Simply stated, parentification is a role reversal in which a child finds themselves taking on the parenting role. They become a functional or emotional caregiver to their parent(s) and often siblings. Parentification typically occurs when a household makes a sudden shift into single parenting, i.e., after the death of a parent or divorce, or after the onset of a chronic illness in a parent, in cases of parental substance abuse, and when one or both parents are narcissists.
Functional caregiving becomes parentification when the assumption of parental duties occurs, e.g., caring for siblings (going beyond babysitting and into the territory of parenting – being responsible for their siblings, cooking for them, and disciplining them, for example), lawn care, and other household chores that are not age-appropriate. Functional caregiving is the least damaging form of parentification and can increase the self-efficacy of the child. However, it comes at the expense of their childhood and thrusts adult responsibilities onto children without the life experience and coping skills to manage them effectively.
The most damaging form of parentification is when the child becomes the emotional support for the parent. The child is ill-equipped to recognize and regulate their own emotions, much less those of their parent, yet they are left with no alternative. Frequently this scenario ends with the child becoming emotionally disengaged from themselves and over-empathizing with the parent. Just as functional parentification puts adult responsibilities on the shoulders of children who do not possess the skills to handle them, emotional parentification places the emotional stressors of dysfunctional adults on children. This dynamic sets the stage for avoidant attachment, meaning these children learn that they can’t count on anyone but themselves.
Adult Parentified Children
Forced to grow up too quickly, adults who were parentified are easy to spot once you know the signs. These men and women are independent, resilient, competent, responsible, and excel at problem-solving. They are simultaneously insecure, emotionally disengaged from themselves, have poor boundaries and trust and control issues.
They trend toward being avoidantly attached in relationships, making authentic, trusting, truly intimate relationships extremely difficult to develop and maintain. Love and self-worth are transactional, i.e., they seek to earn love by caretaking and, in doing so, boost their self-worth. Poor communication skills and unwillingness to ask for help or depend on anyone else contribute to a lack of social support.
If you are an adult who was parentified as a child or are in a relationship with one, there is hope and help. Attachment styles, emotional intelligence, boundaries, and trust, control, and self-worth issues are all learned, which means you can unlearn them. Learning and developing in these areas is a lifelong pursuit for every person seeking fulfillment. There is help available, and you have unique skills to leverage - resiliency, competence, accepting responsibility, and problem-solving.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure holds in the case of parentification. Most parents do not intend to parentify their children. If you review when it is most apt to happen, the parents have just been dealt a mental, physical, or emotional blow. These parents make the grave error of depending on their children rather than protecting them.
Parents, be mindful that your children are not your friends. Do not confide in them and burden them with details that are overwhelming you. If the concerns are heavy for you, an adult with life experience and coping skills, consider how crushing the weight is to a child without those resources.
Develop a support system - friends, neighbors, family, therapists, or coaches. When in crisis, ask for help. An age-appropriate support system has the resources to help you; your children do not. Sacrificing your pride is a small price to pay for your children’s well-being. Model for your children how to do the work to ensure your mental, emotional, and physical health, and they will follow suit as adults when life throws them a curveball.
Angela W. Startz, MAHSC, CCLC