What Is Parentification?

What Is Parentification?

Do you feel like you were pushed into taking care of your parents or siblings when you were only a child yourself? That you became an adult before you were ready for the role?

If you’re nodding, you may have been parentified. Being a “little parent” involves excessive responsibility or emotional burden that can impact a child’s development.

That said, it’s important to remember that some responsibility is a good thing. Helping out a parent on occasion and at the right level helps a child believe in themselves and their ability to one day also be an adult.

Let’s take a closer look at how and when the line into parentification is crossed.

In the typical order of things, parents give and children receive. Yes, sometimes — especially in the early morning hours when your baby is teething — the giving can seem never-ending.

But in general, parents are expected to give their children unconditional love and to take care of their physical needs (food, shelter, daily structure). Emotionally secure children whose physical needs are taken care of are then free to focus their energy on growing, learning, and maturing.

Sometimes, though, this gets reversed.

Instead of giving to their child, the parent takes from them. In this role reversal, the parent may relegate duties to the child. At other times, the child voluntarily takes them on.

Either way, the child learns that taking over the duties of the parent is the way to maintain closeness to them.

Children are pretty resilient. We’ve already said that some level of responsibility can help a child’s development — but 2020 research takes things further. The researchers suggest that sometimes, parentification can actually give a child feelings of self-efficacy, competence, and other positive benefits.

It seems that when a child feels positively about the person they’re caring for and the responsibilities that come with the role of caregiver, the child develops a positive self-image and feelings of self-worth. (Note that this isn’t a reason to pursue or justify parentification.)

Not all parents are able to take care of their children’s physical and emotional needs. In some families, the child takes over the role of caregiver in order to keep the family functioning as a whole.

Parentification can happen when a parent has a physical or emotional impairment, such as the following:

  • The parent was neglected or abused as a child.
  • The parent has a mental health condition.
  • The parent has an alcohol or substance use disorder.
  • The parent or a sibling is disabled or has a serious medical condition.

Parentification can also happen when life throws curveballs, like:

  • The parents are divorced or one parent has died.
  • The parents are immigrants and have difficulty integrating into society.
  • The family experiences financial hardship.

There are two types of parentification: instrumental and emotional.

Is it OK to step in when your child is having a dispute?

Is it OK to step in when your child is having a dispute?

Teacher, friendship expert and founder of a social-emotional wellbeing program for kids, Dana Kerford, explains the desire of parents to become involved usually stems from good intentions.

“That love you feel for your child is raw and visceral,” she says.

“But the second you find out [your child is in pain and] the pain came from another child, that sweet, warm mother hen morphs into Mama Bear.

“What once was warmth and compassion is now anger.”

And while emotions can run strong, Ms Kerford says it is important (in the majority of cases) to try not get involved in your child’s dispute for a whole host of reasons. Here, she outlines five of them.

Your kids fighting might give you a headache, but it can give them important life skills. Experts give tips on what you can do and whether you should do anything at all.

Ms Kerford says that often “involving the other child’s parent is humiliating, embarrassing, and erodes trust” between the parent and child.

2. You can’t view the situation or your child objectively

As a parent, “no matter how hard you try to see things from all perspectives, you will naturally have a bias towards your own child,” Ms Kerford says.

“You not only love your child; you also have a very large sample size of their behaviour to draw conclusions.”

3. Involvement can be charged by emotions

“When we picture anything negative happening to our child, we immediately experience an innate, sometimes even physical reaction,” Ms Kerford says.

While this is normal, it isn’t always helpful, she explains.

4. Your perspective is different than your child

“What’s huge to you might be small for them or vice-versa,” she says.

While you may think it warrants interception, your child may have moved past the issue by the next day.

5. It makes things unnecessarily awkward between you and that parent

“In the one out of 10 times where the conversation seems to go relatively well, even if both parents are well-meaning, it is often the beginning of the end,” she says.

“Your relationship with that parent will naturally feel awkward and one or both of you will come away feeling defensive,” something Ms Kerford says is instinctive.

This awkwardness and sense of discomfort became the reality for Amanda after she was contacted by Carly. She also says that she felt a prevalent bias by the other mother to her son.

Effects of marital dispute, divorce on children

Effects of marital dispute, divorce on children

Few would dispute that the different relationships that exist within a family affect the other members of the family as well. The most important relationship in this dynamic is that of parents and its effect on children. The quality of these relationships can affect children’s emotional, cognitive and physical development and can imprint on their mental health as an adult as well.

No relationship is free from turmoil. Conflicts and turmoil help individuals build and grow their relationships. It is a mistake to believe that children are unaware when parents argue behind closed bedroom doors. Children are more receptive to their parents’ emotions than we give them credit for.

Marital dispute or conflict has various dimensions that can determine the kind of effect it can create on the children like frequency, intensity, content, and resolution. Cummings classified marital conflicts as destructive and constructive. Constructive arguments involve a healthy argument between parents that ends in a resolution of the matter.

While constructive arguments can benefit children in learning conflict resolution, destructive conflicts can expose the child to further problematic parental interactions.

Destructive arguments consist of verbal aggression like name-calling, insults, threats of abandonment or physical aggression like hitting and pushing, or silent tactics like avoidance or sulking and withdrawing. When parental conflicts are such, children are collateral damage as they threaten the perceived intactness of the family. Conflicts that are hostile and heated can be overwhelming for children and being raised in such environments can impact their ability to form meaningful relationships and their belief in love and security.

From as early as the 1930s, researchers have recognized that disputes between parents have potentially debilitating effects on children’s development. While most children are exposed to periodic conflicts, intense, frequent, and poorly resolved conflicts are indicated to be very harmful.

A child continuously learns from their environment ever since birth. They learn most from their parents and their relationships. They undergo various physical, social, and emotional changes in life that are dependent on the nature of the relationships that surround them.

Marital conflict is a significant source of stress for children of all ages. These influences can be direct or indirect eliciting unhealthy internalized or externalized behavior in children.

Research indicates that during infancy, exposure to distress can result in hampered physical growth and psycho-social withdrawal. Young children may express fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness by displaying overt behavior like being non-compliant or being aggressive in school and among peers. They may also have trouble sleeping and communicating their feelings to their parents and act socially withdrawn. Conflicts during adolescence can result in decreased self-esteem, isolation, and delinquency.

Children often feel emotionally insecure in the family when they see their parents arguing. As a result, they may act out, or […]

5 Self-Soothing Tips To Heal Your Inner Child

5 Self-Soothing Tips To Heal Your Inner Child

“No one’s going back for that inner child. Except you.” ~Tanya Markul

Everyone has an inner child. Your inner child is You but it’s not a childlike personality you have held onto all these years. It’s your unconscious mind. It’s the You that has all those repressed memories and feelings from your childhood that resurface from time to time. Healing your inner child is essential to wellbeing and growth.

Signs Your Inner Child Might Be Trying To Reach You

According to American Psychological Association, “Research has found that relationships between parents and caregivers and youth that:

  • Are warm, open, and communicative;
  • Include appropriate limits, and
  • Provide reasoning for rules for behavior

are associated with higher self-esteem, better performance in school, and fewer negative outcomes such as depression or drug use in children and teenagers.”

Caregiver relationships impact social, cognitive, emotional and mental health. What happens when a child doesn’t receive a supportive relationship from a caregiver? An unmet childhood need for unconditional love and safety drives your inner child the most. You are most shaped by the early years of your life with the caregivers who surround you at that time. There are triggers, trauma responses and self-protection practices that may be in play if your inner child is provoked.

If Jane goes to her husband for validation and one day, he is too busy to give her a compliment, she may feel unseen and unheard. Her inner child longing for attention may be triggered. Jane then starts a fight over something seemingly small but big to her. She feels rejected even if her husband wasn’t intending this. Such a reaction happens often when the inner child is triggered. Anger as a secondary emotion comes out.

You relive the feelings of abandonment even if you are now in a healthier relationship. Intimacy may be more difficult to master due to projection of past pain. These triggers can also be simply being overwhelmed or stress or feeling like no one appreciates you. Triggers are different for each person.

Trauma responses may also show up in the following ways:

  • Not asking for help
  • Avoidance
  • Saying “I’m fine” when you are not
  • Feeling like a burden

Your self-protection practices might be in perfectionism, people-pleasing or power hunger as well as more. There are many ways this can manifest. You try to overcompensate for the neglect you once experienced as a child. You feel like you aren’t enough as you are, so you try even harder. Repression doesn’t help the situation. Your inner child will find a way through. It can be manifested in anxiety, depression, PTSD, emotional dysregulation, impulsivity, outbursts, difficulty functioning and withdrawal from others. If you ignore it, it just gets stronger. It’s often trying to tell you something is wrong. If it takes over your life, that’s when it’s time to reach out to a mental health professional for the best care.

Unresolved Trauma

Unresolved trauma can be the root of your struggles. Trauma can look like all sorts of things. According to Aundi Kolber, there’s “Big T trauma”—things like abuse, neglect, natural disaster, severe accident or experiencing a loss. Then there’s “little t trauma.” That’s when things happen that can seem as small as a paper cut (or insignificant) but over time, those cuts multiply and cause a lot of pain. Trauma is anytime your nervous system is overwhelmed and you exceed your window of tolerance for difficult emotions. Trauma can look different for each person. Therefore, comparison of trauma is an irrelevant aim. Trauma can affect your attachment styles, resulting in “attachment trauma.”

There are two types of attachment styles you have growing up—insecure and secure. Insecure looks like inconsistency and injustice. Secure is consistent and emotional support. Dr. Bruce Perry says that sometimes, you may experience patternless caregiving or care that is a mix of support and neglect.

According to Very Well Mind, “Thanks to neuroplasticity, the brain will begin to change as a person changes their behavioral patterns and beliefs. A person who is insecurely attached can build the security they need by integrating new, supportive, loving experiences into their lives.”

How To Engage With Your Inner Child

Healthline says merely acknowledging your inner child is the first step to healing and that it is “a process of self-discovery.”

Mindfully embrace the inner child with self-compassion. Mindfulness is simply being present and in tune with yourself. Sit with the inner child. Avoid judging your thoughts, but instead observe them objectively and thank them for existing. Allow them to have their space. Your inner child repressed things because it was afraid to take up space. It’s time to express that pain. It’s time to reclaim your childhood. It’s time to start again.

The Life-Changing Magic Of Having “Good Parents”

The Life-Changing Magic Of Having “Good Parents”

One day, when I was a teenager, my mom and I were driving down the highway listening to a playlist I’d made on my iPod, moving easily from one conversation topic to another, as we always did — and still do. This wasn’t a particularly special day; it was just another day for us — we were always going on drives or taking road trips together. On this day, though, she suddenly looked at me, and said that she wished she’d had moments like this as a daughter. She said she could never have imagined going on drives with her mother, enjoying music together and talking like friends. She didn’t mean it in a “you should be grateful for your life” kind of way, because she’s never been that person. She was just wistful. It was the first time I consciously reflected on the idea that maybe the way my parents treated me, and the way we related to each other, was not the way they had known their own parents — and they weren’t alone.

Honestly? I’m not sure who I would be if my parents had been different and if our relationship to one another hadn’t been what it was. Maybe I would still essentially be me. But would the trajectory of my life, the road to finding peace and contentment with who I am and where I am, have been a lot bumpier?

It’s hard to make sweeping statements or what-ifs about my life. Obviously, there are plenty of great, happy adults who had bad parents. There are also awful, unhappy adults who had good parents. It’s not something you can tell just by talking to someone, and that relative invisibility is partly why I want to talk about it, because, just like generational wealth, having good parents is a kind of hidden privilege. It’s not a privilege in the sense that people who have good parents should feel like they’ve gotten something over and above what they deserve, as could be said about, say, inheriting a massive trust fund. But while every child should have caretakers who love and support them unconditionally, it’s still a privilege in that it’s a big leg-up in life. And, unlike with a large inheritance, having good parents is the kind of benefit that you might carry around unwittingly, or giving much thought to how hard things might be if shittier people had raised you, something over which you’ve never had any control. While we choose friends, partners, other significant people in our lives as adults, our parents, of course, are a life-changing roll of the dice.

Of course, even though my parents are good, they are also imperfect people, just as I’m their imperfect daughter. Growing up, I went through peaks and valleys in my relationships with both of them, and there was plenty of fighting. When the three of us — I’m an only child — are under the same roof, we still fight, round robin-style so no one feels left out. They don’t have flawless personalities or always make the right decisions. But, having a serene, easy relationship isn’t the only criteria I’m using for good parenting. So, what makes a good parent a good parent, then?

According to psychotherapist Dr. Dana Dorfman, it’s not about saying and doing the objectively right thing every single time. In fact it’s not something that can be fully intellectualized at all — instead, she describes what good parenting might feel like to a child. “Almost through the cells of their body, they’re taking in the experience of being loved, being appreciated, of being nurtured, of being supported, of being soothed,” she says. It creates an aura of safety, the emotional equivalent of being wrapped in a snug blanket. And, it lasts.

In fact, it’s the unconditional aspect of this kind of love that’s the reason why I’ve never worried that my parents’ support for me could be dimmed by something I did or didn’t do, for example. Even through our worst, angriest fights, the ones where I — being a typical teenager — vowed that I would never speak to them again, it never occurred to me that they might withdraw a fraction of their affection if I kept up my rebellion. Conditional love, on the other hand, dangles affection and respect like a carrot on a stick in exchange for the “correct” behaviour. It’s a love so contingent on externalities that it provides no security at all.

The pain and impact of conditional love can be significant, explains Dorfman. You might internalize that “your true authentic self is not lovable, not acceptable,” she says. “A lot of times people just hide parts of themselves — but those parts of themselves need expression. [Hiding it] can only be sustained for so long. It increases the chances greatly that they will experience anxiety, depression, [and] physical symptoms.”

One of the major behavioural science “breakthroughs” of the mid-20th century was psychologist Harry Harlow’s work in showing that baby rhesus monkeys crave comfort and affection from their caretakers, not just food. It might seem obvious today, but the prevailing school of thought when Harlow began his research was that affection wasn’t necessary in child-rearing, and that, in fact, too much could produce weak, overdependent children. The thinking was that babies attached to their mothers solely because mothers gave them food, and not because parents provided essential comfort. Harlow’s experiments, showing that the baby monkeys preferred the company of fake mothers covered in soft cloth who didn’t offer food over fake mothers made of wire who did offer food, were instrumental in the shifting view of parental affection — a social change for human babies achieved through cruelty to young monkeys, who were deprived of affection and socialization and in many cases became depressed.

Asian Shame & Perfectionism

Asian Shame & Perfectionism

The need to excel, prove oneself, and be “perfect” is entrenched in the mindset of Asians struggling with the shame of perfectionism. When I work with clients grappling with this issue, it manifests as extreme insecurity often associated with fears of abandonment, rejection, or loss of relationships if others found them wanting in any areas.

Sheila, a second-generation Taiwanese-American confides to me she started striving to become “perfect” during her middle school years as a means to ward off social ridicule from peers and classmates. In other words, getting straight A’s was one means for her to protect herself from the incessant teasing and bullying in childhood. While the teasing didn’t stop during that time, what it did was give her a sense of adequacy amidst all the pain and hurt from her peers.

Fast-forward to current day, Sheila describes an unending need to always be “right” whether at work or in relationships (i.e. never saying the “wrong” thing, doing the wrong thing, appearing the wrong way, etc.). In her hypervigilance, her relationships and interactions with co-workers, acquaintances, and men became stilted to the point of having a number of scripted dialogues from which to draw from. Spontaneous interactions were rarely attempted due to the risk of possibly being judged as “awkward” or “insecure”.

In therapy, she shared of the pain of inadequacy when she’s not “at the top of her game”. If she ever was seen with doubt or hesitation at work, she would be plagued with the fear that her co-workers felt she was “less than”. In her dating life, the fear of rejection was exacerbated as she spent her time on dating apps obsessing over what she texted to the men (i.e. “Did I say the wrong thing?!”).

While aspiring to perfection is not a bad trait, what does become pathological is this feeling that you must be perfect (i.e. perfect child, perfect grades, perfect behaviors). The healing ironically is learning self-compassion and finding authentic and meaningful relationships that accept you regardless of your imperfections.