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

parentification healing from trauma

Some of us shouldered all responsibilities diligently and become perfectionist adults who are unable to release control or relax. If our parents were not just unavailable but also emotionally volatile, we would also have trained ourselves to become hyper-vigilant, always watching out for signs of upset or anger in the people around us. 

We may blame ourselves for everything that goes wrong, assuming responsibility for other people’s dysfunctions or misfortune. We constantly try to fix things and even neglect our own needs while trying. When things do not go the way we want them to or when we make the slightest error, we drown in cycles of guilt and shame. 

What we carry as adults as a result of parentification depend on a myriad of part nature, part nurture, factors: 

If your parents tended to praise you only for what you did and not who you were, your internalized inner critic would always be evaluating your success. Rather than allowing you to just ‘be’, you are pushed to be a ‘human doing’. The only way you know to survive in the world is to work hard, to achieve the next credential, and to never slow down. You live according to metrics and standards set by society, rather than your spontaneous true self. Your patterns leave you empty on the inside, and from time to time, you wonder if you are acceptable without something impressive to show. 

If your parents were depressed and relied heavily on you for love and comfort, you would have learned to define yourself through the eyes of others. You feel ungrounded, as though the centre of gravity lies in other people and not in yourself. While you are highly empathic and attuned to people’s needs, you lose touch with your own needs. You may feel you are constantly trying to earn love from those around you, and yet however helpful and loving you are, people may not reciprocate. When they don’t, it hurts deeply. 

If you were overburdened with responsibilities as a child, it is likely that you have become highly sensitized to errors, imperfection, and unfairness in the world. You have a harsh inner critic inside of you, constantly telling you that you are not doing things correctly or perfectly enough. You live with constant pressure to fix things, correct things, and make things right again. Being highly judgemental and critical, your inner critic also comes between you and those you love. You didn’t mean to, but those around you feel scrutinized and pressured. 

If your parents have emotionally or physically abandoned you, you may, for your whole life, feel like an orphan spiritually. You feel misunderstood and alone in the world, unable to fit in. Your inner critic derails your self-esteem by comparing you to others, telling you they all have a happier, more ‘normal’ and fulfilling life.  

If your childhood environment was unstable and unsafe, you would have been deprived of the opportunity to cultivate trust in the universe. Doubt and fears become your primary habits. Rather than taking productive actions, you are often held in ‘analysis paralysis’, making a long list of ‘what might go wrong’. 

Always vigilant and watchful, you scan the environment for any threats or danger. 

If your parents were bullies, you would have learned early in your life to survive on power and assertion. You see the world as a dog-eat-dog place, and it is risky to let your guard down. It becomes impossible to reveal your vulnerabilities to anyone, or to let people in to help and comfort you. You are ‘allergic’ to soft emotions such as sadness and neediness. You have put up a wall to keep you safe, but it also keeps you in isolation. Even you have achieved power in the world, you feel incredibly alone.  

“Adulthood is an attempt to become the antithesis of the wounded child within us.” ― Stewart Stafford

Related: 4 Ways That Childhood Trauma Impacts Adults

Parentification Trauma – Healing And Bouncing Back

Despite its horrific impact, healing from parentification is possible. Adults who have been parentified are highly sensitive, empathic, kind, and intuitive. In a way, they will become gifted parents because they have been doing it since they were young.

The goal of therapy or healing is to start prioritizing your needs before you jump into rescuing or pleasing others. You might have been a skilled parent figure to others all your lives, but now it is time for you to parent yourself. As a child, you needed love, attention, and to be listened to. You also needed room to play, make a mess, and freely explore the world without being burdened with responsibilities. If you were deprived of these in the past, it is now within your power to reclaim your lost childhood. 

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Imi Lo

Imi Lo is a consultant for emotionally intense and highly sensitive people. She is the author of Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity, available in multiple languages, and The Gift of Intensity. Imi is the founder of Eggshell Therapy and Coaching, working with intense people from around the world. Imi has practiced as a social worker and therapist in London (U.K). She has trained in mental health, psychotherapy, art therapy, philosophical counseling, and mindfulness-based modalities. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism. Imi’s credentials include a Master in Mental Health, Master of Buddhist Studies, Graduate Diploma in Psychology, Bachelor of Social Science in Social Work, Certificate in Logic-based Therapy, and an Advanced Diploma in Contemporary Psychotherapy. She has received multiple scholarships and awards including the Endeavour Award by the Australian Government. She has been consulted by and appeared in publications such as The Psychologies Magazine, The Telegraph, Marie Claire,and The Daily Mail.View Author posts