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.