“Parentification occurs when a child becomes the caretaker of their parents or younger siblings or assumes a level of responsibility that is far beyond their age,” says relationship therapist Genesis Games, LMHC. In other words, the typical roles are reversed: Rather than the parent(s) largely supporting the child, the child is required to support the parent(s).
“Parentifying a child means tasking them with something developmentally inappropriate.” —Lisette Sanchez, PhD, psychologist
This phenomenon doesn’t apply to a kid doing age-appropriate chores—say, a 10-year-old cleaning their room or a 15-year-old mowing the lawn. “Parentifying a child means tasking them with something developmentally inappropriate,” says psychologist Lisette Sanchez, PhD, who groups those tasks into two categories: instrumental and emotional.
Instrumental parentification involves many of the household tasks required of everyday life, such as cleaning, cooking, and taking care of younger siblings and pets. But again, to be considered parentification, a parent would be making a request of this sort that exceeds a child’s developmental stage, such as asking a five-year-old to cook a full meal without supervision.
The emotional category of parentification, on the other hand, involves an expectation, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that a child meets the emotional needs of the parent. It often results in a child organizing their life around making sure that a parent is satisfied or in a good mood. “Over time, the child may be able to sense when their mom seems irritable, for instance, and then will go out of their way to take care of things so that she becomes less stressed—and so that they don’t get in trouble,” says Dr. Sanchez. “Every decision is geared toward making a parent feel better, where again, typically the parent should be the person helping a child process their emotions.”
Why does parentification happen in the first place?
In many cases, a child will play the role of parent when a parent is “either emotionally or physically incapable of doing so, or has a limited understanding of boundaries,” says clinical and forensic psychologist Ahona Guha, DPsych. The former situation is often the result of a chronic mental illness, substance-misuse problems, or physical health condition that makes the parent unable to fulfill their parental duties, says Games. “The child then might become the comforter and caretaker for the parent that is ill, the other parent (if they’re present), and/or younger siblings.”
In other cases, a monetary barrier can lead to inadvertent parentification. If a caretaker is working, say, two or three jobs to make ends meet, they’re probably not at home very often to take care of basic household tasks or really address a child’s emotional needs—which may then force the child to step into the parent's shoes and handle it all themselves from a young age.
Parentification can be common among immigrant families, says Dr. Sanchez, as having a language or culture barrier can shrink a parent’s capacity to parent a kid in their new home (particularly if they don't have access to adequate resources). Her own mother was one of four kids to emigrate with her grandmother to the U.S. from El Salvador. “They were seeking asylum here, so they were coming from a space of trauma,” she says. Her grandmother chose not to send her three girls to school because she thought they'd be safer at home. Instead, the girls took on household responsibilities and started working to provide for the family at a young age. “When my mom and her sisters grew up and had me and my cousins, they figured that what they’d done as kids was ‘just what kids normally do for parents’—help them and teach them,” says Dr. Sanchez. “So, that’s what we were later expected to do, too, which is how parentification can become a generational cycle.”
First-generation kids also typically learn their new home's language sooner than their parents. As the only family members who can speak said language, the children “are then expected to translate documents and calls, and attend doctor’s appointments and any other important meetings that aren’t in their native language,” says Games, who’s Cuban-American and runs a bilingual, multicultural practice. If there are multiple children in an immigrant family, the oldest child is also often expected to figure out the educational system on their own and then guide younger siblings, she adds.
What are the long-term effects of parentification?
While Dr. Sanchez notes that instrumental parentification may help increase a person's resourcefulness and self-sufficiency (after all, they've likely picked up key skills while stepping into a parental position), both types of parentification often have detrimental effects in the long run.
“Being asked to take on tasks beyond their developmental capacity sets a child up for failure and difficult emotional experiences, such as anxiety,” says Dr. Guha. Having these kinds of heavy responsibilities as a kid can also bar you from the chance to actually be a kid and enjoy a real childhood, get your emotional needs met, and play and explore, she adds.
“Parentification sends the message that in order to be loved, you have to care for others and not necessarily expect to be cared for in return.” —Genesis Games, LMHC, relationship therapist
If the parentification is emotional in nature, “a child might also be exposed to material at a young age that they don’t have the capacity to understand or process [like the difficulties of mental or physical illness], which can overwhelm their developing emotional regulatory skills,” says Dr. Guha.
As you take on this emotional burden for a parent, you may begin to “frame your world from a perspective of, ‘How do I make sure that the people around me are okay, so that I am okay?’” says Dr. Sanchez, which can also create anxiety or spawn people-pleasing behaviors. “Parentification sends the message that in order to be loved, you have to care for others and not necessarily expect to be cared for in return,” says Games.
How parentification can shape the way you choose and interact within adult relationships
If you always played the parent or caretaker role in your relationship with your parents growing up, chances are, you’ll continue to play that role in relationships into adulthood. “People who were parentified may feel the need to help or rescue other people, choose partners or friends who are a bit helpless and swoop in to ‘fix’ them, become chronically overcommitted or enmeshed, or experience difficulties with implementing boundaries,” says Dr. Guha.
Similarly, if your parents consistently failed to meet your emotional needs—while you worked hard to meet theirs—it’s likely that you’ll wind up in relationships with people later in life who also fall short of meeting your needs or caring for you in the way you’d like to be cared for. This typically shows up as an insecure attachment style, whether anxious, avoidant, or fearful-avoidant, says Dr. Sanchez.
People with these kinds of attachment styles tend to have low self-esteem around relationships, constantly seeking validation and assurance (anxious) or put up a lot of walls and struggle to ask for help (avoidant), she says. All of the above “can make it really hard to develop close relationships or any lasting relationships at all,” she says.
You may also feel a sense of guilt whenever choosing what’s really best for you, says Games, given you weren’t typically or ever really prioritized as a kid. That could push you into relationships in which you struggle to express your own needs and set boundaries or end up giving far more than you’re receiving, she adds. “People who were parentified often have a deep-rooted sense of having to work for someone’s love.”
How to heal and move forward from parentification
Understanding the effects of parentification on your relational habits in adulthood is the biggest part of moving forward, says Dr. Sanchez. It's a complex process, which is why she recommends journaling, reading books on parentification, and seeing a therapist, if you can, to better understand the connection between the role you played within your child-parent relationship and the one you may be playing now.
Simply knowing, for instance, that you tend to seek reassurance in relationships can help you identify when that might be happening in real time, communicate these behaviors to a partner or friend, and either avoid sabotaging a relationship or put an end to it, if it’s not actually serving your needs.
Getting in touch with those needs and boundaries is another huge part of healing parentification wounds—because, again, you likely didn’t have the opportunity to do so as a kid. “When you’re constantly learning to care for other people, you’re not prioritizing your own needs,” says Dr. Sanchez. And if you aren’t, it’s unlikely that those around you will, either. To avoid that scenario, it’s important not only to get clear on your needs but also to communicate them to friends and partners, says Dr. Sanchez, so they know your expectations and how to meet them.
That boundary-setting can extend to family members, too, including one or both parents, if you’re looking to heal your relationship with them. “When you set new boundaries with a parent that you couldn’t set as a kid, you’re telling them, ‘This is how I would like our dynamic to be, and this is what feels good to me now,’” says Dr. Sanchez.
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