What Is Parentification?

Parents are the guardians and caretakers of children - they care for the emotional and physical needs of a child to ensure that the child's needs are met. However, for some, the traditional roles of parent and child are not followed. Parentification may be defined as a role-reversal between parent and child. A child's needs are sacrificed to take care of the needs of one or both of his or her parents. In very extreme cases, the parentified child may be used to fill the void of the parent's emotional life. Parentification is a form of child abuse.

During the process of parentification, a child may give up his or her needs of attention, comfort, and parental guidance to care for the needs and care of logistical and emotional needs of his or her parents.

The parent, in the case of parentification, does not do what he or she should do to take care of the child or children as a parent and instead, gives up parental responsibilities to one or more of his or her children. Thereby the children are "parentified." During parentification, the child becomes "the parental child."

What Happens During Parentification?

Parents who have certain personality disorders are more at risk for transferring the responsibility of parenthood - the physical and emotional needs of the rest of the family - in an active or passive fashion.

There is an expectation of parentified children to forgo playing, making friends, school work, and/or sleep to better meet the needs of the rest of the family members.

In a family with more than one child, the eldest or most mature child is usually the child prone to be parentified.

In certain cases, a child of the opposite sex is chosen to meet the emotional needs of the parent and become a "surrogate spouse." It may also lead to emotional incest.

Most children are anxious to make their parents happy, so a child undergoing parentification, often takes his or her new responsibilities seriously. It may even feel as though it's a huge honor to have such responsibility given to them.

In the long term, however, parentification means that the child's emotional needs are not met. This can lead to many, greater problems down the road.

How Do I Know If I Was Parentified As A Child?

If you're unsure if you were parentified as a child, ask yourself the following questions:

Were you made to feel responsible for your parents welfare, well-being, and feelings?

Was your parent indifferent or did he or she ignore your feelings most of the time?

Were you often blamed, criticized, devalued and demeaned by your parents?

When your parent was upset, were you often the target of those negative feelings?

Did you feel like you were always trying to please your parent - without ever succeeding?

Did you feel like your parent took all the credit for your successes?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you may have been the victim of parentification.

If those questions sounded familiar to you, ask yourself the following:

Did your parents ever say anything like...

  • "Don't you want me to feel good?"
  • "You make me feel like a failure when you..."
  • "You should care about me."
  • "If you cared about me, you'd do what I want you to."

What Type Of Parents "Parentify" Their Children?

While all parents may run the risk of parentifying his or her child, there are a few types of parents who run a higher risk of emotionally damaging their child through parentification. These include:

Parents who suffer personality disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and dependent personality disorder. Click each name to learn more about the specific personality disorders.

Read more about personality disorders.

Parents who are alcoholics.

Read more about alcoholism.

Parents who have a serious, chronic illness.

Read more about chronic illness.

Parents who have other mental illnesses.

Read more about mental illness.

What Are The Types Of Parentification?

Two types of parentification exist that may or may not occur together. These types of parentification are "emotional" and "instrumental" parentification.

1) Physical or Instrumental Parentification: In this type of parentification, a child takes up the role of the parent to meet the physical needs of the family and relieves the anxiety of a non-functioning parent.

The child usually takes over the needs of the household, by cooking, cleaning, shopping for groceries, paying bills, managing the budget, getting his or her siblings ready for school, and caring for his or her siblings.

This differs from teaching a child to manage assigned chores and tasks, which is healthy for child development. The parent forces the child to become caretaker, dumping more and more responsibilities upon their child, whether or not the child is developmentally ready for such tasks. This leaves the physically parentified child without opportunity to behave as a child and engage in normal childhood behaviors. The child feels like a surrogate parent to his or her siblings as well as his or her parents.

2) Emotional Parentification: In this type of parentification, a child is forced to meet the emotional needs of his or her parents and siblings. Emotional parentification is the most destructive type of parentification as it robs the child of his or her ability to have a childhood. Emotional parentification also sets up the child for a series of dysfunctions that may incapacitate the child as he or she grows into an adult.

In the role the child is forced to try and meet the emotional and psychological needs of his or her parent. The child may become the parent's confidant. Every child feels the desire to please his or her parent, even if it means not having his or her emotional needs met. This comes at a high cost - the child cannot develop normally or learn what an emotionally healthy bond is, which can lead to many problems in intimate relationships down the road.

Emotional incest is a type of Emotional Parentification that may occur if a parent selects a child of the opposite sex to confide in, openly discuss the problems and issues facing the parent as the parent uses the child as a surrogate spouse or surrogate therapist. Children should never, ever be treated as adults and exposed to adult problems in such a way.

How Do Parentified Children Respond To Parentification?

There are two major responses that children who have been parentified exhibit. These responses are the compliant response and the siege response and are discussed in greater detail below:

Compliant Response to Being Parentified: this behavior is a continuation of how you behaved as a child caring for his or her parents.

  • Spend much time caring for others.
  • Very conforming
  • Hyper-vigilant about acting to in a manner that pleases others.
  • Feel responsible for care, welfare and feelings of others.
  • May be self-deprecating.
  • Seldom get their own needs met.
  • Rushes to maintain peace and soothe hurt feelings of others.

Siege Response to Being Parentified: a continuation of the behavior as a child who was parentified and rebelled by attempting to fight to be separate and independent.

  • Work hard at preventing others from manipulating you.
  • Withdrawn and seemingly insensitive to others.
  • Work to avoid being involved by the demands of others.
  • Assume responsibility for the welfare of others and feel diminished when you don't meet their expectations.

What Are The Future Problems For Victims Of Parentification?

Growing up parenting your parent, having your childhood taken away, never getting the opportunity to be a child, can lead to a number of bigger problems down the road. The two main problem facing parentified children as adults include anger and difficulty with interpersonal relationships and attachments.

Extreme Anger - parentified children can grow to become extremely angry. They may have a love/hate relationship with their parent, but they may not understand why. Some adults who were parentified children may not understand the seemingly endless chasm of anger at others, including friends, partners and children. These people may explode with anger if the emotional wounds of their childhood are triggered.

Difficulty Forming Attachments With Other Adults: an adult parentified child may have a difficult time connecting with others. This difficulty can be closely tied to growing up without understanding healthy versus unhealthy attachments. This may lead to problems forming a healthy intimacy in relationships.

Other Problems Facing An Adult Who Was A Parentified Child:

There's not a question that becoming the parent of your own parent can lead to some pretty heavy burdens. Losing your childhood, your innocence, turning into "little adults" far too young leads to many problems later in life. These problems can include the following:

  • Low or poor self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Feeling of disconnect from their real self.
  • Shame
  • Fears that he or she may not properly meet his or her own demands and expectations.
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling incompetent 
  • Feelings of being unable to cope with adulthood
  • Underestimation of his or her own intelligence
  • Overestimation of the importance of others
  • Codependency in relationships
  • Becoming a caregiver
  • Becoming a workaholic 

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:

Child Abuse

Emotional Abuse

Alcoholism

Personality Disorders

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Antisocial Personality Disorder

Histrionic Personality Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder

Dependent Personality Disorder

Mental Illness

Adult Children of Addicts

Codependency

Fear

Workaholics

How To Increase Self Esteem

Additional Parentification Resources:

Parentification Resources: University of Alabama's research into parentification, including links to parentification articles as well as research findings.

Family Boundaries and the Parentified Child: Article that discusses the reason certain children are parentified as well as how it impacts normal childhood development.