What is parentification?
Parentification is often referred to as growing up too fast. Typically, it occurs when a child takes on parental responsibility for their siblings or even their parents, taking care of a sibling or parent physically, mentally, or emotionally. This can damage a child’s mental well-being and lead to long-term mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Types of Parentification
Emotional parentification occurs when parents impose their emotional needs on their children and seek emotional and mental support from them. Of the two types of parentification, emotional parentification is considered more complex and challenging for the child.
Instrumental parentification is similar to emotional parentification and often goes hand-in-hand with it. However, instead of children strictly tending to their parent’s emotional needs, children engaged in instrumental parentification are tasked with chores and responsibilities that aren’t appropriate for their age group. This could include grocery shopping, cooking meals, paying bills, caring for sick siblings or parents, and more.
Symptoms vary from situation to situation. The more severe the case of parentification, the more severe the symptoms will be. Some common symptoms include:
- Stress and anxiety
- Stomachaches or headaches
- Academic troubles
- Social difficulties
- Trouble maintaining friendships
- Inability to enjoy age-appropriate activities
- Neglect of their own needs and feelings
- Feelings of self-blame and self-doubt
- Anger and depression over the loss of childhood in teenagers and adults
- Substance abuse
Other signs of parentification may include acting as a mediator between parents, being complimented on being mature or responsible by outsiders, struggling to show emotions due to fear of a parent’s response, and feeling more emotionally mature than a parent.
Typically, a child may be parentified if a parent is unable to fulfill their own role as a parental figure for various reasons. These reasons may include:
- Chronic illness, disability, or a death in the family
- Alcoholism or drug addiction
- Physical or mental abuse by a partner
- Sexually predatory tendencies (sometimes directed at the child)
- Immaturity, emotional unavailability, or depression
- Financial hardship
Parentification can have harmful effects on children that can last into adulthood, though the symptoms vary from person to person, sometimes appearing much later in life. Other times, mental health disorders (including depression and anxiety) may develop during childhood, especially when children feel pressured to perform specific tasks. Parentification can also affect a child’s ability to show and receive love.
Children who have been emotionally parentified often face problems such as eating disorders and addiction later in life. They may also exhibit temper outbursts. Additionally, adults who were parentified as children may exhibit poor/passive communication skills and have unstable relationships with family, friends, and partners. Sometimes this instability can result in unhealthy attachment due to insecurities and anxieties.
Parentification can rear its ugly head in many ways. Some examples of parentified behavior include:
- Caring for younger siblings: When a child is parentified and has a younger sibling, they often assume a parental role in their sibling’s life. The type of responsibility they take on for their younger sibling will depend on the child’s age. If their sibling is an infant or toddler, they may complete tasks such as changing diapers, feeding, bathing, potty training, and putting them to sleep. If the sibling is past that age, the child may perform other tasks such as preparing food, ensuring clean clothes, ensuring the sibling goes to school, helping them with homework, and more.
- Taking on household responsibilities: Children who have been parentified are often left to handle household responsibilities such as paying bills, cleaning the house, taking out the garbage, cooking meals for the whole family, grocery shopping, and more.
- Caring for oneself: Since parentified children take on responsibilities for their parents, this often includes taking care of themselves, scheduling their own doctor appointments and more.
- Mediating between parents: No relationship is perfect, and when two parents fight, a child is sometimes put in the middle. In fact, a parentified child will often act as a mediator between the two, providing counsel and helping their parents calm down.
- Providing emotional support: Parentified children are often tasked with providing emotional support to their parents, listening to their parent’s complaints, dissatisfactions, and frustrations and then being expected to provide them with advice and support. Sometimes, one parent will complain about the other parent to a child or share information that should not be shared with them.
Treatment for parentification usually occurs when the parentified child has grown up and realizes how unstable their childhood was. At this point, individuals may seek therapy to help cope with parentification's effects on them, including depression, anxiety, and insecurities. Therapy may also help children repair broken bridges with their parents.
Boundaries must always be set between a child and a parent. While children may not understand how to set boundaries or feel guilted into avoiding them, by the time you grow into adulthood, it’s essential to have firmly established boundaries and limitations regarding what you will and won’t do for your parents. Prioritizing yourself, your needs, and your mental health is essential.
Some other considerations when moving on from a parentified youth include:
- Telling your story: You have a story. Your inner child has a story. It’s important to acknowledge and tell these stories to yourself and others. This can be done in therapy or support groups. Either way, telling your story will help you set your inner child free and overcome the grief and anger you’ve bottled up. Your feelings are valid, regardless of how long ago they happened.
- Self-compassion: Parentification often includes feelings of guilt and shame, but these feelings don’t reflect reality. Ignore the little voice that prompts you to do more than what you’re capable of and treat yourself with kindness. Acknowledging that you’re only one person and can’t handle everything will go a long way toward recovery.
- Listen to your younger self: Sometimes, reflection is necessary. Let your inner child out and help them come to terms with how your childhood was, reminding them that nothing was their fault and that those responsibilities should have never been put on them. Additionally, it may help to provide your inner child with things taken from you during your childhood, such as the ability to say no to people’s demands.