Parentification: how a child becomes a parent for mom and dad and what it leads to

What is parenting and how does it occur?

Parentification is a situation where children and parents seem to change places. The child takes the position of an adult and solves problems unusual for his age.

Usually the reason for this is some event that changes the state of affairs in the family. For example, one of the parents dies, and the second is very hard going through the loss. Mom or dad in this case may not be able to cope not only with their parental responsibilities. She or he begins to ignore matters that concern the survival of the family. The child in this case is forced to take care of the remaining parent physically. And pay bills, shop, maybe raise siblings.

A similar situation can arise if the parents get divorced , and the child, with everything else, still takes on the role of a mediator in conflicts. Or if someone in the family is seriously ill. Or if a brother or sister is born, and all care for the baby is outweighed by the elder.

Victoria Plyaskina

Private psychologist.

Parentification often occurs in single-parent families or in families where one of the parents suffers from addiction, is limited in opportunities due to illness. Unable to cope, he begins to shift the responsibility for his mistakes and failures to the child. For example, a woman, instead of divorcing her alcoholic husband, assigns his duties to her son: not to leave her mother, raise the younger ones, provide for the family, and so on.

Due to the fact that before the age of 14 children have not yet formed critical thinking, the child perceives such directives from his main adult as a call to action. He takes on the role of mother or father and begins to care for his brothers and sisters, for a sick parent, even if he himself has just learned to walk.

However, parentification can happen simply because the parent is not doing its job. Suppose he does not know how to process his emotions and splashes them out on the child. Then he is forced to first help the adult calm down, and then take care of himself. Either mom or dad discusses everything with the child on an equal footing, asks him for advice. Although he still, due to his age, cannot and should not think about it.

Julia Kaminskaya

Psychotherapist of the online psychotherapy service Zigmund.Online.

As a rule, adults bring confusion into family roles, trying to compensate for their psychological trauma, mental or physical deficits. The child happily begins to play the role in which he is valued, loved, because subconsciously for him it is a matter of survival – to meet the expectations of his mother.

Why Parentification is Dangerous

In the first decades of his life, a person grows and changes not only physically. It also develops as a person. A child is not forced to pass sports standards on an equal basis with adults. It is also better to load the psyche with feasible tasks. And the function of a parent is not only to feed and clothe children. His duties also include observing the challenges that life presents to the child, and in cases where he does not cope, help, explain, protect, support. To insure him, as if he was lifting the barbell and risking dropping it on his head. If this does not happen, problems arise.

Julia Kaminskaya

Parentification is always traumatic. Due to excessive responsibility, anxiety and depression can occur. Instead of enjoying the serenity of childhood, exploring the world, learning to fulfill their desires, the child has to bear a heavy load of responsibilities. Constantly putting the needs of other family members first, solving adult problems, the child loses all the advantages of childhood. Growing up, he loses the ability to enjoy life, to understand himself – his desires, emotions, needs.

Remaining in an infantile position, an adult does not learn to overcome problems. Thus, any crisis situation can become the strongest stress, provoking the development of mental problems.

How to understand that you are faced with parentification

Positive responses to several statements related to your relationship with your parents can lead you to think about this. In most cases, it is not even necessary to travel in memory several years ago. Usually these nuances are not formed from scratch in adulthood, but are drawn from childhood.

Important: one by one, these theses may be true for you, but mean nothing. Look at the whole situation.

Are you sure your parents can’t cope without you?

This statement is worth trying on with reservations. For example, if mom or dad is already many years old and some time ago you realized that they need your help , it is unlikely that we are talking about parentification. But it happens that a loved one is objectively in the prime of life, can earn money, serve himself, and so on, but you still feel that he cannot do without you. This is a wake up call.

Do you feel guilty about the troubles in your parent’s life?

Something happens to mom or dad, and you immediately take full responsibility for yourself: you didn’t save it, didn’t explain it, didn’t watch it. Explanations here seem to be superfluous: adults themselves are responsible for their lives, and they can still make mistakes and have every right to do so.

You don’t respect your parents

There is a nuance here: if a person is asked if he respects his parents, he will most often answer in the affirmative. Therefore, it is better to look at the observance of boundaries here. Do you find it possible to constantly point out to a parent that he is living the wrong way? Do you give direction on what to do or how to spend the money? Can you throw something out of his house without asking or hide it? In general, analyze how you violate the boundaries of mom or dad and whether this is similar to how toxic parents usually behave.

Are you actively involved in parenting relationships?

Couples quarrel and make up. Children sometimes find out about this and try to reason with their parents, this is normal. But it is not very good if you are constantly being made a third party. For example, adults immediately tell you that they had a fight, complain about each other, ask you to voice the conditions for reconciliation, influence, and so on.

Do you feel responsible for your brothers and sisters?

If you consider yourself a parent to them more than mom and dad, because you took care of siblings much more actively, this hints at parentification.

In case of problems, it does not occur to you to contact your parents

Such thoughts have nowhere to arise, because you are used to doing everything. Child-parent relationships are formed according to the principle “water does not flow up”. Mom and dad help the child and support him. With parentification, the roles change, so there is no thought that parents can cope with the problem with you.

You know too much about your parents

“Too much” is a subjective concept, so there is no indicator to rely on. And yet there are things that children usually do not know about their parents. For example, if they are divorced, mom or dad should not discuss the details of love affairs with them, ask for advice, and so on. As encouraging as the idea that a child and parent are best friends sounds, it’s not entirely normal .

What to do if you become a victim of parentification

You can’t go back in time and fix everything. But you can make your life more comfortable now.

Julia Kaminskaya

First of all, it is important to understand what consequences of the trauma of parentification you have taken into adulthood. If we are talking about the fact that you constantly continue to please mom and dad, suppressing your own dreams and needs, then you need to work on strengthening personal boundaries, learning to say no, letting go of guilt. It is best to discuss these issues in individual psychotherapy. A counselor can help prepare you to talk to your parents about the role you are no longer ready to take on.

You might find these Lifehacker articles helpful.

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What to do as a parent so as not to switch roles with a child

To begin with, do not panic and protect the child from any manifestations of independence. The process of maturation provides that he will gradually do more and more without your help and separate. Therefore, he needs to do different things himself.

Nothing bad will happen either if the child sometimes takes care of one of the parents or brothers and sisters. Especially if something happened that disrupts the course of normal life. For example, if the mother has a fever , the older child can feed her, herself and the younger ones. When the situation improves, he will return to the child role again.

Problems begin when children are required to perform adult duties continuously for quite a long time. Moreover, “require” here is not a synonym for “force”. A parent can influence not only punishment. Let’s say if he drinks himself unconscious, the child doesn’t really have a choice.

So avoiding parentification is simple and difficult at the same time. You just need to be a responsible adult in relation to your child.

Julia Kaminskaya

You must try to be conscious in communicating with the child. Do not take him as a friend, adviser or protector. Remember that the baby needs your love, support so that he feels the strength to explore the world and enjoy it. It is also important for a parent to learn how to solve problems, help themselves on their own, take responsibility for their lives, and ask other adults for help in times of crisis.

And if you hear from everyone that your child is independent beyond his years, you should take a closer look at your relationship. After all, there is no need to compete in the speed of growing up.

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