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Reversed Caregiving Roles: Impact on the Parentified Child

By Evan Tokarz/Symmetry Counseling

Parentification is the harmful psychological phenomenon of a child being forced to take on the role and responsibilities typically performed by a parent. In such situations, the parentified child is tasked with parental duties, such as caring for their siblings, managing household duties, or addressing the emotional needs of their parents. The key aspect defining parentification is that the duties and emotional labor requested are beyond the ability of the child’s age and are developmentally inappropriate.

What Does Parentification Mean for the Parentified Child?

The dynamics leading to parentification can vary, and every individual situation is unique, but common factors include parental substance abuse, mental health issues, divorce, or the death of a parent. 

In these challenging circumstances, children may find themselves having to step into caregiving roles to fill the void left by absent, unavailable, or incapacitated parents. This role reversal can be overwhelming and have significant and long-lasting effects on the child’s development and overall well-being.

The Impact of Instrumental Parentification on the Parentified Child 

One common aspect of parentification involves “instrumental caregiving,” where the parentified child assumes practical responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, finances, and ensuring the safety of younger siblings. It is important to note these responsibilities extend beyond their developmental level. This premature exposure to adult responsibilities may hinder the child’s ability to engage in age-appropriate activities and can impact their academic and social development as the parentified child may struggle to form friendships and participate in extracurricular activities when their time and energy are consumed by overwhelming caregiving duties.

In a research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology titled, “Characterizing the magnitude of the relation between self-reported childhood parentification and adult psychopathology: a meta-analysis” (Hooper et al., 2011), researchers explored the impact of instrumental parentification on children’s peer relationships over time. Their findings supported the idea that early experiences of instrumental parentification can negatively influence the development of interpersonal skills, and can also be detrimental to the child’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships with peers across the lifespan.

The Impact of Emotional Parentification on the Parentified Child 

Another form of parentification is “emotional parentification,” which occurs when a child becomes the primary source of emotional support for their parents. Instead of relying on friends or other adults for guidance and understanding, the parentified child becomes a confidant for their parent’s struggles and challenges. This emotional burden beyond their means can lead to heightened stress, anxiety, and a compromised sense of self for the child as they grapple with emotions and issues beyond their developmental capacity.

The research paper titled “Long-term sequelae of emotional parentification” (Schier et al., 2014) published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies delves into the long-term consequences of emotional parentification on adult attachment styles and romantic relationship dynamics. This study emphasizes how the emotional burdens placed on children can negatively shape their interpersonal patterns in adulthood, particularly influencing the quality of their romantic relationships.

A bestselling book that is relevant to this topic is Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents (Gibson, 2015). While not directly on the topic of parentification, Gibson’s book on emotionally immature parenthood provides insights and strategies that can be helpful for breaking the cycle of the negative effects of parentification. The book’s guidance on setting boundaries, developing healthy self-esteem, and fostering autonomy can allow adult children to overcome the challenges that may be associated with being parentified as children. Readers may understand the impact of their upbringing on their present behavior and relationships and develop tools for personal growth and healing.

Empower and Liberate the Parentified Child

Individual counseling and therapy can be helpful for individuals who have experienced parentification and seek to overcome the effects of parentifications as adults. By exploring and understanding the impact of these early caregiving roles, individuals can work towards breaking unhealthy relationship patterns. It is essential for readers to recognize that their worth is not solely determined by their ability to meet the needs of others, and they deserve to prioritize their own well-being.

 


References

Gibson, L. (2015). Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents. New Harbinger Publications. Oakland, California.

Hooper, L. M., DeCoster, J., White, N., & Voltz, M. L. (2011). Characterizing the magnitude of the relation between self-reported childhood parentification and adult psychopathology: A meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67(10), 1028-1043.Schier, K., Herke, M., Nickel, R., et al. (2015). Long-Term Sequelae of Emotional Parentification: A Cross-Validation Study Using Sequences of Regressions. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24, 1307–1321.

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