Parentification: Types, Causes, Symptoms and Ways to Overcome Parentification

What is Parentification?

Parentification is a term used for a role reversal in which the child has to step up as a caretaker or the protector of the family. In a normal way, parents are expected to give their children love and look after their needs such as food, shelter, and daily structure. This way children are emotionally free to focus their energy on growing and learning.

Parentification is sometimes given by the parents and at times voluntarily taken up by the children themselves. The child takes over the duties of the parents in order to be close to them.

Some level of responsibility can help children become responsible. Research shows parentification can give children a feeling of competence, self-efficacy and has positive benefits as well.(1) It is believed, if a child positively cares for someone or has a responsibility as a caregiver, he develops a feeling of self-worth.

Types of Parentification

Parentification or role reversal is of two types:

Emotional Parentification

In emotional parentification, the parents confide secrets to their children and go to their children in a search of support.

In such cases, children are expected to give advice on grown-up situations, household arguments, and also comfort their siblings. In response, they do not get the same emotional support.

The children in emotional parentification need to identify the emotional needs of the parents and provide support. It can in fact be more damaging than instrumental parentification.

Instrumental Parentification

In instrumental parentification, children are put in charge of duties such as cooking dinner, paying bills, making a grocery list, booking medical appointments, and getting their younger siblings ready for school.

This does not mean if you ask a 10-year-old to pack their own back or get their dress ready for the next day of school, you are engaging in instrumental parentification. It is just that you make them realize their own abilities in age-appropriate ways. These situations are different from the persistent, pervasive, and intense demands the parents put on their child, which is referred to as instrumental parentification.

Causes of Parentification

Sometimes parents are not able to take over the responsibilities of their child’s physical and emotional needs, and in turn, depend on them for the same.

The causes of parentification are as follows:

  • A parent who is neglected or abused as a child.
  • A parent with some mental health condition.
  • A parent with alcohol abuse or any substance abuse disorder.
  • A disabled parent or sibling
  • Divorced parents or when one parent has died.
  • Immigrant parents having difficulty integrating into society.
  • A family with financial hardships.

Symptoms Presented by a Parentified Child

Depending on the degree of parentification, a child undergoes different levels of hurt.

Symptoms shown by a parentified child are as follows:

Stress and Anxiety

Parentification leads to stress and anxiety as a child is not able to cope with a constant responsibility.

Physical Symptoms

A child may present symptoms such as headache and stomach ache with no known source.

Disruptive Behavior

Children may show disruptive behavior such as difficulty in academics, aggressiveness, and social challenges.

They may experience anger and depression with a sense of having lost out on their childhood.

Curtailed Development

A child may get reluctant in participating the activities that their peers engage in. They may not even enjoy playing around.

Disconnected Feelings

A parentified child experiences inability to connect with his own feelings. They may start ignoring their feelings and try figuring out or completing the task assigned by adults in order to get close to them. This way their fail to put their feelings into words.

Inability to Validate Feeling

With no one to validate their feeling, the parentified children develop a feeling of self-blame and guilt.

Substance Abuse

In the effort to come over the unpleasant feeling children may self-medicated or indulge in substance abuse.

Overcoming Parentification

Parentified children do not necessarily require treatment to overcome it. Those suffering from any mental health condition due to it may need a visit to a mental health professional.

Those with anxiety and depression may need cognitive behavior therapy that may help change their thought pattern and feelings about self.

Early identification of parent-child dynamics is good for the child.

Trying to get in touch with the inner child can help an adult who had been parentified as a child. Here are a few exercises that may help:

  • Keeping a photograph of yourself as a child handy and look at it.
  • Speak to the inner child and have a friendly conversation
  • Write a note or a letter to the inner child.

Role reversal can have short-term and long-term consequences that may be painful. Advice from a mental health professional and support groups may help.

Be compassionate about yourself and try finding your wants and needs, learn to trust others, and rewire how your brain views attachment and self-worth. Knowing your worth will help you in being a happy, healthy and joyful person.