The parent has a very important role in the development of the child. They have to offer unconditional love and care. The goal is to let the children be free to grow and learn. The problem is that being such a parent is not a reality for some people. They end up relying on children and they do this in very inappropriate ways. This is what leads to the appearance of parentification, which is something you should avoid at all costs.
What Is Parentification?
Parentification is what happens when children and parents have their roles reversed. The term appeared thanks to the work of Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy.
To put it as simple as possible, the parent looks at the child for practical or/and emotional support. Basically, the child is the one that turns into a caregiver. Parentified children end up assuming adult behaviors and responsibilities and this happens way before the child is ready for this. There is no support or acknowledgement that comes with the new responsibilities.
We are talking about a very dangerous role reversal. It completely disrupts maturing, which should be a natural process. The child’s physical and mental health are negatively affected.
Why Does Parentification Appear?
Usually, the parent ends up compromised. This is why it is common to see parentification when parents:
- Have substance use disorders or alcohol problems.
- Experienced abuse or neglect when they were a child.
- Suffer from some sort of mental illness.
- Do not have the emotional support naturally needed from other adults.
- Are disabled.
- Have serious medical conditions.
We can also say that financial hardship, sibling illness, or divorce can lead to this.
Parentification – The Two Types
When looking at parentification, there are 2 types that have to be highlighted.
The first type is instrumental parentification. In this case, children are taking on some practical responsibilities, including:
- Assuming duties around the house, like grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning.
- Taking care of relatives when parents are not capable of doing it.
- Attending to specific household tasks, like paying bills.
- Being a translator when parents speak different languages.
The second type is emotional parentification. In this case, the child:
- Has to listen to parents talking about the problems they have.
- Offers advice.
- Acts as a mediator between family members.
- Serves as the parent’s confidante.
- Offers emotional support and comfort to the parent.
Healthy Communication Versus Parentification
In several situations, it is actually a very good thing for the parent to discuss about their feelings when talking to a teen or a child. But, this needs to be done in totally age-appropriate ways. This is actually highly recommended since children can easily end up blaming themselves or being confused as the parent is not happy and they have no idea why. However, this does not mean that the child should offer help for the parent to deal with their emotions.
Kids should help around the house and can take care of siblings. However, this does not mean that it should happen all the time. There is an appropriate measure for this. What is very important is to not have this at the expense of the teen’s or child’s physical or emotional health. Also, academic studies should not be disrupted.
Relational trauma and chronic stress can easily appear due to parentification. It is actually a type of neglect from the parent. This can easily lead to long-term and even short-term effects on the life of a child. When caregiving starts early, the child can end up with more negative consequences.
The parentified child or teenager might exhibit some symptoms. The following are common:
- Suicidal thoughts
- Compulsive overworking
- Unrelenting worry
- Feeling shame or guilt
- Social isolation
- Depression and anxiety physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches
Unfortunately, statistics tell us that around 1.4 million adolescents and children in the US experience instrumental or emotional parentification. Even so, it is unrecognized or overlooked. Most likely, there are several other children in this situation.
Parentification – Long-Term Effects
The big problem is that parentification has long-term effects that continue into adulthood. Adverse childhood experiences can easily lead to serious physical and mental health problems for the child. There is a lot of ongoing stress that will change the child’s brain, directly affecting the regulation of memory, stress management, and emotions.
Parentified children often grow up as adults with serious problems, like:
- Not being able to trust other people.
- Being involved in unhealthy or violent relationships.
- Not being able to function independently.
- High chance of suffering from chronic physical illness.
- An inappropriate sense of authority or entitlement.
- High risk of depression, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and anxiety.
How Can Parentification Be Treated?
Treating the effects of parentification is all about addressing resulting trauma, chronic stress, and neglect. This means that addressing parentified children is not as easy as you might think. Usually, there are several treatment options that are considered in order to help the child when reaching adulthood. Some of the most common ones are:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (needs to be trauma-focused) – This is used to shift the unhelpful thought patterns.
- EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing) – These help release and resolve trauma.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy – Very helpful in transforming and identifying one’s self-destructive behavior.
- Comprehensive Resource Model – This involves several elements of spirituality, psychology, body-based techniques, and neurobiology.
- Experiential Modalities – Like equine-assisted therapy and creative arts therapies. This allows teens and children to better process emotions without needing to use words.
There were also great results obtained with the use of meditation and yoga. These contemplative practices help build great tools that parentified children can end up using to regulation emotion and improve self-awareness.
Parentification treatment is all about repairing all the damage that appeared because of the child’s disrupted childhood. This automatically means that healing needs to be gradual. Early experiences in our lives have very strong impact on our development. The parentified child lacks very important skills. They cannot develop caring relationships and healthy boundaries, which are vital for a happy, balanced life.