Table of Contents
Every year, millions of children suffer some form of maltreatment, and neglect or parentification is the most prevalent1.
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.
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.
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:
- Poverty or financial hardship3
- Both parents working
- Parent is critically ill4
- Substance abuse5
- Mental health or psychiatric illness such as depression, mood disorders, personality disorders6
- Death of a parent7
- 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 needs8
Research suggests that mothers are more likely to parentify than fathers9.
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
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.
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 attachments10.
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 Syndrome11. 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 problems12, including the lack of age-appropriate behaviors or developmental tasks13, 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
Parentified children, however, do not all suffer negative consequences in adulthood. There are sometimes positive outcomes15.
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 parents16. 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.
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 disclosed17.
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.
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