top of page

Parentification.... this one is going to be hard to write...

... and the reason it will be hard to write is I could have so easily fallen into "parentifying" my child - single mother feeling isolated from the world; rough separation; highly sensitive, empathic son who had natural protective tendencies from a young age... we could have been a disaster waiting to happen. Thankfully I came across an article on the effects of Parentification, a term I had never had of before, when my son was a toddler... and I share it today as I know that many other parents are at risk of it as well.

To tell it straight, parentification is when the roles are reversed between a child and a parent. Researchers have defined parentification as follows:

"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. "(Hooper, 2007b, p. 323)

"Mummy is sad, come give me a cuddle. You always make me feel better...", while my child is happily playing with lego and I am going through a really shitty separation... the "dream team" against the world... it feels really shameful to remember. It's also why I place a massive emphasis on Carer empowerment.

Generally, there are two types of being parentified:

  • Emotional parentification happens when the child becomes the parents’ counsellor, confidant, or emotional caretaker. Sometimes, this involves a form of ‘Emotional Incest’, where the child is being treated as an intimate partner to the parent. Perhaps the parents were unhappy in their own marriage or dissatisfied with their lives. They might tell the child about their frustrations, cry excessively, complain about their relationships or even hurt themselves in front of the child. Whatever it is that they share with the child, it is too much for their young psyche to handle.

Emotional parentification often occurs in families where one or both parents suffer from mental challenges, such as depression. It can also stem from the parents’ own attachment difficulties and transgenerational trauma (Aldrige, 2006).

  • Instrumental parentification is when the child engages in ‘functional responsibilities’, physical labour and support in the household, such as housework, cooking, cleaning, taking care of younger siblings, taking themselves to the doctors, and other ‘adult’ responsibilities. This is common in households where one or both parents are incapacitated in some way, for example, due to an injury or illness.

Situations parentification can arise from

Some of the situations that parentification can arise from include:

  • Divorce

  • Parents’ Immaturity

  • Having unavailable or depressed parents

  • Parents’ attachment trauma or attachment difficulties

  • Death of a parent or sibling

  • Alcoholism or drug addiction of one or both parents

  • Chronic disease or disability of one or both parents, or a sibling

  • Mental illness in a parent/parents or sibling

  • Physically abusive relationship between parents

  • Physically or sexually abusive parent/child relationship

Some other contextual risk factors include: Having a mother who has been sexually abused, general poverty, low socio-economic status, and divorce (Earley & Cushway, 2002; Macfie, McElwain, et al., 2005).

If you can see that you are at risk...

If you can see that you are at risk of parentifying your child because of the situation you find yourself in you can start rectifying the situation by loving your children with liberal and consistent love and attention, emotional openness, allowance for mistakes and playfulness, as well as acting as a model for virtues such as courage, empathy, temperance, and compassion. Take the steps needed to become emotionally stable and separate your projections, desires and wishes from your child’s life.

You are not a bad person, you may have gotten a little lost with what life has thrown at you. Start with giving your child your physical presence, quality time, intellectual stimulation, meaningful conversations, family rituals, fun and games. Remember, your child should never be your counsellor, confidant, problem-solver, emotional regulator, or the one everyone counts on, no matter how much they seem to want to play this role for you. Your child is still a child and being burdened with excessive adult responsibilities sets a toxic trap; the parentified child will believe it is their failure that caused bad things to happen to the family, planting the seeds of guilt and shame that they carry into adulthood. I should know, I have many"good" boys and girls that sit in my therapy chair as now adults with this exact trauma.

Neurodivergent children

Our ND children are highly sensitive and in tune with us, and highly sensitive children intuitively pick up on emotionally unsafe and unstable conditions and take it upon themselves to provide care and support for the family in the way that they feel they can. This can eventually lead to an overwhelming sense of anxiety about the needs and feelings of others and, eventually, an early advance into maturity that equates with a ‘lost childhood’.

Being robbed of their innocent childhood, the parentified child grows up to become adults who have a gap in their psyche. They bury anger, resentment and grief, which may burst out at unexpected times, affecting their ability to be close to someone, sustain a career, and feel stable. They may resort to filling the void in their souls by ways of substance abuse, avoidance responses in relationships, and other short-term self-soothing strategies.

The harsh reality is amplified to the extreme while a significant portion of their most formative developmental is, essentially, removed.

Steps to Heal

If you have read this far and can relate to yourself being a parentified child, here are some steps you can take to heal:

  1. Tell your story as a parentified child to someone you trust

  2. Learn to prioritise yourself, and name your wants and needs

  3. Grieve the childhood you did not have

  4. Set boundaries with your parents and others

  5. Do what you need to do to release resentment as it's only hurting you right now

  6. Cultivate Self-compassion

It's OK to start making changes today. Every day counts.

Sending big love

- T ♡

33 views0 comments


bottom of page