What is parentification and how to know if it applies

parentification

Parentification takes place when the needs of the parent come before those of the child. It results in a role reversal where the child takes on responsibilities that should belong to the parent.

You may not realize you’ve been parentified because you didn’t have to cook dinner or care for younger siblings. If you had to manage your parent’s emotions or act as their confidante, however, that is parentification, too.

For example, at age 16 my mother confided in me about her extra-marital affair including all her feelings about both the man and my father. This is an obvious role reversal because instead of serving as my emotional support, she made me hers.

If you had to act as an interpreter for immigrant parents, that’s parentification. If you had to cover up for a parent with an addiction, or console a bereaved or divorced parent, that’s also parentification.

Parentification comes in different forms

You need not have been treated like Cinderella to have experienced parentification. It’s characterized mainly by responsibilities outside the scope of what a child should be expected to take on.

You need not have been treated like Cinderella to have experienced parentification. Click To Tweet

These responsibilities can be physical or emotional. For example, as a two-year-old, I had to climb into my sister’s crib every morning and take care of her because my parents refused to get out of bed.

When she started kindergarten, I was responsible for taking her to and from school, collecting and dropping her off at her classroom when I was seven years old. This was normal for Generation X, but that doesn’t make it right.

As a result, my sister came to expect unconditional support from me, without giving any in return. She admitted to viewing me as a surrogate parent, more than our actual parents, which placed an undue burden on me.

I never had the opportunity to stay behind and play with kids my age. I had to walk my sister home from school. This is one of the ways parentification prevents us from accessing our playful side.

The effects of parentification

parentification

I’m not interested in the reasons parents do this to their children. I’m interested in the effect it had on you.

As a parentified child, you’re probably over-responsible. That means you will likely overgive in your adult relationships and abandon your own needs.

You might have a weak sense of self because you’ve been forced to focus on the needs of others. Instead of discovering your own needs, wants, and interests, you were made into a little worker for your parents.

You may have trouble understanding your emotions because you’ve been forced to hyper-focus on other peoples’ feelings.

For example, you recall your parents throwing tantrums but you had to stay calm. In healthy households, toddlers throw tantrums and parents manage them, but in your house those roles got reversed.

In healthy households, toddlers throw tantrums and parents manage them, but in your house those roles got reversed. Click To Tweet

As an adult you might suppress your needs and try to take care of everything yourself. It may feel uncomfortable or impossible to ask anyone for help.

That’s because you never had anyone to go to as a child when you needed support. It’s understandably hard to believe that support will be there for you when you’ve never received it. It’s logical, in fact.

Feeling alone and isolated

This leads to feeling alone and isolated in the world. You may even have trouble receiving love when someone sincerely tries to give it to you.

If you’ve struggled with any of these feelings or experiences, I encourage you to join us at a free online retreat I’m hosting. The Dysfunctional Family Detox will feature 15 trauma-informed speakers on topics like family scapegoating, narcissistic abuse, no contact, the father wound, and many more.

The speakers are more than experts; they are survivors of the topics on which they speak. Come join us and know you’re not alone in your experience. Gain the support and tools you need to heal from parentification.

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6 Comments

  1. Rebecca

    Hi Laura,
    Thank you for this article. As a young child, my dad treated me (and my siblings) like his little slaves. We had to wait on him hand and foot as soon as he got home from work until he fell asleep. Later in life, my mom divorced him and my dad would call me crying his eyes out every day. One day he told me he had a shotgun and was going to kill himself unless I could get my mom to come back to him. I didn’t think any of that would have affected me as an adult but I have turned into such a people pleaser that by the end of the day I am so emotionally, & physically exhausted and mentally drained that I suffer from multiple physical ailments including extreme muscles knots throughout my body and horrible headaches. I never take time for myself (I’m a mother of 3) because I have the kids and my husband and the dogs and I think that taking time for myself is being selfish. I also have a hard time with relationships, I can never give 100%…I always hold 5% back (I don’t know why but it frustrating as it affects my marriage). Do you think what I experienced as a child would be cause for all this and did I really experience childhood trauma?

    • Hi Rebecca, yes I would say you experienced severe childhood trauma and that will have a huge impact on your adult outcomes. Physical consequences of this type of trauma include chronic pain and illness. It’s vital for your health to take steps to resolve this. I’d encourage you to come to the free retreat I’m hosting on April 18-20 to get some insight and go from there. I also offer private support if you need.

  2. Diana Achieng

    Hi, I still don’t understand how I bumped into your content but OMG!!! OK, my story is that my parents did separate when I was nine. I ended up in my mom’s sister home for four years then switched to another aunt for seven years until I finished school. I went through both verbal and emotional abuse and even after telling my parents, none of them would believe me.
    My aunt u fortunately did pass away suddenly when I was at home with her and surprisingly I was blamed for her death, that aybe I did push her or suffocate her!( one thing I’ve never told my parents about)

    Now at my current age(22), I have to support my parent financially although I don’t stay with him as I was forced to start working as early as 19 years to provide for myself basic stuff I may need. Currently I can’t make or even keep friends as I always pull myself away, always feel isolated even though I have people who try to reach out. Strangers be telling me to get out of my comfort zone, or try to open up more, smile more or get out more. once was abused by my previous boss as I was the only employee who didn’t interact that much with the rest and came from a different tribe and also was the youngest of all.
    I’m still wondering if what I went through in my past life was the reason I’m currently living in this dark hole.

    • Hi Diana, I’m glad you wrote and yes what you went through in life is directly related to living a life that doesn’t feel good to you. It is not just me saying it, research has proven this to be true. I would recommend looking up the ACES study and even finding your score. From what you’ve said, you would benefit from learning more about complex PTSD. You could read Complex PTSD by Pete Walker for a start. You do not “have” to support your parent financially; you have been conditioned to do so. My prayer is that you will realize this soon and begin to support yourself instead. I hope you will join us at the retreat on April 18 – I’m sure it will be very helpful and give you some first steps toward a life you want.

  3. Cecilia

    Hi Laura, i am so glad that I came across your content. As a child, I witnessed cheating from both my parents. My dad was physically abusive to my mom. I had to constantly protect my mom. I now how a relationship with someone for 15 years that repeatedly cheats and lies. I can’t seem to be able to let him go, I am so scared he would leave and go with another women. I constantly have to check his phone to make sure he’s not cheating again. I am physically and emotionally drained. Why can’t I let him go? What child traumas do I need to heal in order to have a healthy relationship. Please help.

    • Hi Cecilia, I’m glad you’re here, too. From what you describe I would look into anxious attachment and love addiction for more insight into what’s driving you to accept this behavior. I hope you will come to our retreat on April 18 and email me if you want to work together for deeper support.