When a child is forced to take on the parental role by their own mother or father (and not as a recognised young carer in cases of parental illness), we call this parentification.
The term was coined by psychiatrist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, one of the founders of family therapy as we know it, in 1965, and expanded upon with psychiatric social worker Geraldine M. Spark. Later, psychiatrist Mara Selvini Palazzoli, one of the founders of Milan systemic family therapy, wrote about parentification in the 1980s.
In 1997, Gregory J. Jurkovic published Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child, where he explored many different case studies, such as that of seven-year-old Jenny, ‘serving as her mother’s confidante, dutiful helper, and primary source of support. She often advised her about relationships, finances, and major purchases. Jenny also assumed considerable responsibility for her half-brother’s care.’
Types of Parentification
Parentification can take two different forms, or be a combination:
Instrumental parentification sees the child take on practical parenting tasks that should not be a child’s responsibility, such as paying household bills or looking after their siblings.
Emotional parentification sees the child consulted like a therapist or confident by the parent, discussing deep emotional issues or decisions that should not be their responsibility.
In either situation, the child doesn’t have a ‘normal’ childhood, as they are made to grow up very quickly and without the emotional and practical support that a parent should give them.
The boundaries and safety involved in good parenting – setting bedtimes, age-appropriate games and chores, rewards for good behaviour and progress and telling them off for bad behaviour – are absent. The child is forced to create their own structure and boundaries and feels the burden of responsibility at an age where they should be growing and learning at their own pace.
Their schoolwork and friendships will inevitably suffer under the strain of this role as the default parent. It is hard to relate to peers with ‘normal’ childhoods, and cope with a busy school day on top of adult-level home responsibilities.
However, they may struggle to speak out about what’s happening at home, especially if it’s all they’ve ever known. They often feel guilty for not doing ‘enough’ to solve a parent’s problems, but they should not be held responsible.
Representations in Books and Films
You might recognise stories of parentification in fiction, such as:
Book: The Illustrated Mum
Jacqueline Wilson introduces us to Dolphin (known as Dolly) and her older sister Star, who live with their vulnerable mother. Star is frustrated at being a parentified teenager and resents having to care for Dolly whilst trying to be independent and experience life as a ‘normal’ teen. Dolly also feels the loss of her absent father and she is struggling at school because of her chaotic home life.
Mick Kitson’s novel is a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl and her younger sister, terrified of their abusive stepfather and alcoholic mother. Whilst the sisters’ actions are extreme – running away to the Scottish Highlands – their feelings are not, and Sal’s interest in survival skills creates an interesting parallel with her situation.
Film: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
The character of Gilbert Grape (played by Johnny Depp) is forced into a parental role, as his father and older brother are absent. He is left to care for two family members with complex needs, and his older sister also adopts a parental role, effectively becoming a housekeeper.
Patterns of parentification may come from the parent’s own past experiences, such as a traumatic incident that continues to affect their everyday life, or a sense of unfulfillment from their life before having children. The parent can become co-dependent on the child as a result.
Addiction and Parentification
Parentification can sometimes be the result of a parent’s addiction issues, as explored in this article from The Atlantic. Until the addicted parent receives treatment or the child can be parented in a different environment, the imbalanced relationship will continue.
Addiction is an illness and not a choice; the parent may not be able to see the damage they are doing, but it is not safe for a parentified child to be the caregiver for someone in the grip of addiction. It may take a long time for everyone involved to acknowledge this. Fortunately, there are some brilliant charities supporting the children of those with addiction issues, such as NACOA and Al Anon.
Moving into adulthood, a parentified child can sometimes continue to form difficult relationships with friends and partners; it may be that they subconsciously seek out others who need to be taken care of, or that they seek out someone very dominant and controlling who won’t meet their emotional needs, because their childhood has been shaped by having those needs left unmet. Their sense of self-worth can be very poor.
However, the cycle can be broken – a parentified child can heal the wounds of their childhood with talking therapy. Each case is individual, but your treatment may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or possibly EMDR in cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
If you have been a parentified child, remember that:
- Your value is not dependent on how much you help a parent.
- Whatever they say, you are not responsible for your mother or father’s happiness, or that of any siblings.
- Forgive yourself for any feelings of guilt or anger.
- Spend time discovering your sense of fun and play.
You may have spent years or decades putting others first, but it’s time to put yourself first. Help is out there, and talking therapy can make a huge difference to your outlook.
Written by guest contributor Vikram Das for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).