Most of the time, parents and children have clearly defined duties: The parent cares for the child, and the child focuses on growth and development. But sometimes these roles are reversed, and a child finds themselves acting as a caregiver. They may take on grown-up responsibilities—like cleaning the house or meditating family conflicts—starting at a young age. This role reversal is known as "parentification," and it can have long-lasting negative emotional and mental effects.
Parentified kids "learn their own feelings and needs are threats," explains Becky Kennedy, Ph,D, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. Keep reading to learn more about the parentification phenomenon, including why it happens and how it impacts childhood development.
The Types of Parentification
Parentification occurs when Mom or Dad relies inappropriately on their kid, blurring the roles between parent and child. "In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent cares for the child and offers both instrumental support (food, shelter, daily structure) and unconditional emotional support (love, affection, guidance, rules)," explains Aude Henin, PhD, Co-Director of the Child Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program at MGH. "When a parent is unable to consistently offer these things, a child may become parentified, and be in a position of having to care for the parent."
According to experts, there are two types of parentification: emotional and instrumental.
Parents "confide secrets in their child or go to their child for emotional comfort, instead of vice versa," says Dr. Kennedy. Children who experience emotional parentification might give advice on grown-up situations, diffuse household arguments, or comfort their siblings during trying times. They usually don't get the same emotional support back from their parents.
Dr. Kennedy gives an example: A parent is 30 minutes late to pick up their child from school. When they finally arrive, they say, "I had the worst day at work! My boss yelled and me and then there was traffic!" The child learns to reassure the parent, saying, "Oh wow, I'm sorry, that sounds like such a rough day." (If the child were to share their own feelings, like fear and worry about their parent being late, they would be reprimanded. The parent might say, "I do everything for you! You don't even know what kind of day I had!") In essence, the child learns to push their own feelings away.
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Children are put in charge of practical duties like paying bills, cooking dinner, making grocery lists, booking medical appointments, and getting younger siblings ready for school. These tasks might be above their level of ability and comprehension.
Note, however, that not all childhood responsibilities are considered parentification. If you're unsure if your parent-child interactions are healthy, Dr. Henin suggests asking two questions: "Whose needs are being met?" and "Is the demand age-appropriate?"
"It's healthy for a child to be given age-appropriate chores to build their sense of competence and responsibility and increase their skills," says Dr. Henin. "It's also reasonable that older children take on more responsibility for brief periods of time (for example, if the parent has the flu for a few days). These situations are very different from the neglect associated with the pervasive, persistent, and intense demands placed on a parentified child."
Why Does Parentification Happen?
Just as every household is different, so are the reasons behind parentification. "It typically unfolds because the parent is experiencing some form of physical or emotional impairment that impacts their ability to assume the role of reliable and predictable caretaker," explains Dr. Henin. This can take the form of addiction, disability, or a mental or physical illness.
Other times, parents are thrown into the parentification process by life events. For example, if one parent dies, the other might need their child to pick up the slack. Financial hardship could also prompt a parent to take on another job, leaving less time for household duties. Finally, some parents are just flat-out neglectful, creating the perfect storm for parentification.
"Kids are always asking 'Who do I need to be to get love and attention and security and stability in this family?'" says Dr. Kennedy. "They need to figure that out to feel safe from an attachment perspective." If kids realize that caring for parents provides these feelings of love and stability, then they will take on that role of caregiver—even if it's beyond their developmental abilities.
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How Does Parentification Affect Children?
Managing grown-up responsibilities is stressful as an adult, so it's no surprise that children can be negatively affected by the pressure too. "Kids learn that their own needs and feelings are threats to their attachment system," or their safety, says Dr. Kennedy. Because parentified kids don't get validation about their feelings, they're forced to deal with them alone, which often leads to self-blame and self-doubt.
The chronic stress of parentification could present as anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Parentification has also been associated with aggressive or disruptive behavior, academic problems, substance use, and social difficulties, according to The Developmental Implications of Parentification: Effects on Childhood Attachment, a 2012 research study by Jennifer A. Engelhardt, PsyD, from the Teachers College at Columbia University. "It may expose the child to emotional issues that they are not equipped to handle and cause chronic levels of stress," says Dr. Henin.
She adds that parentification interferes with a child's ability to engage in developmentally appropriate activities. Overall, parentified children are prevented from having a "normal" childhood because they grow up quickly.
The effects of parentification might last into adulthood as well, "causing further dysfunction throughout the parentified individual's lifespan," writes Engelhardt. This could manifest as anxiety about being independent, fears of abandonment, anger and resentment, difficulties with trust, or avoidance of intimacy, says Dr. Henin. "It may also be difficult for adults who were parentified as children to set appropriate limits and expectations with their own children."
What's more, "parentifictaion in childhood is often related to co-dependence in adulthood," adds Dr. Kennedy. Children who were parentified learn to push away their own feelings and needs, which they view at a threat. As a result, they might always focus on others, instead of honoring what they feel themselves. "This can lead to being in relationships that can be very toxic," says Dr. Kennedy. They might seek relationships with people who reject or ignore their needs because it feels familiar to them.
It's important to note, however, that the consequences of parentification aren't always bad. Many people who were parentified develop strong caregiving tendencies, empathy, and emotional intelligence. They also show "greater interpersonal competence and stronger family cohesion, as well as higher levels of individuation, differentiation from family, and self mastery and autonomy"—particularly if the child experiences "a low level of parentification and when the efforts of the child are recognized and rewarded by adult figures," says Engelhardt.
Children who experienced parentification don't necessarily require treatment. But if they're suffering from any negative effects—such as anxiety or depression—it might help to see a mental health professional. They can help decide on the best course of treatment, which is often cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or family therapy.
"The earlier that the unhealthy parent-child dynamic can be identified, the better off the child will be," says Dr. Henin. "It's important to approach the situation without judgment of the child or parent, and to recognize that the family is typically doing the best that they can to cope with the situation, even if the outcome is not healthy." She adds that it's essential to identify the underlying issues that contribute to parentification, then offer support and resources accordingly.
Sometimes adults who were parentified during childhood benefit from treatment as well. Dr. Kennedy talks about a method called reparentification. "We always start with compassion toward ourselves, and lead with the question, 'How might the ways I had to learn to adapt to survive in my early years be working against me?'" she says. Our bodies are hesitant to fight this deep-seated pattern, she adds, but "inner child work" can help. That often involves finding your wants and needs, learning to trust others, and rewiring how your brain views attachment and self-worth. If you'd like to learn more, check out Dr. Kenneday's workshop, called "Reparenting Ourselves: Building New Pathways for Self-Care and Self-Worth."