A 21-year-old young man walks into my office. He looks tired, stressed-out and anxious. He had just put out his cigarette before stepping inside. His gaze wanders all over the place, his legs are jumpy and restless as he sits down. He has the face of a 50-year-old man taking care of a family of 5. And that’s because, even though he has four perfectly healthy adults at home, in his mind and in the way he was positioned in the family system, he is.
Here we have a case of parentification. Parentification is what happens when the roles of parent and child are reversed. Simply put, sometimes the roles are reversed, sometimes the child isn’t recognized as a child, but is instead given parents’ responsibilities.
There are two types of parentification:
Emotional parentification would be when a child feels responsible for the emotional wellbeing of others in their family. This child is expected to listen to their parent(s) talk about their problems, offer advice, mediate between members of the family, keep secrets, provide comfort and support etc.
Instrumental parentification is the occurrence when a child participates in the physical maintenance of the family. They are expected to work with their parents or to take over their work responsibilities, to pay the bills, to have the answers to practical questions, to offer financial advice, to take care of siblings or other relatives.
None of the aforementioned things are bad in themselves. They are only ‘bad’ when they are taken to the extreme, when the parent looks to their child for support in coping with their emotions. It‘s perfectly okay to foster open communication about everything, including feelings. However, it isn‘t okay for a child to be all too aware of their parents‘ emotional turmoil or how severe the financial situation was.
It‘s also important to point out that not all adults who were given too many responsibilities as children, end up suffering the consequences of it. In fact, research shows that only about a quarter of them do experience negative outcomes such as stress, anxiety, chronic worry, depression etc. Having many responsibilities as a child can render one a very resourceful and resilient adult.
However, in my practice I‘ve encountered ones who weren‘t so lucky. It‘s important for a person to have a carefree childhood, that isn‘t overburdened by someone elses‘s problems. Sometimes, when this doesn‘t happen, it brings with it certain risks. I often hear things like: “I didn‘t really play much as a child” or „I was like a mother to my mother..” People reporting feeling that they were robbed of their childhoods, now entering the world of adults, when they feel they’ve been “adulting” their whole lives.
How do you recognize the parentified child as an adult?
Depending on their specific circumstances, they might be unable to relax, they may have episodes of uncontrolled anger, they may take on everyone else’s responsibilities, they may feel uncomfortable when alone (and with nobody to take care of), they may find it hard to express their feelings, they may glorify their strength and self-reliance, while being unable to establish a nurturing and equal connection with others.
This can all be undone and, since it was formed in relation to others, it can best be resolved in relation to others, but in a different, more nurturing contact. A therapist can help you look into all the needs you had and that weren’t met, they can help you accept the past and let it stay in the past, and they can give you the support you need in order to assume responsibility for yourself and for where your life goes from there. In case you can’t afford therapy at this moment, try thinking about these things yourself (perhaps try some free-style writing on the subject), and/or talk to your loved ones about it, try to learn to ask for and accept support. We all need it and we all deserve it.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Branka Mlinar is a psychologist and Gestalt therapist offering psychotherapy and counseling to adolescent and adult individuals. She’s mostly worked with problems of anxiety, interpersonal and relationship issues, procrastination, work-related stress, trauma, and grief.
Houshyar S., Gold A., & DeVries M. (2012), Resiliency in Maltreated Children, Springer Link.
Nichols, M. P., & Schwartz, R. C. (1984). Family therapy: Concepts and methods. New York: Gardner Press.