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

parentification healing from trauma

In part, self-blame is also related to our need to feel in control. More terrifying than anything else in this world the feeling of complete powerlessness in an unpredictable, precarious universe. Even to adults, this is an existential threat, let alone for children. To evade such horror, we resorted to the conclusion that it was our fault that bad things happened.

We would rather believe we had done something to make it happen — because we were not good enough, or that we didn’t do what we could. We thought that if we hadn’t expected too much, hoped too much, trusted so much, we would not have been hurt. Self-blame gives us an explanation for the unbearable injustice that has happened; somehow it was more tolerable than the alternative — that the people we trusted had betrayed us, or that the world is a hostile place.

As psychologist Fairbairn said, ‘It is better to live as a sinner in a world created by God than to live in a world created by the devil’.  

Parentification
Parentification and childhood trauma

Poisonous Pedagogy

Emotionally under-developed parents believe that they have done their absolute best, though deep down they know it has not been enough. They may be plagued by unconscious shame and guilt, but ironically take it out on their children in the forms of emotional abuse, guilt-tripping, or excessive control. Others may resort to excessive material provisions for their children.

We may look like we are loved based on what can externally be seen, yet inside we feel like an orphan. If we dare let our truth leak out into the world, we are punished for being ungrateful and demanding. So, we had no choice but to bury our truth within a facade of normalcy. This creates a vicious cycle that locks us in the codependency of a dysfunctional home. 

Many of us become stuck in a toxic dynamic because of our family’s conscious or implicit investment in denying the problem. It is easier for them to stay blind to their shortcomings and to discharge responsibilities. Even as adults, our parents’ inability to own their flaws leaves us in a place where we are being tripped over and ignored every day, but there is never an apology. 

In her book For Your Own Good Swiss psychologist, Alice Miller coined the term ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ to describe a mental control device some families use to maintain a position of power and to normalize a dysfunctional dynamic. ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ consists of a list of doctrines that are passed on from generation to generation.

Here are some of them:

  • Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents.
  • Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.
  • Obedience makes a child strong.
  • The body is something dirty and disgusting.
  • Strong feelings are harmful. 
  • Parents are always right.
  • Parents are creatures free from drive and guilt. 
  • Duty produces love. 
  • A high degree of self-esteem is harmful.
  • A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic.
  • Severity and coldness are good preparation for life.
  • A pretense of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude.
  • The way you behave is more important than the way you really feel.
  • Neither parents nor God would survive being offended. 

(For Your Own Good, pp 59−60)

“When you can identify the insecurities inside the person that is hurting you then you can begin to heal. It isn’t about you. It is about their past.” ― Shannon L. Alder

Related: The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma In Adult Life

Parentification: Your Survival Mechanism

To survive in a home with immature parents, we have adopted various strategies based on our personalities and resources that were available, but the impact of parentification carries on beyond childhood. 

Some of us made jokes and became the comedian in the family. Now we don’t know how to be vulnerable to others without the disguise of humour. 

Some of us became extra compliant, hoping that by being an ‘easy child’ we would be loved. We came to believe it was our duty to serve, help, and rescue, and this pattern continues into our adulthood when we become people-pleasers and unable to set boundaries. 

Some of us left home early to pursue our freedom, but the trauma never left us. We may become wary of relationships and fearful of engulfment, so we isolate ourselves and push away love and intimacy. 

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