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What Is Parentification? Signs of a Parentified Child

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In healthy parent-child relationships, parents give and children receive. The role of a parent is to provide care and unconditional love so that children are free to focus their energy on learning and growing. However, not all individuals have the stability and inner resources to be this kind of parent. Instead, they may rely on their children in inappropriate ways. The result is a phenomenon known as parentification.

According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, about 1.4 million children and adolescents in the United States experience parentification. However, it is often overlooked or unrecognized. Therefore, it’s possible that many more children and teens belong in this category.

What Is Parentification?

Parentification occurs when parents look to their children for emotional and/or practical support, rather than providing it. Hence, the child becomes the caregiver. As a result, parentified children are forced to assume adult responsibilities and behaviors before they are ready to do so. In addition, they do not receive acknowledgment or support for taking on these responsibilities.

The word parentification was coined by the Hungarian-American psychiatrist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, one of the founders of the field of family therapy. The word describes what happens when the roles of parent and child are reversed. Consequently, this role reversal disrupts the natural process of child development. In most cases, it has far-reaching negative effects on the child’s mental and physical health.

“When parentification assumes pathological proportions, parents are often unwittingly replaying painful and abusive scripts from their own childhood and setting the stage for succeeding generations to do the same.”

—Gregory J. Jurkovic, author of Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child

Types of Parentification and Parentification Examples

Experts have identified two distinct types of parentification: instrumental and emotional.

Instrumental Parentification vs. Emotional Parentification

In cases of instrumental parentification, children take on practical responsibilities such as:

  • Taking care of siblings or other relatives because a parent is unable to
  • Assuming housekeeping duties, such as cleaning, cooking, and grocery shopping
  • Paying bills and attending to other household tasks
  • Being a caretaker for a parent with a disability, illness, or mental health disorder
  • Serving as a translator in families where the parent does not speak the primary language of their resident country

Emotional parentification involves a child providing emotional support to a parent, including:

  • Listening to a parent talk about their problems
  • Offering advice to a parent
  • Mediating between a parent and another family member
  • Serving as a confidante for their parent
  • Providing emotional comfort and support to a parent

Adaptive Parentification vs. Destructive Parentification

Gregory J. Jurkovic, author of Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child, identified another division between types of parentification. Adaptive parentification usually involves the child taking on adult responsibilities for short periods of time due to necessity. This might be because a parent or sibling is sick, for example. Destructive parentification is ongoing and involves what Jurkovic described as a long-term “violation of intergenerational boundaries.”

Parent-Focused Parentification vs. Sibling-Focused Parentification

In addition, parentification can be parent-focused or sibling-focused. Parent-focused parentification describes caregiving directed toward the parent or primary caregiver. Sibling-focused parentification indicates that the child or teen has taken a caregiving role toward a sibling or siblings.

Reasons for Parentification

In most cases of parentification, the parent is compromised in some way. Hence, it is more likely to occur when a parent:

  • Has an alcohol or substance use disorder
  • Is disabled or has a serious medical condition
  • Does not have sufficient emotional support from other adults
  • Experienced neglect or abuse as a child
  • Suffers from a mental illness.

Moreover, financial hardship, divorce, or the illness of a sibling can create conditions that may lead to parentification.

Is Parentification Trauma?

Parentification can be a form of parental neglect or abuse, particularly in extreme cases. This can result in what’s known as relational trauma. Relational trauma occurs in childhood when the bonds between parent and child are somehow disrupted or broken. This creates a state of chronic stress in which children are unable to access the support and protection they need.

Parentification child trauma can produce both short- and long-term impacts on a child’s life and well-being. And the earlier the parentification begins, the more negative the consequences for the parentified child.

The Dangers of Parentification

As with other types of childhood trauma, parentification can result in a wide range of mental health issues. Parentified children may have a hard time building trust and may have problems with anger and emotional regulation. In addition, parentified children may suffer from the manifestations of underlying trauma, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance use disorder.

As parentified children become young adults, they often struggle with relationships, particularly romantic relationships. They may not know how to set boundaries with others or how to get their needs met in healthy ways.

Parentified Child Symptoms

A parentified teenager may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Anxiety, particularly regarding caring for others
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Compulsively overworking in order to fulfill responsibilities at school and at home
  • Feelings of guilt and shame
  • Unrelenting worry
  • Social isolation
  • Physical symptoms of anxiety and depression, such as stomachaches, headaches, etc.

Long-Term Parentification Effects

The impact of parentification trauma typically continues into adulthood. Research shows that having adverse childhood experiences increase the likelihood of both mental and physical health problems. The ongoing stress of such experiences actually changes the brain—shrinking the hippocampus, the part of the brain that regulates memory, emotion, and stress management.

Hence, adults who were parentified as children or teens may experience the following:

  • Inability to trust others
  • Involvement in violent or otherwise unhealthy relationships
  • Inappropriate sense of entitlement or authority
  • Difficulty functioning independently
  • Higher chance of chronic physical illness
  • Greater risk of anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, and eating disorders.

The Parentification Inventory and Questionnaire

Over the past two decades, Dr. Lisa Hooper and her collaborators have done extensive research on parentification. Hence, they have developed a parentification scale. Known as the Parentification Inventory, this scale is a series of statements regarding family dynamics. In response to each statement, individuals choose a number between 1 (never true) and 5 (always true) that describes their experience. The results indicate the extent to which the individual has been parentified.

Gregory Jurkovic developed a similar questionnaire. Parents can ask their children to answer yes or no to the following questions, which indicate whether they are experiencing parentification effects.

  • It seems like family members are always bringing me their problems.
  • In my family I often feel called upon to do more than my share.
  • I often feel more like an adult than a child in my family.
  • In my family I often feel like a referee.In my family I often make sacrifices that go unnoticed by other family members.
  • At times I feel I am the only one my mother or father can turn to.
  • I often find myself feeling down for no particular reason that I can think of.
  • In my family there are certain family members I can handle better than anyone else.
  • I am very active in the management of my family’s financial affairs.
  • My parents have enough to do without worrying about housework as well.
  • I am very uncomfortable when things aren’t going well at home.It often seems that my feelings aren’t taken into account in my family.
  • In my family I initiate most free time activities.
  • I am at my best in times of crisis.
  • It seems like there are enough problems at home without my causing more.
  • If a family member is upset, I almost always become involved in some way.
  • I often resent being asked to do certain kinds of jobs.
  • I often prefer the company of people older than me.
  • I am frequently responsible for the physical care of some members of my family.
  • I am often described as mature for my age.
  • It seems that I am usually the one held responsible for most of what happens.

Adults may find that they relate to these descriptors, now and/or during their childhood. If that’s the case, they may have experienced one of the types of parentification as part of their family systems.

The Difference Between Parentification and Healthy Connection

To be clear, it’s not always a bad thing for a parent to talk to a child or teen about what they’re feeling, in age-appropriate ways. In fact, kids may feel confused or blame themselves if they know a parent is unhappy but don’t understand what’s making them sad. But the parent should not look to the child for help in coping with their emotions.

Furthermore, it’s fine for kids to help out around the house or care for younger siblings sometimes, or even for a parent if they are briefly unwell. In fact, taking on family responsibilities—in appropriate measure—can give a child a sense of satisfaction and competence. However, helping out at home should not be at the expense of a child’s or teen’s emotional or physical health. Nor should it disrupt their academic studies, peer relationships, or the other “work” of growing up.

In summary, children should never feel that they are responsible for keeping their parents happy or keeping the family safe.

Parentification Treatment Approaches

Treatment focuses on addressing the resulting trauma, neglect, and chronic stress. Therefore, modalities to address the parentified child may include the following.

  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is designed to shift unhelpful thought patterns.
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy helps clients identify and transform self-destructive behaviors. 
  • Family therapy helps repair parent-child relationships that have been disrupted by parentification.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) uses specific physical techniques to resolve and release trauma.
  • The Comprehensive Resource Model involves elements of psychology, spirituality, neurobiology, and body-based (somatic) techniques.
  • Experiential modalities, such as creative arts therapies and Equine-Assisted Therapy, allow children and teens to process emotions in nonverbal ways.
  • Yoga and meditation are contemplative practices that build tools for emotion regulation and self-awareness.
Newport Academy Resources Post Mental Health Parentification

Healing from the Effects of Parentification Trauma at Newport Academy

The goal of parentification treatment is to repair the damage that arises from a disrupted childhood. Hence, the parentified child can gradually heal from the painful consequences of those early experiences. Moreover, they can build skills for developing healthy boundaries and caring relationships—essential ingredients for a balanced, happy life.

At Newport Academy, we address mental health and behavioral issues through the lens of family. Our approach to adolescent treatment addresses underlying trauma—both acute and relational—to provide long-term, sustainable healing. Contact us today to schedule a free assessment.

Key Takeaways

  • Parentification occurs when a child is regularly expected to provide emotional or practical support for a parent, instead of receiving that support themselves.
  • The role reversal of parentification can disrupt the natural process of maturing, causing long-term negative effects on a child’s physical and mental health.
  • A parentified child may be responsible for helping parents with life tasks (caring for a sibling, housekeeping, or paying bills, for example) or providing emotional support (serving as a confidante, offering advice, or providing comfort, for example).
  • The ongoing stress of parentification actually changes the brain—shrinking the hippocampus, the part of the brain that regulates memory, emotion, and stress management.
  • Treatment for parentification focuses on addressing the resulting trauma, neglect, and chronic stress.

Frequently Asked Questions About Parentification

What is an example of parentification?

Parentification can take the form of responsibility for life tasks (caring for a sibling, cooking and cleaning, or paying bills) or age-inappropriate emotional support (listening to adult problems, offering advice, or mediating with another family member).

What happens to parentified children when they grow up?

A parentified child does not develop a clear sense of their own needs and feelings. As an adult, they may find it hard to trust others, manage their own emotions, and form healthy intimate relationships. They face a greater risk of anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, and eating disorders.

Is parentification a trauma?

Extreme cases of parentification can be a form of trauma, especially emotional parentification. Relational trauma occurs in childhood when the bonds between parent and child are somehow disrupted or broken, as with parentification.

What happens to a child’s emotional growth when a child is parentified?

A parentified child does not learn to distinguish their own needs and feelings from those of other people. Hence, they are more likely to have difficulty with relationships and emotional regulation, resulting in increased risk for anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, and eating disorders.

How do you heal a parentified child?

A range of modalities are effective in healing from the effects of parentification. Talk therapies, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, address habitual thought patterns. Somatic therapies, such as EMDR, can release traumatic memories stored in the body. And experiential therapies, such as equine or creative art therapy, can help a parentified child learn how to relax and play.

Sources:

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PNAS. 2012 August ;109 (32):1 2927–12932.

Am J Family Ther. 2011; 39(3): 226–241.