What is Parentification?

Daughter consoling stressed father.

The role of the parent and child are typically well-defined, right? The parent is the caretaker, with the child focusing all his or her energy on growing and developing. That’s the normal way of things, but sometimes, these roles are reversed, and the child becomes the caretaker. This phenomenon is called parentification, and it is detrimental to children, causing long-term negative effects on their emotional and mental wellbeing. Here, we discuss parentification, explaining what it is, why it’s not good, and how to spot the warning signs.

  • What are the types of parentification? In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent cares for the child, but parentification happens when the parent relies inappropriately on the child. The two types of parentification are emotional and instrumental.
    • Emotional parentification is when the child provides excessive emotional support to the parent. Acting in the capacity of a therapist, the child listens to the parent’s troubles, reassures and soothes them, and gives advice. Children placed into this position by emotional parentification keep their parent’s secrets, comfort their siblings during conflicts, and try to diffuse negative situations. They stifle their own pain in the interest of taking care of their parents and siblings emotionally.
    • Instrumental parentification involves children taking on adult responsibilities. While it is appropriate for children to help around the house, instrumental parentification occurs when children must do the weekly grocery shopping, cook, clean, manage finances, or take responsibility for their siblings in a way that serves the parent more than the children. The tasks are often beyond the child’s level of ability and comprehension. Sometimes, this parentification is sibling-focused, particularly if a child is tasked with caring for a sibling with a disability or chronic illness. To determine whether the things being asked of a child amount to parentification, look at whose needs are being met and whether the demands are age-appropriate. Doing chores and helping with younger siblings can help build a child’s confidence and abilities, but parentification is harmful to children.
  • How does this happen? When the parent is experiencing physical or emotional impairment, whether it’s an addiction, a disability, or a physical or mental illness, it impedes the parent’s ability to be a reliable and predictable caretaker. Unexpected life events and financial hardship can also lead the parent to lean on a child too much, but sometimes, parentification is simply the result of neglect. Children step up to take responsibilities that are inappropriate for their age and level of development because they want to keep the family functioning.
  • How is this harmful to children? Children who are parentified often suppress their own needs and emotions, discerning that there is only room for one person’s needs in their relationship. They can grow up to have problems with relationships, choosing self-centered partners because they are more comfortable with this known dynamic. They experience fear of abandonment or rejection, and they may develop mental health issues, experiencing issues like anxiety, depression, substance abuse disorders, and so on. The silver lining in all this is that children who have experienced parentification are often extremely emotionally intelligent, responsible, organized, and empathetic.
  • What are the symptoms of parentification? When a child is relied upon too heavily by a parent, the child may show signs of self-doubt, difficulty being assertive, a strong desire to please other people, guilt, depression, stress, and anxiety. The child may have difficulties at school and show signs of a loss of childhood. Physical symptoms with no known source may manifest, like stomach aches or headaches, and the child may act out at school. Teenagers may use substances to self-medicate. In the long term, people who have experienced parentification may have trust issues, and they are at an increased risk of mental and physical health issues. Parentified children often become codependent adults.
  • How can one overcome parentification? It can help to see a mental health professional to overcome the negative effects of parentification. While recognizing parentification and treating the child early is best, adults who experienced this phenomenon in childhood can also benefit from the help of a mental health professional. Overcoming the negative effects of parentification is especially important in helping people establish new patterns so that they can build their own healthy, happy family.

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