5 Signs Of Parentification

Parentification is a term that refers to when a child is responsible for too many things that are simply not appropriate or fair. This may have forced the child to act as a parent to their own caregivers. 

When parents do not step up and do their job of looking after their children correctly, a certain child may have had to take on the role. Parentification is a spectrum, and so is the hurt it produces – some children grow up to be mostly unaffected, and are generally able to cope, but other children can be deeply scarred for the rest of their lives. [1]

There are two main types of parentification – the instrumental kind and the emotional kind. Instrumental parentification refers to when a child is forced to take on physical responsibilities – for example, cooking, cleaning and paying bills. Emotional parentification is when a child takes on the role of the mediator of confidante between or of caregivers. Both are equally harmful and are symptoms of neglect and abuse, and a sign that the child has been given too much to be responsible for. [2]

Without further ado, here are five signs you may have been parentified. 

1. You often had to act as the conciliator between caregivers.

Think back to when you were a child. How often did your parents argue? More importantly, how did they deal with those arguments? Did they settle in it in a healthy, natural way? Did they talk it through with each other, taking care to make sure the children did not hear? Or were they loud and crude, using inappropriate language around you?

If one or both parents come to a child, and demand and/or pressure the childinto mediating their argument, then these parents may be parentifying their child. In this scenario they may bully or coerce their child into listening to their personal argument and helping the adults find a solution. 

The parents may talk or treat their other partner badly, and expect the child to take their side against the other caregiver. This is extremely emotionally damaging to the child – it takes away their sense of emotional safety in the family. The child may feel guilty when they take a side against another parent, and guilty when they don’t. This is a very harmful environment to grow up in. [2]

2. You were often complimented on being “mature” and “responsible.” 

As a child, you may have been complimented with something along the lines of, “Oh, aren’t you so mature!” or, “Your responsibility is astounding for your age!” These compliments may have made you feel good at the time, but looking back, it’s important to realise that these were misguided adults accidentally complimenting you on your symptoms of abuse. 

Children are not supposed to be mature and responsible for their age – rather, they should be carefree and fun-loving. Children who are parentified are often praised for being ahead of their peers – but this praise is built on false expectations and traumatic experiences. The ‘emotional resilience’ and ‘maturity’ is often simply underlying anxiety and displacement in the family dynamic. 

When complimented, the child may feel an additional pressure to stay in this position – constantly looking after other people’s needs rather than their own. Their self esteem may plummet, as they feel obligated to keep betraying themselves in order to receive more much-needed praise.

3. You hid away your emotions in fear of your parent’s reactions.

Victims of parentification often feel as though they must hide away their own emotions, to instead place their parent’s emotional needs above their own. The child may deny their own emotions and needs, instead pretending that they’re fine. If someone asks about their wellbeing, the victim may brush them off with a simple, “Oh, I’m fine,” or “I’m just tired.” 

This is an example of self-betrayal as the child repeatedly denies their own reality. The child may fear their parent’s reactions – they may feel the parent will mock them, or tell them they have nothing to be upset or angry about compared to the parent’s worries. Due to this tendency to bottle things up, the child may fall victim to negative thinking – the child may think they are worthless, unloved and like a failure.

Constant emotional repression can be extremely damaging to a child’s wellbeing. [3]

4. Now, you have difficulty processing your emotions.

As mentioned previously, emotional repression can have severe negative effects.

For example, it may lead to emotional dysregulation – which is an impairment in the ability to manage emotional responses. For example, someone with emotional dysregulation issues may throw temper tantrums, have frequent outbursts of crying, or have periods of intense embarrassment, shame and despair. [4]

For victims of parentification, they may have these issues more severely and more often than the general population. Due to their childhood being filled with responsibilities that they may have been too young to handle, victims feel as though they must continue to keep all their worries and issues to themselves. This coping mechanism may have aided them in survival as a child, but when they are no longer in the harmful environment, the coping mechanism quickly becomes unhealthy.

The prolonged denial leads to this inability to keep emotions within a regular reaction. This can be hindering to a person’s emotional wellbeing. [3]

5. At times, you felt more emotionally mature than your parents.

Parentified children may often feel as though they were always more mature that their parents. Their parents may have been neglectful – leaving the child to do all the emotional work. Emotional work refers to empathy, common sense, and awareness of your own and other’s motives.

Emotionally immature parents often abandon their duty to carry out emotional work. For example, they may leave it to the child to reconcile their own and the parent’s relationships. They may refuse to apologize, and they may place all the blame on others. They may leave all reconnect and reconciliation to the child. This is a sign that you may have been subjected to parentification as a child. [5]

As it turns out, sensitive, gifted and empathetic children are particularly vulnerable to being parentified. The parents may not maliciously or deliberately force their child to act as the caretaker – sometimes, emotionally intuitive children simply take it upon themselves to try and fix their emotionally unsafe environment. However, no matter how well-meaning and kind these children may be, they are too young to take 9n these burdens, and often only end up harming themselves. [6]

It is important for parentified children to acknowledge a number of things to fully heal. They must remember that their value is not dependent on how much they help a parent, and they must set up strong boundaries for themselves. They should forgive themselves for any guilt or shame they feel, and they should spend time discovering their sense of fun and play. [7]

Disclaimer: This article is in no way trying to reinforce a victim/persecutor complex, it is simply trying to shed light on why some adults are unable to cope with childhood events. Learning about the things that hurt us often aid in recovery – which is the sole aim of this article.

[1] R. A. Gardner, The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome
[2] Gregory J. Jurkovic, ‘Destructive Parentification in Families
[3] Kimberly Holland, Common Defense Mechanisms
[4] Arlin Cuncic, What Is Emotional Dysregulation?
[5] Lindsay Gibson, Emotionally Immature Parents
[6] Imi Lo, Parentification
[7] Chrissie Tizzard, Parentification

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