Parentification or the parentified child refers to the process by which the child becomes the emotional and sometimes physical care taker of the parent. A form of role reversal, parentification is usually done at the expense of the child’s own personal needs in order to attend to and support the parent (and sometimes parents). Often it is the oldest child who becomes the parentified child as they are the closest person for the parent to “lean on.”
Emotional Parentification – Considered the most destructive, this form of parentification is when the child is placed in the role of the emotional caretaker of the parent, and sometimes siblings as the parent is unable to provide such care to the children. This is commonly seen in families where one parent is absent either through death, divorce, imprisonment, etc. The remaining parent often relies on the child for emotional support, or to fill a role as “surrogate” husband or wife. In divorce situations, sometimes the child is caught between both parents and is having to juggle the emotional needs of each parent with little understanding or preparation for such a job. In any case, emotional parentification disrupts normal health development in the child and creates dysfunction in the relational bonds between others.
Instrumental Parentification – The child is forced to become the physical caretaker of the family by meeting the needs of the household through caring for the children, cooking, cleaning, shopping, paying bills, etc. This is different from having “household chores” in that the tasks assigned are both above the developmental maturity of the child, and are completely given up by the parent. This form of parentification robs a child of having a “normal” childhood or the chance to “just be a kid.” A child may become the physical caretaker if a single parent is severely depressed, suffering from an addiction, or suffering from another form of mental health issue and thus unable to manage the daily tasks of the household.
Loss of Future Goals/Dream Fulfillment – The pressure that parentification causes on a child/teen is enormous as they feel a heightened sense of responsibility to provide at an age where they are still learning and developing. Such pressure can negatively impact their education, social life, and outside pursuits, stunting their ability to grow professionally and become the best they can be.
Anger – Parentification can cause intense anger and resentment towards the parent, and often adult children complain of having a “love-hate” relationship with their parent. Anger can be displaced as the child often cannot safely direct their feelings towards the parent of which they are taking care of.
Adult Attachment – Not having an appropriate model for attachment, parentified children often experience hardship in their own romantic relationships as adults as in doing so often stirs up feelings connected to their childhood and the role they played with their parent. When given the choice as an adult, the idea of attaching to someone emotionally may seem unpleasant and thus they are never fully able to enjoy a healthy bond with another adult.
Some will say that parentification makes one stronger, more resilient, and able to handle the unexpected in life as you get older. However, it is important to both remember that there is a cost to such gains, and that ultimately – a child is losing the choice to be a child and to have a parent.