Parentification is when a child is forced to take on the role of an adult. Many children get pushed into the role of caretaker for their younger siblings or become the referee in their parent’s arguments. When caregivers aren’t able to fully show up for themselves, children get put into developmentally inappropriate situations.
Parentification occurs across a spectrum and there are different levels of hurt that may develop. There are also qualities that arise through parentification that may benefit you in certain areas of your life, like being responsible or a great caregiver. It’s not all bad, but it has the potential to become catastrophic for a child and their adult self. We have to find the right balance between responsibility and structure, play and fun.
Kids that were parentified often need inner child work. They usually struggle with having fun and are easily pulled into the caretaker role. Their worth is often tied directly to what they can provide to others and how “good” they are. Structure typically feels safer to them than play or improvisation.
Signs that you were parentified as a child
- Grew up feeling like you had to be responsible
- Trouble with play or “letting loose”
- Like to feel in control
- Pulled into arguments or issues between caregivers
- Felt like you were given responsibilities that were not appropriate for someone your age
- Often compliments for being “so good” and “so responsible”
- May feel that being self-reliant is better than trying to trust others
- Don’t really remember “being a kid”
- Parents had trouble caring for themselves or others and placed the responsibility on you
- Often find yourself becoming a caregiver for others
- Being a caretaker feels good, even when you are sacrificing parts of yourself
- Heightened sense of empathy and an ability to more closely connect with others
- Feel like you need to be the peacemaker
- Feel like your efforts aren’t appreciated
If you relate to any of the signs on this list, it might be helpful to get in touch with your inner child and allow yourself to experience that part of you. The playful part of the inner child is usually the part that gets crushed through parentification. This part wants to have spontaneous fun and live free from guilt or anxiety.
How to get in touch with your inner child
- Get to know what your inner child needs. Many kids grow up learning that their needs aren’t important or they need to squash them in order to survive. Listening to yourself and acknowledging your needs can be a totally foreign concept. What we did not receive from our caregivers as children is often exactly what we need.
- Take responsibility. This is really hard. You have to recognize the pain of not having your childhood needs met. You have to recognize that it wasn’t fair and it hurt. Now you are the adult saddled with the responsibility of re-parenting yourself. It’s ok to say it wasn’t fair and to wish it was different. But the only way to move forward is to say, "I am going to take it from here. I am my own hero. I don’t need to live this way."
- Become a parent and friend to your inner child. Take inventory of what you did not receive as a child and what needs still need to be met. This is different for everyone. Maybe you didn’t have structure as a child, so you need it now. Maybe you had entirely too much structure as a child, and now you need freedom.
- Find a way to honor your inner child consistently. Below is a list of things your inner child might need.
Become aware. Accept that you have an inner child and get to know it. You need to take this voice seriously and understand that whether you like it or not, it’s there.
Things your inner child might need and how to provide them:
Structure: Create structure in your day through routine, scheduling, or having a set bedtime or wake up time. Commit to things and follow through. Children who were parentified were often forced to create structure for others or ignored their own needs in order to maintain the status quo. Find a way to create structure that is meaningful to you and feels safe.
Play and Freedom: Add moments of safe play in your life. Go for a run, lay in the grass, or take a class at the gym. Do something that makes you feel alive.
Community: Find ways to connect with people around you. Look for people that share the same values and allow you to be yourself. Try to set boundaries around relationships that are draining to you.
Love and Positive Reinforcement: Speak kindly to yourself and spend time with people that do the same. Every time you criticize yourself, say three nice things back. Set a time in your day to show yourself love.
Safety and Security: Create a space that you can go to and feel safe and secure. Create safety in your life by prioritizing your own financial health and the health of your physical space. Create and honor your boundaries around your space.
Emotional Health: Allow yourself to feel and experience emotions. Remind yourself that your feelings are normal reactions and you have the power to decide what you want to do with them.
I challenge you to do one thing each day to re-parent your inner child. Look at the six areas above and decide which needs the most attention in your life. Then come up with a simple task you can do daily to honor one of those areas.