There are subtle ways that parents can make the mistake of parentifying their kids. This term means to reverse roles, causing the child to parent the adult. There are two forms of parentification: instrumental and emotional. Instrumental refers to the child actually doing physical tasks that a parent should do, such as taking care of younger siblings or even an adult relative, maintaining the household, or paying the bills. Emotional parentification happens when the child becomes the emotional support for the parent and takes on the burden of being a confidant or friend.

Why is parentification bad for a child?

  1. It can take away their childhood. Childhood is the only opportunity a person has to allow others to care for them all the time and enjoy not having to be responsible and facing the world’s many troubles. Having a happy childhood sets the stage for the rest of a person’s life and identity. Being confused as a child about the role one is supposed to have can cause problems in the future.
  2. Anger, resentment and mistrust can emerge. Parentified children may recognize as they look around them at other children their age that these kids are not expected to do as much as they are, or that their parents don’t talk to them about certain things that the parentified child’s does. As they get older they may also realize that what they were expected to do was unfair, and feel anger and resentment towards their parents. They may not trust others due to these bad past experiences.
  3. It may hinder future relationships. A child’s relationship with their parents is the first and most fundamental relationship a person experiences. Children are supposed to be able to rely on their parent to take care of and protect them. A parentified child realizes that they cannot depend on their parent, and instead, that the parent relies on them. This feeling of only being able to rely on oneself may extend into future relationships for a parentified child.
  4. The child may feel guilty about leaving home. After having been the caretaker of the parent or the family for so long, a parentified child may worry about what will happen to the family once they grow up and leave home. This may hinder the child from wanting to leave and engage in the individuation process that young adults go through of trying to determine who they are and what they want to do with their lives.

There is a difference between giving your child responsibility and parentifying them. Here are some tips to help you maintain your role as the parent, and let your kids be kids.

  1. Give age-appropriate responsibilities. It is good for kids to have responsibilities such as chores around the house or babysitting for a younger sibling. Responsibilities should increase when a child becomes a teenager to prepare them for being on their own eventually. However, when a young child is responsible for going to the store for groceries, paying the electricity bill, or raising a younger sibling, that is when problems arise.
  2. Maintain the hierarchy of the family. Know that as the parent, you are in charge. Caretaking, family decisions, and managing through hard times are all on you. It is important to be able to convey a sense of control and security to your child so that they can have a solid foundation in life.
  3. Remember that your child is not your friend. This means it is not appropriate to talk to your child about certain things, even if they are older. Emotional parentification often happens during divorces- one or both parents may talk to the child about what is going on between them to an extent that is not appropriate or bad-mouths the other parent. Your child needs to see you as someone who can take care of oneself emotionally in order to be able to confide in you about feelings.
  4. Allow your child to be independent. Emotional parentification can have the effect of enmeshing you and your child so that you depend so much on each other that it is unthinkable to break away. Do and say things that support your child becoming their own person, and do not say things that make your child feel guilty for wanting to leave home or do something different.

Parentification is usually totally unintentional and parents do not realize that it is occurring. Educate yourself so that you can see the signs and make sure your child gets to be young and carefree.

Author: Grace Norberg, AMFT