Skip to Content

Parentification Trauma When Growing Up Too Fast

| What is parentification | Types | Causes | Signs | Effects | How to heal |

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.

teen washing clothes parentification abuse

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.

girl brings drink to sick dad

Causes

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​
  • Single-parent
  • Marital distress
  • Enmeshed families
  • Parent’s insecure attachment with their own parents ​9​

What are the signs of parentification

Here are some emotional parentification examples:

  • Meeting the emotional needs of parents
  • Being treated as the parents’ confidant
  • Acting as the peacemaker for family members

Here are some instrumental parentification examples:

  • 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 
child holds mop and bucket

Effects of Parentification

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 adulthood​10​. These adult children may show excessive caretaking and parental attitudes within their interpersonal relationships​11​.

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 characteristics​7​.

Additionally, they suffer from psychological and emotional losses as they must learn to subordinate their own needs to those of the parent​13​.

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 achievement​2​.

boy suffers from headache

Mental health problems

Children who have been parentified experience more mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety​13​, and personality disorders​14​. 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 children​1​.

Beneficial effects

Parentified children, however, do not all suffer negative consequences in adulthood. There are sometimes positive outcomes​15​. Instrumental parentification effects appear to be less deleterious than emotional parentification effects.

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.

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.

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 parentified child trauma for the better.

Whether maltreatment is experienced as trauma may depend on how the family and significant others react when the maltreatment is disclosed​16​.

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.


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.
    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
  3. 3.
    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
  4. 4.
    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
  5. 5.
    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
  6. 6.
    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
  7. 7.
    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
  8. 8.
    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
  9. 9.
    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
  10. 10.
    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
  11. 11.
    Hooper LM, L’Abate L, Sweeney LG, Gianesini G, Jankowski PJ. Parentification. Models of Psychopathology. Published online September 13, 2013:37-54. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-8081-5_3
  12. 12.
    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
  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.
    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

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

    Disclaimer

    * All information on parentingforbrain.com is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *