Parentification of Children

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“Children are not things to be molded but are people to be unfolded.”   — Jess Lair, author

Parents and children ideally have clearly defined roles; however, the boundaries become blurred in the case of parentification. In a healthy relationship, the parent cares for the child, allowing them to focus on their own development and growth.

When circumstances dictate a role reversal, the child takes on the role of caregiver.  The responsibilities this new role entails can have a long-lasting negative impact on the child, especially as they enter adolescence and adulthood.

Understanding Parentification

The term “parentification” was coined in 1973 by Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark to explain the phenomena whereby an adult becomes the dependent and a child is expected to assume adult responsibilities.[1]

In a positive parent-child relationship, the parent provides both instrumental  (shelter, food, routine, security) and emotional (guidance, affection, love, rules) support.  However, when the tables are turned, a negative parent-child dynamic ensues.  As Aude Henin, Ph.D. states, “[w]hen a parent is unable to consistently offer these things, a child may become parentified, and be in a position of having to care for the parent.”[2] 

There are two different types of parentification: instrumental and emotional:

Instrumental Parentification

Instrumental parentification is where children take on practical responsibilities such as looking after younger siblings, running errands, cooking dinner, cleaning the house, doing laundry, and even paying bills.

It is important to note in this case that not all tasks given to a child fall under parentification. It is undeniably beneficial to teach a child practical tasks, build their competence, and understand what it means to have responsibilities. The key differentiator is that, in the case of parentification, these tasks are likely to extend beyond the child’s current level of development, comprehension, and ability.

What’s more, with parentification, the overarching emphasis is on the parent’s needs rather than those of the children. The demands placed on children  can therefore be intense, pervasive, and often distressing.[3]

Emotional Parentification

Emotional parentification is where children feel responsible for the emotional wellbeing of others in their household and who do not receive emotional support in return. Children who experience emotional parentification likely have to diffuse household conflicts and parental stress, advise on grown-up issues, reassure siblings, comfort their parents,  or be on the receiving end of secrets or confidential information that is not age-appropriate.

In these situations, the child is required to suppress their own needs or feelings to provide the support demanded of them.

The Effects of Parentification on Children

Parentified children are often considered mature, highly capable, and confident, and they’re often praised for these characteristics by those who don’t understand the harmful situation that has led to this behavior. If dealing with adult responsibilities is stressful even for adults, it is no wonder that the burden placed on these children has a range of adverse effects.

These children are missing valuable aspects of their childhood development and often become overly serious, anxious, and stressed. They may also struggle with “letting loose” or simply having fun with their peers.

Some of the effects include:

  • Self-esteem issues and a low sense of self-worth because they do not receive the emotional support or validation that children and young adults need.
  • “People-pleasing” tendencies, a need to be liked, and a heightened concern about how others perceive them.
  • Feelings of neglect and abandonment as they are required to self-soothe and put others’ needs before their own.
  • A sense of failure, self-doubt, and shame, as they attempt to perform tasks beyond their capabilities.

Studies have identified these children as being at a higher risk of suffering from mental health disorders such as substance abuse disorder, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).[4] They are also more at risk of poor academic performance, aggression, risk-taking behaviors, and social difficulties.

Studies have found that many parentified children find themselves in one or both of the following caretaker roles as adults:[5]

  • Employment: Working as nurses, support workers, social workers or in childcare or residential care, where they may experience burnout, chronic stress, and a feeling of low self-worth as their own needs continue not to be met.
  • Relational: Co-dependent relationships where they are required to look after the other person who, for example, may have a mental illness, disability, or substance use disorder or who may mirror the emotionally maladaptive relationship from their childhood.

Conclusion

Parentified children have been forced to grow up too quickly and have been prevented from experiencing a normal childhood. As such, their natural growth and development have been hindered.

The earlier an unhealthy parent-child relationship can be identified and addressed, the better the child will be. It is vital to understand that there need be no judgment on this situation. Often, the adult was a parentified child and knew no other way of parenting. Understanding the underlying root cause of this dynamic is essential for finding a path to navigate towards a healthier future for the whole family.

If you are concerned about any issues discussed in this blog, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates.  Call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


Sources:

[1] Engelhardt, Jennifer. “The Developmental Implications of Parentification: Effects on Childhood Attachment”. Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, Teachers College, Columbia University, vol 14, 2012, https://www.tc.columbia.edu/publications/gsjp/gsjp-volumes-archive/gsjp-volume-14-2012/25227_Engelhardt_Parentification.pdf. Accessed 16 Nov 2021.

[2] “What is Parentification? Spotting the Warning Signs and how to Let Kids be Kids”. Parents, 2021, https://www.parents.com/kids/development/what-is-parentification-spotting-the-warning-signs-and-how-to-let-kids-be-kids/.

[3] Hooper, Lisa M. et al. “Predictors of Growth and Distress Following Childhood Parentification: A Retrospective Exploratory Study”. Journal of Child and Family Studies, vol 17, no. 5, 2007, pp. 693-705. Springer Science and Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s10826-007-9184-8. Accessed 16 Nov 2021.

[4] Hooper, Lisa. “Expanding the Discussion Regarding Parentification and its Varied Outcomes: Implications for Mental Health Research and Practice”. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, vol 29, no. 4, 2007, pp. 322-337. American Mental Health Counselors Association, doi:10.17744/mehc.29.4.48511m0tk22054j5. Accessed 16 Nov 2021.

[5] Hooper, Lisa M. et al. “Predictors of Growth and Distress Following Childhood Parentification: A Retrospective Exploratory Study”. Journal of Child and Family Studies, vol 17, no. 5, 2007, pp. 693-705. Springer Science and Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s10826-007-9184-8. Accessed 16 Nov 2021.

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