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

parentification healing from trauma

Parentification From Having Immature Parents

Some of us have immature and emotionally limited parents. They are unable to ‘love us’ the way we need to be loved. This is a controversial statement in our culture, and yet, acknowledging reality could be the most bitter yet powerful medicine for our souls. 

Mature parents can love their children with liberal and consistent love and attention, emotional openness, allowance for mistakes, and playfulness, as well as acting as models for virtues such as courage, empathy, temperance, and compassion. In contrast, immature parents may be emotionally unstable, punitive, controlling, and unable to separate their projections, desires, and wishes from their child’s life.  

Immature parents are not ‘bad people’, but children living in adults’ bodies, and therefore have limited capacity. They may do their best but still be unable to offer us what we need as children sufficiently. 

As a child of an immature parent or parents, we are traumatized even when no one has actively done anything physical to harm us. It is the invisible pain that hurts the most. 

It is not about what was said, but what was not said — the praise, the affirmations, the positive feedback. 

It is not what was done, but what was not done — the absence of physical presence, quality time, intellectual stimulation, meaningful conversations, family rituals, fun and games. 

There might not have been any explicit trauma, but on a level deep inside, we did not feel welcome in the world.

When we have immature parents, parentification is inevitable. As children we became the adults in the family, taking on parental responsibilities for ourselves, as well as our siblings and our parents. 

We were the counselor, confidant, problem-solver, emotional regulator, and the one everyone counted on. Sometimes, we even took on these roles as a useful scapegoat. We were given all the responsibilities, but none of the power.

But regardless of how mature we might have been or acted, we were only children. Being burdened with excessive responsibilities sets a toxic trap; we believed it was our failure that caused bad things to happen to our family, and the seeds of shame and guilt were planted in us deeply. 

The roles in the family were reversed in the first place because it was not safe for us to bring our child-self into the relationship. If we were to bring our needy, vulnerable child out to our parents, hoping and yearning for care, we would be disappointed, traumatized, and hurt. 

So, from the get-go, we learned that the only safe thing to do was to rise above our pain. 

We might have been angry, but the only solution we knew was to suppress it. 

We might have been depressed, but all we could do was hide it and soldier on. 

It was never a conscious choice we made, but suppressing our feelings was the only option we had. 

Therefore, even as grown-ups, we struggle to play, be spontaneous, relax in intimacy, trust our instincts or other people, and feel as though we are living a partial life.

“Trauma… does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive.” ― Danielle Bernock

Related: How Toxic Family Dynamics Can Cause C-PTSD In Emotionally Intense Children

Parentification Caused You To Turn Against Yourself – How Their Immaturity Became Your Shame

The classic symptoms of chronic childhood trauma, or Complex PTSD, are shame and guilt. This is what we have carried forward from our childhood. 

As children, it was very difficult for us to be angry at our parents, even if they had hurt us and let us down. Admitting that our parents were neglectful or abusive was a life-threatening prospect, for they were the only people we could depend on.  

If we knew our parents could not tolerate disobedience, or that we would be punished for creating conflicts, it ‘made sense’ for us to blame ourselves rather than risk confronting them. We dared not be critical of the authority figures whose goodwill was essential to our survival, so our young minds preferred to deny our pain.

This results in the psychodynamic process of ‘turning against oneself’, where we redirect anger and resentment for others internally toward ourselves. We started to interpret any mistreatment as our fault or deserved. Our righteous indignation became internalized guilt and shame. 

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