Children who experience “parentification” are kids who have to grow up too fast because they are expected to assume the role of a parent to their siblings or their own parents. There are a number of reasons why a child can be become parentified — some of which are avoidable, and some of which are not; but either way, the effects of parentification are swift and long-lasting.
If a parent dies, becomes incapacitated, or moves out, a child may feel they need to step in to help their remaining parent. Other times, parents may not have the necessary resources, whether financial or otherwise, which forces them to rely on an older child to help care for their younger siblings. Parentification can also happen if a parent is mentally unstable, dealing with addiction, or lacks the emotional capacity to act in an appropriate parental role.
The longterm effects of parentification
Whether intentional or not, avoidable or not, parentification can be an extraordinarily stressful situation for a child, and it often has long-lasting effects.
“Parentification is oftentimes a lack of boundaries within a family system,” says Christine Myers, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Thriveworks in Midlothian, Va.
A parentified child is often asked to assume responsibilities they are not prepared for, such as caring for a very young sibling or having a parent confide personal issues to them.
“The child is being expected to do things that cognitively they may be unable to and are not prepared for, which can lead to feelings like failure, shame, or low self-esteem,” Myers says.
Parentified children can develop issues that last well into adulthood, such as anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem, as well as the inability to form healthy relationships of their own. For those who were parentified as children, breaking this cycle can be very hard, as most of us learn about family relationships from watching our own. In other words, for a child growing up in that environment, parentification can seem very normal.
“We tend towards what we know,” Myers says.
Even if a person recognises this parentification wasn’t normal or healthy, they can still struggle to understand what healthy boundaries look like within a relationship and how to enforce them. Therapy can be helpful in addressing some of the thoughts and behaviours they developed to cope with the stress of being parentified, as well as to establish healthy habits going forward.
What to expect from therapy
Dealing with the effects of having been a parentified child often means confronting the dysfunctional beliefs and thought patterns associated with this experience. For example, a lot of parentified children grow up to feel acutely responsible for others, which is a habit that can be hard to unlearn. Therapy is often directed at unpacking these thoughts and behaviours, in order to address and resolve them.
There is also a certain amount of relationship habits they’ll need to unlearn, such as extreme independence or the impulse to care for others while neglecting their own needs.
“Children who have been parentified, as they get older, often find a lot of their identity in a caretaking role,” Myers says.
For an adult dealing with the effects of having been a parentified child, some of the therapies that can help include:
Trauma-based cognitive behavioural therapy
This is a type of therapy that helps patients identify and address dysfunctional thinking patterns and assumptions, in order to help them make sense of their experiences, as well as their understanding of themselves.
For adults who were parentified as children, this can include addressing their belief that they are solely responsible for the well-being of others, as well as their anxieties about their inability to handle age-inappropriate responsibilities.
Narrative therapy helps patients view themselves as separate from their problems, in order to give them enough distance from the issue to understand how it may be hurting them. This can help give patients a new perspective, one that can help them make changes in their thought patterns and beliefs.
For adults who were parentified as children, this can help them untangle their acute sense of responsibility toward others, as well as being overly invested in their identity as a caretaker to the point of neglecting their own needs.
Since parentification is an issue that arises due to a lack of appropriate boundaries within families, family therapy can help break unhealthy patterns within a family unit, as well as establish what healthy boundaries should look like.
Adults who were parentified as children often have a hard time establishing healthy relationships of their own. Couples therapy can address these issues by helping establish healthy boundaries within a relationship, as well as helping to improve communication.
Parentification forces children to grow up too fast in a way that is stressful and unhealthy. As difficult as the longterm effects may be, parentification need not define a person. Instead, with the appropriate recognition of what happened, as well as the right therapy, this is a cycle that can be broken.