Our relationships with our parents can be complex. Yet, many of us know we can count on them to provide emotional support, advice and guidance. But what happens when our roles become reversed?
Even at the best of times, our relationships with our parents can be complex. Yet, we all know there are certain responsibilities we can rely on them for whilst growing up (and often beyond): to provide unconditional love and support, to protect us, give us a home, support us while we’re getting an education, seek medical care on our behalf, and help teach us right from wrong.
But what happens when the roles become reversed? And what kind of long-term effects can that have on who we become as people?
What is parentification?
While growing up, did you ever feel like you had to help take care of your parents or siblings? Perhaps you were expected to help look after a middle brother or sister, while your parents looked after the youngest? Maybe you were expected to help learn how to change nappies, give baths, or make tea for your siblings when your parents were busy. Or perhaps you had to take on helping more due to a parent’s long-term or chronic illness.
These can all be signs of parentification. Parentification is when you take on excessive levels of responsibilities that can impact your development. This could mean taking on tasks around the house that are too much or shouldn't be expected of you at that age, or taking on emotional caring responsibilities, which can lead to you hiding or suppressing your own needs, wants, and desires.
As explained by one Counselling Directory member, “Parentification occurs when a child is put in a position where they have to grow up ‘too early too soon’. For highly empathic children, because they have the warmth, compassion, and depth that is beyond the normal, their family members come to – usually unintentionally and unconsciously – lean on them.”
While having a little responsibility can be beneficial and is considered a good thing, too much too young, or inappropriate types of responsibility, can have a detrimental effect.
The parent-child relationship
Emotionally, it is reasonable to expect unconditional love and support from our parents. Physically, it’s normal to expect food, shelter, and some form of structure. Together, all of these things can create an environment where we can safely learn, grow, and mature. But, sometimes, that relationship can become reversed. Instead of giving these things, a parent expects to receive them.
Types of parentification
Parentification typically falls into one of two categories: instrumental (when a child or teen is given responsibilities, chores or tasks that aren’t appropriate for their age) and emotional (when a child or teen tries to fulfil specific emotional needs for their parent, voluntarily or involuntarily).
Instrumental parentification can include:
- Taking on more cleaning responsibilities than is reasonable (e.g. instead of just tidying their own room, they are expected to clean the whole house).
- Cooking meals for the whole family (e.g. instead of packing their own lunch box at an appropriate age, being responsible to make dinner every night for everyone).
- Household management (e.g. being expected to organise paying bills or do weekly food shops).
- Being expected to take care of a sick family member (e.g. being expected to fully care for a sick brother or sister).
Emotional parentification can be harder to spot, but can also be more harmful to children’s development. Here, parents may expect their child or teen (consciously or unconsciously) to figure out what they (the parent) needs, respond to that need, and provide support. For example, this could involve a parent choosing to verbally overshare that they feel overwhelmed and too stressed to do anything else in their life, resulting in their child feeling unable to share their own needs and struggles, in an effort to support and help their parent.
Signs and symptoms of parentification
How parentification affects us, and to what extent, can vary depending on the age you were when parentification began, and how much responsibility you were expected to take on. For younger children, this could lead to:
- Physical symptoms (tummy aches or headaches with no known cause).
- Emotional symptoms (feelings of stress, anxiety, or being unable to cope).
- Behavioural symptoms (disruptive or aggressive behaviour, difficulty academically or with social situations).
- Developmental symptoms (reluctance to play, not wanting to engage in activities with classmates or others their age).
In teenagers, symptoms of parentification can show in a number of different ways. These can include:
- Self-blame, self-doubt, or guilt.
- Trouble connecting with, understanding, or identifying their own feelings.
- Feelings of anger, depression, or having lost/missed out on their childhood.
- Substance use.
For adults who were parentified as children or teens, this can have long-term effects. These can include:
- Difficulties with relationships. You may have trouble trusting others, feel a need to be self-reliant, or seek out unhealthy relationships that cause you to take on a caregiving role.
- Worrying about being abandoned.
- Difficult developing parenting skills or over-parenting (when you try and help too much in an effort to avoid your child feeling hurt, making mistakes, or otherwise ‘failing’).
- Higher chances of experiencing poor mental health (anxiety, depression, sleep problems).
How do I know if I was parentified as a child?
The boundaries between healthy and unhealthy levels of responsibilities can feel blurry sometimes, especially if we have nothing to compare them to. As parentification can often be intergenerational, you may not have any other family members who you feel you can turn to compare your experiences with.
- Did I feel the need to be in control, have trouble ‘letting loose’, or feel like I needed to be responsible for others?
- Was I pulled into arguments, feeling caught in the middle, or acting as a go-between for my parents?
- Do I have trouble remembering being a kid, or remembering fond childhood memories?
- Was I often complimented for being good, responsible, reliable, or helping out?
These can all be signs that you may have experienced parentification and, if you feel it may be negatively impacting your mental health, wellbeing, or relationships, it could be worth speaking with a therapist.
How and why does parentification happen?
Parentification may happen accidentally when a parent gradually or suddenly stops fulfilling their duties, if a parent is unable to take care of their child's needs, or even when a child volunteers to take them on to help lessen the load for their parents.
Parentification can be more likely to occur if:
- Your family is going through a time of financial hardship
- Parents divorce
- One (or more) parents die
- Your parent has a mental health condition(s)
- Your parent was neglected or abused as a child
- A parent or sibling has a serious medical condition or is disabled
- Your parent has an alcohol or substance use disorder
Studies have shown that while parentification can happen to any gender, background, or ethnicity, boys are more likely to experience parentification than girls.
Is parentification always bad?
It can vary significantly from person to person. Some children may experience positive effects, while others may experience negative. Generally speaking, those who experienced parentification towards a sibling, or who saw their relationship with their parent in a positive light, may have long-term positive effects.
One study published in 2020 revealed that some children may benefit from parentification. Research published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies suggests that parentification may give some children feelings of competence, self-efficacy, and other positive benefits. This can lead to some children, when they have positive feelings for the person they are caring for and the responsibilities they have taken on, to develop positive feelings of self-worth and self-image.
An earlier study released in 2017 revealed that while parent-focused parentification is more likely to lead to a child feeling stressed, sibling-focused (while still causing stress) can provide other benefits in the form of positively impacting the relationship between siblings.
Parentification is considered by some experts to be a form of childhood trauma. While there can be some benefits to parentification, it is still not advised to purposefully try and parentify a child. Research overwhelmingly shows that early childhood development is the foundation for our lives: for what behaviours we will learn, our health, our emotional development, our abilities to learn, how we will respond to day-to-day stresses and challenges, and even our ability to form and maintain relationships.
As explained by one therapist on Counselling Directory, “Children who are parentified often grow up feeling hyper-vigilant and hyper-responsible. They are used to being the ones who make sure that everything is in order and for being responsible for meeting not just their own needs but also others. They are programmed into feeling that if they let go of the control wheel for just a minute, things will go wrong.”
This can lead children to develop a need for perfectionism, striving for high standards and putting additional pressure on themselves, which can, in turn, lead to chronic stress and anxiety.
How to avoid parentifying your children
Understand the signs
Knowing the signs to look out for is a great first step. This can help you to avoid falling back on intergenerational patterns and behaviours that you yourself may have grown up with, that may have negatively impacted you.
Define healthy boundaries and responsibilities
Ensuring you define responsibilities within your family can also be a big help. What level of responsibilities or chores is reasonable for each child, depending on their age and abilities? Are the tasks they are taking on still leaving them enough time and space (emotionally and physically) to still complete all homework, revise, look after their mental and physical wellbeing, as well as to develop and maintain friendships?
Know that it’s OK to show emotion
If you’re worried about emotional parentification, it can be tempting to try and hide when you are feeling sad, upset, stressed, or even worried. But showing your emotions can be a healthy way to normalise the experience of these feelings for children and teens. Through seeing you handle your emotions in a healthy, proactive way, it can help them to better understand their own feelings, and develop ways of coping – as long as they are only seeing how you are feeling, and they are not being made responsible for helping you change or ‘fix’ these feeling.
If you’re worried, working with a counsellor or therapist can help you to talk through which areas are causing concern, help you to learn healthier coping mechanisms, and provide a safe, judgement-free environment.
Healing and moving on
If you are continuing to feel a negative impact from parentification, there are ways you can seek help. If you are experiencing ill mental health due to parentification (e.g. anxiety or depression) working with a mental health professional can be a positive step to take. A counsellor can help you to challenge and change unhelpful thought patterns and negative feelings about yourself with the help of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Inner child therapy, designed to help those who were hurt by adults or circumstances as a child, can also be a helpful way of changing bad thinking habits and learning new ways to interact with others to improve our relationships.
It is never too late to seek help for parentification. If you are worried, feel you could benefit from talking with someone, or are struggling with your mental health, visit Counselling Directory for more information or speak to a qualified counsellor.