What is Parentification? Never heard of it before? Parentification is the role reversal where a child is obligated to act as a parent to their own parent or siblings. There are two different types of parentification, instrumental and emotional, however a child can take on both forms in some circumstances. Instrumental parentification is when a child is forced to complete physical tasks for their family such as looking after a sick relative, paying the bills, or even providing assistance to their younger siblings. Emotional parentification on the other hand, occurs when a child or adolescent takes on the role of a confidante or mediator between members of the family. It can also be present when being the emotional outlet for a parent who expresses or drops all their emotions on their child. Parentification, although appearing necessary in some family dynamics, can be detrimental to a child’s mental well-being and development.
These children who are forced to take on responsibilities that belong to adults often find themselves losing their own childhood, as their own caretaking is not acknowledged or supported by others. This makes the child lose the real place in their family unit, making them feel lonely and unsure of themselves as an individual. This is a result of growing up too quickly, which stems from their parent’s inability or unwillingness to fulfill responsibilities in the home.
The reason that parentification exists can vary, as every family dynamic differs with some resulting in the requirement for children to be developed for the rest of the members. Some reasons that children may suffer from parentification are those with parents who have addiction problems, disabilities, are workaholics, or are neglectful towards their children. This often forces one child, many times the eldest, to take on extra duties such as caring for their sibling or completing household chores that need to be done.
Although many must deal with this less-than memorable childhood, there are many ways for them as adults to cope with their lack of childhood. The first step is to in fact acknowledge their childhood for what it was and grieve the childhood that they did not have. The second step is to re-parent themselves in adulthood by learning how healthy relationships work, more specifically in a functional family dynamic. They can also learn and explore healthy boundaries in these relationships, in order to feel better about their own crossed boundaries and ensure it does not happen to their own child. Lastly, they must find ways to let go of burdens and responsibilities that are not theirs to carry, as some may take their parentification into adulthood and continue to focus on other people’s duties in addition to their own.