others as a child, your sense of self will take a hit.
You never got a chance to be a child, play, and discover yourself. Because of that, you likely struggle now with knowing who you really are or what you truly want out of life.
You might be stuck in a half-dissociated state, watching life go by without actually living it.
Anxiety is common among parentified children, particularly anxiety over abandonment, loss, and caring for others.
Parentified children in adulthood also tend to excessively worry over their responsibilities.
Tying self-worth to actions and achievements
If your parents only praised you for what you did, you’ll start to equate your self-worth with your actions and accomplishments. You might also be a people pleaser, attempting to win others’ love and approval with your actions.
Your self-worth might be tied directly to what you can provide to others and how “good” you are.
Compulsory Caregiving & Working
Growing up, you might feel like your parents or siblings can’t survive without you, that they need you. So you might’ve been compelled to keep caring and working for your family even if it hurts you.
Now as an adult, being a caretaker feels good to you. Even when you’re neglecting yourself or sacrificing parts of yourself in the process. You might tend to overwork to fulfill responsibilities that you keep piling onto your plate.
Self-Blame, Guilt, & Shame
Parentified children may believe it’s their fault that bad things happen in the family. They may feel responsible for their family’s happiness, health, and overall well-being.
You may blame yourself for everything that goes wrong, assuming responsibility for other people’s dysfunctions or misfortunes.
And this self-blame likely results from your need to feel in control.
Maybe your parents couldn’t tolerate disobedience. Or maybe they’d punish you for creating conflict. Either way, it probably made more sense for you to blame yourself.
But none of it was your fault. You were just a child. You were not responsible for your parents. On the flip side, they were the ones responsible for you and your well-being.
To learn more, check out How to Accept that Childhood Abuse is NOT Your Fault
Seeing own needs as a burden
You might be sensitive and empathetic to others’ needs, but not so much to your own. So you might tend to put others’ needs above your own.
You might even see or feel like your own needs are a burden to others.
Self-Criticism & Judgment
You’re likely highly judgmental and critical of yourself, sensitive to any mistakes or errors you make.
You might think you’re not good enough. Or feel like you’re not doing things correctly or perfectly enough.
Making a mistake or error might cause you to feel like a failure. You might think you’re unacceptable without something impressive to show.
Rather than live by standards set by the real you, you live according to standards set by others instead.
Related: Reminders for When You Think You’re Not Good Enough
Building a relationship with their primary caregiver is important for child development. Secure attachment gives a child a sense of security, well-being, and self-esteem. It also determines the child’s future relationships as an adult.
Parentified children as adults may have attachment and abandonment issues. They may also have difficulty handling rejection and disappointment within their interpersonal relationships.
Also, you might’ve relied on yourself so much that you might have trouble trusting others. You might also take on a caregiving role you might not necessarily want because it’s the only role you know.
Many parentified children lose their real position in the family unit. Thus, they end up lonely and unsure about where they belong or who they are.
This likely continues into adulthood, causing a form of loneliness and social isolation, which also links to interpersonal problems.
Parentifying parents express their emotions and lean on their children for support. Meanwhile, their children aren’t allowed to do the same.
As a result, parentified children may tend to bury anger, resentment, and grief. This emotional suppression can cause somatic symptoms, psychological disorders, chronic diseases, or emotional outbursts.
Emotional outbursts can affect their ability to form relationships, sustain a career, or feel stable in life. It can also lead to aggression or violence.
Other lasting effects
Childhood abuse, such as parentification, can cause a lot of other long-lasting effects such as substance use, physical symptoms, chronic diseases, and psychological disorders.
Learn more: 30 Long-Lasting Effects of Child Abuse in Adulthood
Are There Positive Effects of Parentification?
First off, acknowledging the positive effects of parentification is not to say that what happened to you was okay. But as stated in this post, learning about the positives that come from our negative experiences can help us heal.
For the most part, parentification leaves a lot of negative impacts on the parentified child. But if you look at it a certain way, you might find some positives that came from it.
Also, although the trauma affected the child, it might have been the only way to protect the family.
Using my story, for example, parentification made me feel a sense of responsibility for my younger siblings. Because of that, I was able to protect them while we were still living with our abusive mother.
It also helped me persevere and get custody of them as well as learn to be a parent. And hopefully, now, my youngest sibling will get to have a childhood that I missed out on.
Some other benefits of parentification are:
- Being a great caregiver
- Being a great parent
- Higher empathy
- Sense of accomplishment from helping out family
- Sense of agency
- Self-reliant and independent
- Interpersonal competence
- Higher resilience
- Stronger relationships
How to Begin Healing from Parentification
Even if there are positive effects of parentification, parentified children may still be traumatized even if their parents didn’t intentionally try to hurt them.
Parentification puts a lot of responsibility and toll on a child. And a child’s brain isn’t developed enough to handle that. Children are not meant to do adult things or comfort adults about their adult issues.
However, children are naturally empathetic and yearn for a parent’s love and approval. So it can be easy for parents to cross that line into “parentification”.
If you experienced parentification, you may still be struggling with the effects years later. But it is possible to begin healing. Here are some things you can consider.
The most recommended way to begin healing is to seek professional help. A professional can help you process your experiences and develop tools to heal. Connect with a certified therapist and access the most complete online therapy toolbox.
Parentified children often need to learn how to reparent themselves.
Reparenting yourself includes:
- Learning about what you missed out on as a child and how it affected you
- Connecting with your inner child
- Letting go of the burden, shame, and guilt you feel
- Learning what your parents couldn’t teach you
- Creating meaningful relationships and establishing a support network
- Fulfilling needs your parents didn’t or couldn’t meet
- Learning to be the real you
Learn more: How to Reparent Yourself
As a parentified child, you might tend to put everyone else’s needs above your own. So to begin healing, it’s important to learn how to start prioritizing your needs.
Remember, you need to take care of yourself to be able to take care of others.
And the good thing is that being able to practice any form of self-care means that you are healing. It may take some getting used to. But try to add at least one self-care practice into your everyday routine.
Because you’ve been raised otherwise, it may feel weird to give yourself attention. But once you get used to taking care of yourself, you’ll find that it’s worth it.
Parentification blurs the line between parent and child. And it likely leads to you having poor or no boundaries in your current relationships. As mentioned before, you likely put everyone else’s needs above your own.
You likely continue to care for and please everyone else, even to the detriment of your own health. So one way to deal with this is to learn how to put some boundaries in place.
Boundaries protect you and your well-being. It is also essential to build meaningful, healthy relationships and maintain your sense of self.
Here are some books you can check out. You can sign up for a free trial of Kindle Unlimited to read some of these titles for free or at a discount. If you prefer audiobooks, you can sign up for a free trial with Audible and claim a title for free. It would be yours to keep even when you cancel.
To sum it all up, parentification can have long-term effects that may be damaging and painful. But it is possible to see the silver lining of it and begin healing.
If you experienced parentification, although you may struggle with the effects, realize the strengths you’ve gained. And try to start reversing the effects by being the parent you never had and start taking care of yourself.
You deserve a life full of love and care. And if you didn’t get it growing up, you deserve to make it up for yourself.
Hi there, I’m Estee.
Having been raised by an abusive mother, I developed an interest in mental health to better learn, understand, and manage the effects the abuse had on me. My experiences inspired me to create Hopeful Panda.
In my free time, you’ll find me cooking, organizing, playing video games, writing, or spending time with my family. You can read more about me and my blog here.
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