Role Reversal

What Is Parentification? How To Tell If This Problematic Dynamic Affects Your Family

It's more common than you think, says therapist Nancy Fagan.

Originally Published: 
An older sibling helping a younger sibling is usually a good thing — but it could point to parentifi...
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Typically, you can easily define the roles of parent and child: the parent takes care of the child, supporting their physical and emotional needs so that the child can focus on their growth and development. But in some relationships, these roles are reversed. And that dynamic, which you can probably think of at least one example of, is known as parentification. "Parentification is a role reversal between a parent and child. This forces a child to become the emotional or practical caregiver for the parent," says Nancy Fagan, LMFT.

According to Fagan, parentification — whether intentional or not — is often considered emotional abuse since the parents pass their adult responsibilities on to the child, with the oldest child and female children at greater risk for parentification. As a result, parentification impacts child development because the child is forced to deal with adult issues as a young person with little to no experience or knowledge on how to fill this role. In the process, their own growth and development are impacted.

What are examples of parentification?

There are many different scenarios as to why and how parentification forms. But typically, it stems from a situation the parent is experiencing that affects their ability to assume the role of a responsible caretaker. This might include divorce, death, addiction, and mental or physical illness.

According to Fagan, examples of what parentification looks like for a child include:

  • Taking care of a sick or disabled parent.
  • Being the language translator when a parent does not speak the local language.
  • Taking on the role of parental caretaker or protector for siblings, either because parents are not home or incapable.
  • Doing the adult's share of housework, cooking, and grocery shopping.
  • Paying household bills.

What are the types of parentification?

Parentification occurs when the lines between the responsibilities of a parent versus a child are blurred. According to Fagan, there are two types of parentification: emotional and instrumental.

Emotional Parentification

"Emotional parentification is when one or both parents inappropriately get their emotional needs met through the children," says Fagan. "This is considered the more damaging type of parentification."

Examples of emotional parentification in children include:

  • The child is asked for advice about adult issues the parent is facing.
  • The child is included in discussions and decisions about adult issues.
  • The child provides an ongoing role of comforting a parent when upset.
  • The child acts as a parent's confidante.
  • The child takes on the father (or mother) role when the father (or mother) is absent.
  • The child is responsible for keeping a parent's secrets.
  • The child acts as the mediator between parents during arguments.
  • The child is consistently listening to parents complain about the other parent.
  • When a parent dies or divorces, the child takes on the role the parent previously provided.

Instrumental Parentification

"The second type of parentification is instrumental parentification," says Fagan. "This happens when a child is given age-inappropriate tasks and responsibilities normally assigned to parents."

Examples of instrumental parentification in children include:

  • The child takes care of younger siblings in a parental way.
  • The child takes care of a sick parent or sibling.
  • The child is physically or emotionally taking care of the parent's needs.
  • The child is responsible for paying bills.
  • When an addicted parent isn't able to function, a child will step into the parent's role.
  • The child serves as a translator.
  • The child does the adult share of household duties such as cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and paying bills.
  • The child is responsible for taking themselves or siblings to the doctor.
  • The child is in charge of responsibilities not appropriate for a child.

What are the consequences of parentification?

Dealing with adult issues is stressful for an adult, let alone a child, so it's no surprise that parentified children are impacted as adults. Parentification is a form of parental neglect and, as a result, can have long-term effects when it comes to stress and trauma attachment. Research shows that, due to the emotional unavailability of the caregiver, emotional parentification disrupts the development of secure attachment and often results in the child forming co-dependent relationships.

The same study showed that parentified children often suffer from depression and anxiety. The dynamic is also linked to aggressive behavior, academic problems, substance use, and social difficulties. Additionally, parentified children are most likely to continue the cycle of parentification with their own children, especially if they were parentified by their mother.

Here are a more few signs parentified children exhibit. They may have difficulty not being the responsible one or letting yourself play freely. These children may also feel the need to always be in control or harbor resentment or ill feelings toward situations or responsibilities given to them as a child.

An adult who grew up a parentified child may have feelings of guilt or self-blame for not having the same level of responsibilities or pressure they did as a child. Parentified children may also suffer from physical ailments like stress induced head and stomach aches. These kids sometimes show disinterest in events and activities their peers participate in.

How can you overcome parentification?

If you were parentified, first, know that it wasn't your fault. If you fear you’re now doing the same to your own child, being aware of that is an important step in the right direction. From there, you should determine and establish healthy boundaries in your household.

Also, try speaking with a trusted family member, friend, or mental health professional about your parentified childhood. It's always nice and healing to be heard. It's also important to practice self-compassion so that you can help curve any guilt you feel for setting boundaries.

While you don't have to seek treatment, if you notice that your upbringing is affecting your relationships and how you interact with your children, seeking the guidance of a therapist or licensed counselor might be best to help you decide on the best course of treatment.

Expert Sources:

Nancy Fagan, LMFT

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