A parent delays to pay their child’s school fees. When the child asks about it, the parent responds, “I have been having the worst days at work! My boss yells at me and my colleagues do not support me. I am left all by myself to fend for you. After all I have done for you, the worst you can do is to question me about your school fees.” The child reassures the parent, saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know you were going through such a hard time. I can offer to do some manual work on weekends so that I assist you with the bills. I am so sorry mum.” (If the child shares their own feelings, like fear and worry about staying out of school, they are reprimanded.)
Ideally, a parent should care for the child, while the child focuses on growth and development. However, sometimes these roles are reversed, and a child finds themselves acting as a caregiver.
Due to prevailing circumstances, the child takes on grown-up responsibilities at a young age. This role reversal is known as “parentification,” and it can have long-lasting negative emotional and mental effects.
Parentified children learn that their own needs and feelings are a threat and must not be expressed.
Parentification could be classified into two broad categories;
Emotional parentification whereby parents confide secrets to the child or go to their children for emotional comfort. Emotionally parentified children might grow up to be mediators and comforters in the family. They are deemed as the “strong ones” emotionally. They are responsible for diffusing family arguments.
In essence, the child learns to push their own feelings away. They usually don’t get the same emotional support back from their parents.
The other type is instrumental parentification whereby children are put in charge of practical duties like cooking, making grocery lists, paying bills, getting younger siblings ready for school and booking medical appointments. These tasks often are above their level of ability and understanding.
Why does parentification happen? Parentification could happen if the parent(s) are having:
- Physical or emotional impairments, illnesses.
- Drug abuse and addictions.
- Financial crisis.
- Major life changes such as divorce and separation.
- Death of one/ both parents.
- Neglectful parenting style.
Managing grown-up responsibilities is stressful as an adult, so it’s no surprise that children can be negatively affected by the pressure too.
Some of the mental effects to parentified children include:
- Self-blame and guilt due to invalidation of their feelings.
- Anxiety, depression and other mental issues.
- Aggressive and disruptive behaviors such as substance abuse.
- Poor social skills.
- Engaging in toxic relationships.
- Fears of abandonment, difficulties with trust and/or avoidance of intimacy.
- Inability to set appropriate boundaries.
- Developing strong caregiving and people pleasing tendencies.
To identify if behavior is parentified, ask yourself:
“Whose needs are being met?”
“Is the demand age-appropriate?”
Chiromo Hospital Group