Parentification: Healing From The Trauma Of Having To Grow Up Too Soon

parentification healing from trauma

Parentification and being parentified can have massively adverse effects on a person’s psyche and mental health. Even after entering adulthood, the wounds of a traumatic childhood keep on haunting them.

Parentification is a cause of invisible childhood trauma. It occurs when the roles are reversed between a child and a parent, where the child has to step up as the caretaker, mediator, or protector of the family. It is a form of mental abuse and boundary violation. 

The wounds we suffer in childhood — especially psychological ones — can last a lifetime. They can affect our everyday lives, underscore our relationships, and undermine our ability to lead a happy, fulfilling, and productive life. 

Parentification is a toxic family dynamic that is rarely talked about and is even accepted as the norm in some cultures. However, research has found that it can have far-reaching negative psychological impacts. Unlike physical abuse, parentification is invisible and, therefore, more toxic and insidious.

In parentification, one or both parents are unable to cope with what it means to be a parent to their child. The child is either assigned or takes over the parenting duties for a sibling or even the parents themselves, becoming caretaker, mediator, and protector. In many instances, the parentified child feels as though their siblings or their parent cannot survive without their help. 

After having been parentified, even when the children are grown or removed from the situation, the trauma remains. Psychological or mood disorders and even chronic diseases can occur as a result. Studies show that parentified children are much more likely to be depressed later in life. 

Related: 10 Signs of Toxic Family Enmeshment and How It May Impact You As An Adult

What Is Parentification?

Parentification is when the roles are reversed between a child and a parent. It is a form of mental abuse and boundary violation. 

Some of the situations that parentification can arise from include:

  • Divorce. 
  • Death of a parent or sibling.
  • Alcoholism or drug addition of one or both parents.
  • Chronic disease or disability of one or both parents, or a sibling.
  • Mental illness in a parent/parents or sibling.
  • Physically abusive relationship between parents.
  • Physically or sexually abusive parent/child relationship.  
  • Having immature, emotionally unavailable, or depressed parents. 

Generally, there are two types of parentification:

  • Emotional parentification happens when the child becomes the parents’ counselor, confidant, or emotional caretaker. Sometimes, this involves a form of ‘Emotional Incest’, where the child is being treated as an intimate partner to the parent. Perhaps the parents were unhappy in their own marriage or dissatisfied with their lives. They might tell the child about their frustrations, cry excessively, complain about their relationships, or even hurt themselves in front of the child. Whatever it is that they share with the child, it is too much for their young psyche to handle. 
  • Instrumental parentification is when the child engages in physical labor and support in the household, such as housework, cooking, cleaning, taking care of younger siblings, taking themselves to the doctors, and other ‘adult’ responsibilities. 

Often in cases of parentification, the home life of the child is punctuated by horrific tasks, like preventing an addicted parent from overdosing or protecting their siblings from a violent outburst. Exposure to situations like these erases the joy of what should be a carefree time in a child’s life. 

Sensitive, gifted, and empathic children are particularly prone to be parentified. This is not because the adults maliciously try to harm the child, but because the child intuitively picks up on emotionally unsafe and unstable conditions and takes it upon themselves to provide care and support for the family. This can eventually lead to an overwhelming sense of anxiety about the needs and feelings of others and, eventually, an early advance into maturity that equates with a ‘lost childhood’.

Being robbed of their innocent childhood, these children grow up to become adults who have a gap in their psyche. They bury anger, resentment, and grief, which may burst out at unexpected times, affecting their ability to be close to someone, sustain a career, and feel stable. 

The harsh reality is amplified to the extreme while a significant portion of their most formative developmental stages is, essentially, removed. 

Abuse is never deserved, it is an exploitation of innocence “ ― Lorraine Nilon

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