Dr. Paul Dunion

Parentification of children happens when parents are either unwilling and/or unable to effectively parent their children. Parental absence may occur because of mental illness, addiction, arrested development, medical issues or unavailability due to work or travel. Parentified children step into the parental void. The attempt to take on parental responsibilities snatches children out of childhood, disengaging from a normal developmental process. Let’s look at three expressions of Parentification.

Not Enough Parenting

This form of Parentification is due to parental neglect. The children take on the responsibility of parenting themselves. In lieu of parental guidelines and expectations, children rely upon their own understanding of self-care and social acuity. Children may be challenged to eat properly, rest, attend to personal hygiene and perform academically. Often, parentified kids will take their cues from peers who are being parented effectively.

Parentified children who are neglected are not receiving valuable information about boundaries. They won’t be clear about when a boundary serves their unique preferences and needs, or what kind of boundary is appropriate in regard to providing safety. Not being the recipient of nurturance will leave them puzzled about the renewing power of nurturance and what it means to have needs and receive support from others. There will also be uncertainty about the power of receiving encouragement, knowing that someone holds the faith in whom they are. Lastly, they can be baffled about providing adequate limits that delay immediate gratification in the name of securing some valued future outcome.

There can be a level of severe confusion about the price paid for being neglected. The confusion is amplified if children ignore the fact that they are neglected and focus on the freedom afforded them by their parents’ lack of responsibility. The most prevalent coping mechanism aimed at dealing with these loses is increased levels of pretending. They run a high risk of pretending they need no one and that they know exactly what they’re doing.

Sometimes, parentified children will create romantic liaisons with their teenage peers. These adolescent connections are attempts to anesthesize feelings of abandonment and inadequacy. The child waffles between extreme dependency in an effort to feel loved and wanted, to indulging in a compulsive self-reliance. In either case, children are attempting to prove they know how to have real relationships or demonstrate that they need no one. Both causes suffer from a deep level of pretending.

Unless parentified children who suffered from neglect seek out therapeutic help, early coping mechanisms get amplified in later years. The one area where feelings of inadequacy push to the surface and pretending begins to run thin is in relationships. In the absence of early parental involvement, parentified children have limited self-care skills and an underdeveloped aptitude for rapport building. Several strategies are often employed in order to cope with feeling relationally deficient. One such strategy is simply deciding that relationships are basically frivolous and a waste of time. “Why get into fraternizing when there is so much to get accomplished.”

The second strategy, which rolls easily off of the first one, is to develop a strong task orientation toward life. The vulnerability of not knowing what to do in relationships is replaced by protocols, formulas and plans for getting stuff done. The third strategy is to ramp up a need for control, which is an attempt at keeping old feelings of helplessness at bay. This controlling energy can drive a compulsive striving to get things right. This striving energy is meant to numb the ever-present feeling of not being enough. Let’s look at a second level of parentification, which carries more responsibilities.

Functional Parentification

There is another level of responsibility often delegated to parentified children as the result of not enough parenting. Besides taking care of themselves, they can be asked or required to attend to fundamental domestic tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, shopping for groceries and even paying bills. This level of parentification may also include the care of younger siblings. Parentified children take on the responsibility of helping with homework, assisting in getting ready for school, and preparing meals. This dimension of parentification asks children to not only pretend that they can take care of themselves, but also to pretend they know how to take care of other children.

Too Much Parent and Not Enough

When children don’t get enough parent, neglected by parents, they may also get too much parent, which translates into abuse. The parent’s emotional needs take precedent over those of the child. When this happens, children receive a greater call out of childhood. Now, they not only need to take care of themselves, but also care for the parent. They are strapped with confusion about how to take care of themselves as well as how to care for the adult. The child moves into the role of friend, confidant, surrogate parent or surrogate spouse. This form of parentification is often referred to as emotional incest and is typically accompanied by deep feelings of inadequacy, which can haunt well into adulthood.

Parentified children often suffer with a knawing, amorphous sense of low self-esteem, never quite realizing that who they are is enough. As adults, they may avoid relationships either because they are convinced that they are unlovable, or because they believe the past will be reproduced, where they are consumed by the other person. The latter fear being the result of the child’s emotional boundaries having been violated.

Victims of emotional incest either avoid relationships or become caregivers. Caregiving affords them the opportunity to be in a relationship without fully participating. They reproduce the early neglect of their emotional needs by only focusing on the other person. As long as partners and spouses continue to inform them about their needs, they can continue to deliver, avoiding the inherent ambiguity of real intimacy and the typical conflict of diverse needs.

Abused parentified children come from a void of genuine adult responsibility. These children learned early how to become overly responsible as they attempted to off- balance the under-responsibility of the parent. Hence, they are prone to believing they are responsible for the happiness of others. They can easily chastise themselves for the troubled feelings of friends and family. This over responsible inclination is accompanied by weak or excessively permeable boundaries, leaving them confused about where they begin and where they end.

Both neglected and abused parentified children often carry a feeling of being fraudulent into adulthood. When a childhood pattern of pretending is assimilated into the psyche, in can be difficult to discern what one is truly capable of.

The Healing of Parentification

*The Real Story. Parentified children need help as adults to exam the actual story of their childhoods. They need support to clarify the level of neglect and/or abuse that took place. There is likely going to be a level of denial of the reality of how much their parents abdicated their responsibility to actually parent. Moving through such denial needs to be a gradual process, gently honoring the distorted view held by the adult who was parentified.

*Right-sizing Self-Concept. This inventory should include downsizing the idealization of self-reliance, exploring its benefits as well as its capacity to generate emotional isolation. A review of how much they were asked to operate out of their competency level is an important way to further an honest account. Such an account should include forgiving themselves for pretending as a way to cope with a very challenging situation.

*Grief. There will be a need to find permission to the losses of an unlived childhood, losses such as parental guidance and significant attachment and the loss of time for play. There is also the loss of trusting that they could embark upon adventures with peers and return to the security of a home held together by a real parent. Also, they lost the freedom that comes with the trust that someone more knowledgeable and mature is primarily responsible to provide them with care.

*Somatic Work. They very well may need some somatic work in order to regulate the nervous system as they continue to come into the reality of their pasts. It can also be helpful to relieve the need to detach from the here and now by engaging in dissociation. This kind of work will generate more resiliency to over-come feeling out of control as they access varied emotions.

*Develop an Inner Parent. As adults, parentified children run the risk of reproducing the past by neglecting themselves. The neglect may show up in regard to dental care, regular medical checkups, excessive work habits, confusion about personal limits and not knowing how to ask for help. This inner parent knows who to ask for help, allows for good boundaries by saying “no” and “yes” authentically. This inner parent identifies and provides activities that are nurturing, such as a walk in the woods, a sauna experience, therapeutic massage, a nap and simply calling a friend. It is extremely healing to take on the responsibility of being self-encouraging, interrupting self-ridicule and self-blame.

*Developing a Reliable Support System. This is a critical element in the healing of parentification. They learned early that there are no reliable support systems. Hence, they face the fact that someone or some group offers more than their parents, which from a child’s perspective, is a betrayal of the parent. The therapeutic agenda will be to find the courage to prioritize self-loyalty in place of parental loyalty. They will need to develop a discerning trust for others, which translates into identifying who will tell them the truth and treat them kindly.
*Learning to Fully Participate in a Relationship. Full participation calls for interrupting compulsive caretaking and replacing it with one’s own desire and learning to negotiate and compromise from that desire. It also means learning to identify and employ effective boundaries. The starting point being willing to say “no” and “yes” authentically. These learnings will entail feeling vulnerable as the template provided by caretaking falls away, calling for a resiliency in order to cope with the ensuing ambiguity.

Quite often, adult parentified children have carved some niche where they feel confident and secure. It may be a professional arena or a hobby. They know that in the safe place they don’t have to worry about being confused, pretending to know or needing help. However, their relational lives, which cannot be reduced to a simple set of regulations, will likely be where they face the greatest opportunity to welcome some healing. It will mean finding the courage to call off their moratorium on noticing they need help and acquiring it. Lastly, upon being self-examining, adults who were parentified as children need to see themselves on a continuum, reflecting a degree of parentification.

Author's Bio: 

Dr Paul Dunion has been a permanent blogger with the Huffington Post, has written several articles on the topic of Human Potential and five books. He has been in private practice for 37 years and is presently a facilitator and teacher with the Mobius Executive Training organization.