Parentification - A form of role reversal, in which a child is inappropriately given the role of meeting the emotional or physical needs of the parent or of the family’s other children.

Leaning on Little People

Some parents with Personality Disorders attempt to delegate part of the responsibility for meeting either the parent’s own emotional and physical needs, or the emotional and physical needs of other family members, to one of their children.

The usual target is the eldest or most emotionally or physically mature child in the family. . In some cases, a child of the opposite sex is chosen to meet the emotional and physical needs of the parent and assume the role of a “surrogate spouse”. For these Parentified children, there may be expectations they will sacrifice normal childhood needs like play, friendships with peers, sleep or schooling.

There are two common types of Parentification - physical and emotional.

Physical Parentification (Also Called Instrumental Parentification) occurs when a child is given the responsibility of looking after the physical needs of the parent and/or the other siblings. This can include duties such as cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, paying bills, managing the household budget, getting kids ready for school, supervising homework, dispensing medications or imposing discipline on younger children.

Physical Parentification is different from assigning a normal, healthy level of household chores to children, as it involves an unfair level of responsibility and allows the actual parent to abdicate part of their own responsibility for care of the children. It also becomes dysfunctional when the task assigned is beyond the developmental maturity of the child or where the assigned duties leave little or no time for the child to engage in normal childhood activities.

Emotional Parentification happens when a child is made responsible for looking after the emotional and psychological needs of the parent and/or the other siblings.

This can include cases where the parent begins to confide in the child, discussing their own adult problems and issues, and effectively using the child as a surrogate spouse or therapist. This kind of Emotional Parentification is sometimes referred to as “emotional incest”.

Other siblings, taking their cues from the parent, may also attempt to unburden themselves on the child.

How it Feels

Children are often anxious to please their parents and a Parentified child will often take their responsibilities very seriously. They may even feel honored initially by being treated like a ‘grown up’ and entrusted with responsibility for other family members or their parent. However, the child will generally suffer from having his or her own emotional needs neglected and from being compelled to live up to the burden of expectation. 
Parentified children may struggle with lingering resentment, explosive anger and difficulty in forming trusting relationships with peers, issues which often follow them into adulthood. Forming close, trusting romantic and spousal relationships may be particularly difficult.

What NOT To Do

  • Don't feel guilty about your situation. You are/were a child. It's not your fault.
  • Don't second-guess yourself with "what if's". Focus on what you can do today to make your situation more tolerable.
  • Don't accept your situation as normal. Don't apologize for being a child or for having child's thoughts, feelings and reactions.
  • Don't be ashamed or feel compelled to keep family secrets.

What TO Do

  • Try to find opportunities where you can be a kid again, and situations where you are accepted for who you really are.
  • Reach out to responsible adults, such as a therapist who is accountable to others.
  • Recognise you have a right to keep abusive family members at arm's length once you are an adult.
  • Forgive yourself for any negative feelings you hold about your childhood or parents, and find ways to process them.
  • Seek advice from people you know are/were good parents for ideas about how to parent your own children.