Every year, millions of children suffer from some form of maltreatment. Neglect or parentification is the most prevalent 1. The effects of parentification on children can vary greatly depending on the responses they receive from their parents and other adults.
What is parentification
Parentification is a process of role reversal that involves children taking on responsibilities that were previously the responsibilities of adults, such as caring for their parents and other family members.
In extreme cases of parentification, it is considered neglect and emotional abuse, because the parent abdicated their responsibility to provide physical and emotional support for their own children.
The child is now responsible for cooking, cleaning, managing family finances, and having responsibilities well beyond what is considered developmentally, emotionally, and age-appropriate.
There is a general lack of boundaries in the family structure. The child now plays the adult role and becomes the primary caregiver for the entire family.
To accommodate the needs of others, a parentified child sacrifices their own needs for attention, comfort, and guidance.
What are the types of parentification
There are two different types of parentification – emotional parentification and instrumental parentification.
In emotional parentification, the child becomes responsible for helping the parent manage their emotions.
In instrumental parentification, the child becomes responsible for running the household and meeting the family’s daily needs, such as grocery shopping, cooking, and house cleaning.
Research suggests that mothers are more likely to parentify than fathers 2. Reasons that parentifying adult enlists a child to take on a parental role include:
- Immigration 3
- Financial hardship 4
- Both parents working
- A critically ill parent 5
- Substance abuse 6
- Mental health disorders such as personality disorders 7
- Death of a parent 8
- Marital distress
- Enmeshed families
- Parent’s insecure attachment with their own parents 9
What are the signs of parentification
Here are some examples of parentified children assuming parental responsibilities.
- Meeting the emotional needs of parents
- Acting as the peacemaker for family members
- Preparing meals
- Doing all of the household chores
- Handling financial matters
- Being responsible for younger siblings
- Taking care of sick siblings
- Caring for a sick, disabled, or elderly relative
Effects on parentified children
Adverse childhood experiences at a young age will likely have long-term negative effects, according to research.
While there are still many unanswered questions when it comes to analyzing the relationship between parentification and developmental outcomes, psychologists do know the following.
Unbalanced adult relationships
For many parental children, the parenting role becomes an essential part of their identities that is likely to persist into adulthood10. These adult children may show excessive caretaking and parental attitudes within their interpersonal relationships11.
They relate to others in problematically over-functioning ways, known as the Caretaker Syndrome 12.
Feelings of shame
Parentification occurs when parents place unrealistically high expectations on their children. Consequently, the child experiences low self-esteem and feelings of shame when they fail to live up to these expectations.
In adulthood, parentified children are more likely to experience feelings of shame and guilt resulting in self-defeating, masochistic, or narcissistic personality characteristics7.
Additionally, they suffer from psychological and emotional losses as they must learn to subordinate their own needs to those of the parent13.
Poor academic performance
Parentified children suppress their own needs in order to meet those of their parents and siblings. Excessive caring for others may reduce their academic engagement and achievement2.
Mental health problems
Children who have been parentified experience more mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety13, and personality disorders14. Substance use is also common among this group.
Reluctant to become parents
Last but not least, when these children become adults, they may have a fear of having children1.
Parentified children, however, do not all suffer negative consequences in adulthood. There are sometimes positive outcomes15. Instrumental parentification appears to have less deleterious effects than emotional parentification.
Depending on the levels of parentification, some people will display high levels of functioning in some life domains.
In large families, children carrying out functional responsibilities can have the indirect effect of allowing them to feel a sense of accomplishment 10.
Individualization can still occur when a parentified child recognizes and builds upon their own autonomy and competence while managing the role reversals imposed by parents.
More future studies are needed to identify all the protective factors.
How to heal from parentification trauma
There is evidence that the experience of parentification tends to pass from generation to generation (intergenerational transmission). Nevertheless, parentified children are not destined to continue this interaction style or pass it on.
The attachment style of adults can be updated and modified by new experiences. With a trusted adult under the right circumstances, children can develop an earned secure attachment style and change the outcomes of parentification trauma for the better.
Whether maltreatment is experienced as trauma may depend on how the family and significant others react when the maltreatment is disclosed16.
It is important to:
- identify destructive behaviors that contribute to the inverted hierarchy within the unhealthy parent-child dynamic
- reestablish appropriate parental roles and adult responsibilities
- set healthy boundaries
- regain stability to reduce chronic stress
If you find it difficult to deal with this childhood trauma on your own, seek professional help as soon as possible. There is nothing shameful about getting help. Those who are brave enough to acknowledge the problem will more likely receive the proper help.
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