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Parentification – Growing Up Too Fast

Every year, millions of children suffer some form of maltreatment, and neglect or parentification is the most prevalent​1​.

Although child maltreatment is generally associated with higher risk to child developmeparent, the effects of parentification are not determinate. The effects that parentification has on children can vary greatly depending on what responses they get from their parents and other adults in their lives.

What is parentification

Parentification is role reversal in which children take on responsibilities that are traditionally assigned to adults, such as taking care of their parents and other family members’ emotional or physical needs.

Parentification is considered neglect and emotional abuse, as the parent abdicated their responsibility to provide for the children in their care. Cooking, cleaning, and handling family finances may become responsibilities of the parentified child. They may also become an adult figure and the primary emotional support to an emotionally distraught parent or sibling.

In order to accommodate and care for the physical or emotional needs of the parent, a parentified child sacrifices their own needs for attention, comfort, and guidance.

teen washing clothes

What are the types of parentification

There are two forms of parentification in family – emotional and instrumental parentification.

In emotional parentification, the child is responsible for helping the parent regulate their emotions. Parentified children take on these extra emotional responsibilities in a parentified role, which are unrelated to day-to-day activities.

Instrumental parentification occurs when the child is responsible for running the household and meeting the family’s daily needs, such as grocery shopping, cooking, and house cleaning.

Causes

There are several different causes for parentification.

Reasons that parentifying adult enlists the child to fulfill his or her need to be cared for include:

  • Immigrant​2​
  • Poverty or financial hardship​3​
  • Both parents working
  • Parent is critically ill​4​
  • Substance abuse​5​
  • Mental health or psychiatric illness such as depression, mood disorders, personality disorders​6​
  • Death of a parent​7​
  • single-parent families
  • Marital distress
  • Enmeshed families
  • Parents who fail to experience their own parents as adequately nurturing may be especially vulnerable to turn to their children to fulfill these same dependency needs​8​

Research suggests that mothers are more likely to parentify than fathers​9​.

A child’s history of psychopathology, history of emotional neglect, developmental stage, intelligence, and self-esteem all contribute to the inability to form secure attachments, as they inhibit reciprocal behavior.

What are the signs of parentification

Here are some examples of parentified children.

  • responding to emotional needs of parent or siblings
  • acting as the peacemaker for the family
  • preparing meals
  • doing household chores, and handling financial matters
  • being responsible for siblings
  • taking care of younger children when they are sick or injured
  • the primary caretaker for a sick, disabled or elderly relative 
child holds mop and bucket

Effects on parentified children

Although many studies have looked at the impact of being parentified, there are still many unknowns in characterizing the relation between parentification and developmental outcomes.

Negative effects

Emotional parentification is often seen as emotional neglect, which is a form of child maltreatment. When a child is emotionally parentified, they typically fill an emotional void within the family, serving as the parent’s confidant and support.

Research suggests that poor long-term effect is more likely and long-lasting when the these adverse childhood experiences occur at an earlier age. Human development can be harmed by an overly extended period of emotional parentalization.

Destructive parentification in childhood can impede normal development of relationship, personality, and attachment.

Parents play a crucial role in a child’s attachment formation. Children who are unable to receive adequate nurturing, bonding, and care from their parents do not see their parents as a secure base and develop insecure attachments​10​.

Child-parent interactions teach the child about self and others, knowledge that is later incorporated into internal working models. Children use these models to understand future relationships.

By suppressing their own needs to meet the needs of their parents and siblings, parentified children disrupt their own development, and future functioning.

As adults, these children frequently end up relating to others in problematically overfunctioning ways, known as the Caretaker Syndrome​11​. They also tend to develop traits that are self-defeating or narcissistic. 

These kids are not be able to fully separate from and individualize themselves from their parents resulting in a whole slew of problems​12​, including the lack of age-appropriate behaviors or developmental tasks​13​, forming interpersonal relationship, less academic engagement, lower self-esteem, mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD)​14​,  depression, anxiety, personality disorders. The effect of parentification on substance use is also common.

Last but not least, when those children become adults, they may have a fear of having children or lead to the transmission of parentification across many generations

Beneficial effects

Parentified children, however, do not all suffer negative consequences in adulthood. There are sometimes positive outcomes​15​.

Depending on the levels of parentification, some people will display high levels of functioning in some life domains, some people will display low levels, while others will have both high and low levels. 

Instrumental parentification appears to have less deleterious effects than emotional parentification.

In large families, children carrying out adult responsibilities can have the indirect effect of allowing them to feel a sense of accomplishment and easing the stress on parents​16​. In the event that these added household tasks are not acknowledged or go on indefinitely, negative outcomes may result.

Individualization can still occur when a parentified child recognizes and builds upon her or his own autonomy and competence while managing the role reversals imposed by parents.

More future studies are needed to identify all the protective factors.

girl takes care of sister emotion

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. 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.

The attachment style of adults can be updated and modified by new experiences.

Whether maltreatment is experienced as trauma may depend on how the family and significant others when the maltreatment is disclosed​17​.

It is important to identify destructive behaviors that contribute to the inverted hierarchy within the parent-child relationship. Then reestablish appropriate parental roles and adult responsibilities, set proper familial boundaries, and regain stability to reduce chronic stress.

If you are experiencing this problem or trying to heal from this childhood trauma, please 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.


References

  1. 1.
    Hooper LM. The Application of Attachment Theory and Family Systems Theory to the Phenomena of Parentification. The Family Journal. Published online July 2007:217-223. doi:10.1177/1066480707301290
  2. 2.
    Oznobishin O, Kurman J. Parent–child role reversal and psychological adjustment among immigrant youth in Israel. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 2009:405-415. doi:10.1037/a0015811
  3. 3.
    McMahon TJ, Luthar SS. Defining characteristics and potential consequences of caretaking burden among children living in urban poverty. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Published online April 2007:267-281. doi:10.1037/0002-9432.77.2.267
  4. 4.
    Tompkins TL. Parentification and Maternal HIV Infection: Beneficial Role or Pathological Burden? J Child Fam Stud. Published online September 13, 2006:108-118. doi:10.1007/s10826-006-9072-7
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    Chase ND, Deming MP, Wells MC. Parentification, parental alcoholism, and academic status among young adults. The American Journal of Family Therapy. Published online January 1998:105-114. doi:10.1080/01926189808251091
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    Wells M, Jones R. Childhood Parentification and Shame-Proneness: A Preliminary Study. The American Journal of Family Therapy. Published online January 2000:19-27. doi:10.1080/019261800261789
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    Thastum M, Johansen MB, Gubba L, Olesen LB, Romer G. Coping, Social Relations, and Communication: A Qualitative Exploratory Study of Children of Parents with Cancer. Clin Child Psychol Psychiatry. Published online January 2008:123-138. doi:10.1177/1359104507086345
  8. 8.
    Garber BD. PARENTAL ALIENATION AND THE DYNAMICS OF THE ENMESHED PARENT-CHILD DYAD: ADULTIFICATION, PARENTIFICATION, AND INFANTILIZATION. Family Court Review. Published online April 2011:322-335. doi:10.1111/j.1744-1617.2011.01374.x
  9. 9.
    Peris TS, Goeke-Morey MC, Cummings EM, Emery RE. Marital conflict and support seeking by parents in adolescence: Empirical support for the parentification construct. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online August 2008:633-642. doi:10.1037/a0012792
  10. 10.
    West ML, Keller AER. Parentification of the Child: A Case Study of Bowlby’s Compulsive Care-Giving Attachment Pattern. APT. Published online July 1991:425-431. doi:10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.1991.45.3.425
  11. 11.
    Valleau MP, Bergner RM, Horton CB. Parentification and caretaker syndrome: An empirical investigation. Family Therapy. 1995;22(3):157–164. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1996-17183-001
  12. 12.
    Peleg‐Popko O. Contemporary Family Therapy. Published online 2002:355-369. doi:10.1023/a:1015355509866
  13. 13.
    Olson M, Gariti P. Symbolic loss in horizontal relating: Defining the role of parentification in addictive/ destructive relationships. Contemp Fam Ther. Published online June 1993:197-208. doi:10.1007/bf00894395
  14. 14.
    Hooper LM, DeCoster J, White N, Voltz ML. Characterizing the magnitude of the relation between self-reported childhood parentification and adult psychopathology: a meta-analysis. J Clin Psychol. Published online April 25, 2011:1028-1043. doi:10.1002/jclp.20807
  15. 15.
    Hooper L. Expanding the Discussion Regarding Parentification and Its Varied Outcomes: Implications for Mental Health Research and Practice. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. Published online October 1, 2007:322-337. doi:10.17744/mehc.29.4.48511m0tk22054j5
  16. 16.
    Byng-Hall J. The significance of children fulfilling parental roles: implications for family therapy. J Family Therapy. Published online May 2008:147-162. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6427.2008.00423.x
  17. 17.
    Hooper LM, Marotta SA, Lanthier RP. Predictors of Growth and Distress Following Childhood Parentification: A Retrospective Exploratory Study. J Child Fam Stud. Published online November 22, 2007:693-705. doi:10.1007/s10826-007-9184-8

baby crying for no reason in mothers arms
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