What is Parentification?
Parentification was defined by Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark in 1973 as being the distortion or lack of boundaries between and among family subsystems, such that children take on the roles and responsibilities usually reserved for adults.
In other words, a parentified child becomes the parent to their siblings or even their parents. They grow up too quickly as a result of their parent’s inability or unwillingness to fulfil responsibilities in the home.
Their parent(s) might have an addiction, they might have a disability, they might be neglectful, or they might simply be working too many hours trying to provide financially for the family. A child can become a parentified child due to the death or divorce of their parents.
A common example is a child being told, by well-meaning relatives, that they are the ‘man of the house now’ when their father passes away. They may then take this role very seriously, worrying that their mother and siblings will fall apart without them.
Types of Parentification
There are two main types of parentification; emotional parentification and instrumental parentification.
Emotional parentification is when the child feels responsible for the emotional wellbeing of others in the family. The child might be depended upon for emotional support from a parent, but not get emotional support in return. They might also be depended upon for emotional support by siblings, for example, if the parents are neglectful or abusive, the child might be the one to make their siblings feel safe and loved.
Instrumental parentification is when the child participates in the physical maintenance of the family. They might cook dinner for younger siblings while parents are still at work, walk younger siblings to and from school, or even care for a parent if there is disability, illness, or addiction involved. Many young carers are parentified children.
Parentified children can often come across as precocious, mature, and very capable – and they are, but they are also missing valuable parts of their childhood in the process.
What impact does this have?
It is interesting to note that not all parentified children experience negative effects in adulthood. According to research, only about a quarter of all children who experience neglect will go on to experience negative after effects (Cicchetti & Toth, 1995; Golden 1999).
Many parentified children grow up to show various ‘caretaker’ characteristics in adulthood, and might find themselves in such careers as nurses, support workers, childcare, and pastoral care. In a similar vein, research by Jones and Wells (1996) found that many children who had grown up too quickly showed characteristics such as “people pleasing”. Research has also shown that those that were relied upon heavily for emotional support in childhood, grew up to shower higher levels of interpersonal competence (Jurcovik and Casey, 2000).
However, there are often negative effects of parentification in childhood. Many parentified children can grow up with higher levels of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). DiCaccavo (2005) argues that parentification often sets the child up for failure as they are attempting to perform tasks that are beyond their current capabilities, and internalisation of these failures can lead to feelings of shame, depression, and low self-esteem.
Some parentified children grow up and enter relationships with someone that needs caring for such as an alcoholic, a workaholic, or they create the circumstances that the partner needs caring for. For example, they may take on so many of the responsibilities in the house that their partner doesn’t know where anything is or how certain things work – thus they need to rely on the grown up parentified child.
Some parentified children grow up and develop such mental health problems as chronic anxiety, OCD, or depression, and therefore rely on their own children to assist them, thus repeating the pattern of parentifying their own children. Parentification can become a generational pattern that persists until actively broken.
How can you overcome parentification?
Recovery from parentification in adulthood involves acknowledging your childhood for what it was and grieving for the childhood that you didn’t have. It involves re-parenting yourself in adulthood; learning how healthy relationships work, learning and exploring healthy boundaries in relationships, and finding ways to let go of burdens and responsibilities that are not yours to carry.
Moving forward in a healthy way can also involve processing any residual emotions that you hold towards your parents; you might feel angry with them, you might feel sorry for them, or you might feel guilty for moving forward. There is no right or wrong way to feel in this moment, but it can be helpful to understand and process this relationship and how it has contributed to the way that you grew up and the way that you are feeling in the present.
If you’d like to process your feelings about your childhood with an experienced therapist then get in touch. We have sessions available seven days a week at our Clapham and Tooting centres. Contact our team by calling 020 8673 4545 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amy Launder is a content writer for The Awareness Centre, writing and editing blog posts for our Talking Therapy blog. She enjoys writing and exploring ideas within the mental health and wellness fields that excite and intrigue her. Amy is also a qualified and practising psychotherapist, with an MA in Psychotherapy and Counselling from the University of Leeds.