The Trauma of Parentification
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
All children are born to grow, develop, live, love, and express their needs and feelings for self-protection. Children need the respect and protection of adults who take them seriously, nurture them and support them to grow into their greatest potential, in order to be properly introduced into the world.
When vital needs are not met, and children are abused for the sake of adults’ needs by being exploited, taken advantage of, and manipulated, their integrity, self-worth and self-image will be lastingly impaired. Such is the case of parentification, a serious trauma that leaves permanent scars.
Parentification may sound like an absurd and hard to understand term. Yet it is the everyday reality of so many children worldwide, a very traumatic experience that has several devastating implications for the development of Self of the individual and their perception of relationships.
Parentification is defined as the phenomenon where children take caregiving responsibilities and assume such a role for their parents, siblings or other family members, at the expense of their own developmental needs.
When does parentification occur?
There are several occasions that the term applies to.
Abusive relationship between parents
Family unpredictability and instability
Parental alcoholism or drug addiction
Parental disability or chronic illness
Siblings with a disability or chronic disease
Parents or siblings with a mental illness
Death of a sibling or parent
In such occasions, a child may have no other choice but be parentified- become a parent to their own parent or siblings. Parentification occurs when a child takes on adult tasks, and it can either be emotional or instrumental, or both.
Emotional parentification is when the child becomes a source of constant emotional support and caregiving to their parent or sibling, such as when they become the confidant or counsellor of the parent, who may share intimate details about their worries and personal lives, that a child is neither prepared nor equipped to know about.
Instrumental parentification is when the child takes on actual practical tasks of physical labor in order to help out in the household, such as cleaning, cooking, helping younger siblings to study, attending to other chores and practical responsibilities.
Out of the two, emotional parentification has more serious traumatic effects.
The effects are worsened and more destructive for the development of the child, the more the care-giving efforts of the child become the normalized expectation that is further not recognized, rewarded or acknowledged by their parent.
If there are more than one children in the family, usually the eldest, or otherwise the most sensitive, compassionate and vulnerable, is “chosen” to be parentified.
Why is it so destructive?
Essentially, parentification means becoming the parent when you are actually the child- thus it is a stealth of childhood that can never be returned.
Parentification in a family includes inappropriate, high-level adult responsibilities, combined with unrealistic expectations by younger children looking to older siblings for the satisfaction of their needs to be met.
This process is a great danger to the developing child because it depletes the child’s resources and constitutes a role reversal and role corruption. It is a huge burden of responsibility that is both uncalled for, and impossible to adequately respond to.
It is actually a form of unequivocal emotional abuse and exploitation that stems from neglect.
Characteristics of Parentification
Because of any of the reasons mentioned earlier, the parent may be unaware, unavailable, uninterested, or unable to attend to their child’s needs. The parent may be physically there, but emotionally absent- for instance due to mental or physical illness, unresolved grief for the loss of another child or spouse, or being the victim of abuse from the other parent.
The child then unwillingly becomes a “need satisfying object”, that is there to nurture and please their parent and is praised for not having or expressing their own needs.
All children have basic needs of attention, affection, and guidance by their primary caregivers.
Parentified children are, for whichever reason, forced to grow up early and faster than they “should” have. They don’t get to fully experience the carelessness of their childhood, and they learn to ignore and neglect their own needs- simply because there was no real space for this to happen.
Parentified children learn that this is what a parent-child relationship is supposed to be like- so they subsequently learn that the only way to earn gratification is through caregiving and not expressing their own needs.
Hope keeps them in this position- hope that if they continue their efforts, they will finally be loved and seen; even though more often than not, their hopes remain empty and not granted.
Effects of Parentification
Parentified individuals may find it hard to view themselves as their own person, since they have been used to always putting their own needs aside. Their identity actually depends on their ability to suppress their needs. In most cases, there wasn’t even the space for them to be seen, listened to and regarded with respect.
Since it is likely that their family already had too many problems to cope with, it is not surprising that they learned to be quiet, voiceless and without demands. In adulthood, this results in low self-worth and self-esteem, and a confusion around what it means to be and express themselves.
Self-expression and Self-care
Since parentified children learn from an early age that they are not allowed to have their own needs or wishes, this is adulthood translates into an individual who has difficulty employing self-care, asserting their own wishes and boundaries, and expressing their True Self.
Self-care may be accompanied by intense feelings of guilt and shame- they are so used to inhibiting their self-expression, that doing otherwise feels wrong, and self-care feels selfish.
They may be driven to please others, have difficulty saying no, because some of the core beliefs that were engrained to them while growing up were “If I am a good girl/boy, if I am compliant, obedient, quiet and without own needs, then I will be loved/ approved of/ cared about/ not be abused”.
Chronic stress such as the stress endured by a parentified child under adverse circumstances can be toxic in the absence of a dependable and reliable adult. The child may appear highly capable to tend for themselves and others, very mature for their age, resilient and even wise beyond years- but they lack the safe haven of a secure attachment figure that is vital for the development of emotional regulation.
So later on in life, parentified adult children may struggle to regulate and cope with their own negative emotions, and may develop a high emotional reactivity and sensitivity that makes them susceptible to emotional outbursts.
Severe anxiety, depression, psychological distress in the form of mental health disorders (such as personality disorders and eating disorders), substance addiction, and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may develop as a result- since trauma is often the basis for such implications in adult life.
Yet not only mental health, but physical health too may be impaired, because early trauma can cause immune system disturbances that may make an individual predisposed to several physical diseases later in life.
These people are very likely to find themselves in similar relational patterns in adulthood. The only way they learned to relate, was through being of service and providing caregiving- so it is extremely possible that they have to be the primary caregivers for their own partners and friends, since they never learned anything different.
The only affectionate bond available is the one where they always must be the caregiver. It is not unlikely that parentified children may choose a career within the caring professions, since they know how to provide care really well.
Abusive Relationships, Victimhood and Martyrdom
Parentified adult children are more likely to be entangled in abusive relationships later on, out of false hope that if they give their all to someone else, they will be loved. They have been too busy caring for others to process their own trauma, thus they are likely to reproduce it. Their self-sacrifice for others may make them be a martyr to gain love, often being the victim of abuse.
Trauma bonding and Insecure Attachment Styles
Parentified children inevitably develop a distorted image of what love is supposed to be like, thereby growing up to be quite distrustful of interpersonal relationships overall. Complicated attachment patterns emerge as a result.
Trauma bonding is a very destructive implication. Victims of child maltreatment (which also includes parentification) become caregivers of their abusers. This results in the development of a toxic, codependent dynamic between parent and child, that continues in adult life and is extremely challenging to break free from- a process that is greatly facilitated by trauma-informed therapy.
Trauma bonding may result in the development of insecure attachment styles; either disorganized attachment, anxious attachment, or avoidant attachment.
It is not surprising that resentment builds up for the parent, coupled with emotional distancing. Yet an unresolvable longing for the approval, validation and love for the parent still remains, indicating the presence of a disorganized attachment style that follows the person in adult life too, where intimacy is both craved for and avoided, both a longing and a great threat. This sets the ground for pulling-and-pushing patterns within intimate relationships. The individual may be too afraid to come close to others, out of a fear that they will exploit them just as it happened early on in life.
Otherwise, an anxious attachment style develops. Parentified children did not receive the care to cover their emotional needs, so they remain eternally emotionally hungry. A pervasive, unsatisfied neediness and craving for care follows them in their relationships, though they may be unable to voice their wishes. They may appear overly needy and clingy in their relationships, anxious about their partners, craving for intimacy and fearing abandonment more than anything.
An avoidant attachment style is also not unlikely. In the absence of a nurturing provider of safety and care, the parentified child may have learned to utterly depend on themselves alone- thereby avoiding close bonds and intimacy in adult life.
Complicated Family Relationships
As discussed above, parentification usually results in trauma bonding between parent and child, where the child both resents but also longs for the parent.
But it is expected that complicated relationship patterns will develop between siblings, too. In a family where the parent is unable to provide love and care, it is no surprise that the parentified siblings often develop symbiotic, codependent relationships with each other, since they only really have each other to fulfil their emotional needs.
Depending on the extent of the trauma, the parentified child may later on attempt to take distance from the family environment, even cut the ties altogether, though this would come at a great emotional cost; in order to escape the traumatic role they were assigned to throughout their life.
Effects can carry over to next generations, too. Parentified children do not really know what secure, nourishing, supportive and loving parenting really feels like- so they may later on develop a parenting style that lacks warmth and sensitivity, or in contrast become overly controlling, overprotective and even suffocating in their expressions of love to their own children, to compensate for all they lacked early on in life.
Delay in Trauma Awareness
Parentified children may delay to become aware of the trauma they endured, since it was difficult to look inwards and become conscious of their own needs. After all, children are inclined to be loyal and trusting of their parents, even when this hurts. This may make it hard to develop insights about their situation and the effects this had on them. Therapy is a sustainable solution to this problem. Trauma-informed treatment can teach these people how to process the traumatic effects of their childhood, as well as recognize and express themselves.
On the bright side…
It is not all dark for parentified adult children. Like with all trauma, parentified children are essentially survivors, and as such may possess a greater capacity for resilience and self-efficacy. After all, they did learn from an early age that it is safer to depend on themselves rather than anyone else.
Moreover, parentified children may have a heightened sense of empathy and an ability to closely connect to others.
Effective trauma processing occurs when the individual learns how to embrace their trauma as part of themselves and grow despite and beyond it. Even though excruciatingly painful at times, our wounds provide us with great gifts, ready to be discovered.
Like the beautiful song by Leonard Cohen reminds us,
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”…
It is never too late to rediscover what was lost in childhood.