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4 Signs You May Have Been 'Parentified' As A Child

It’s common for parents to gradually give their kids more responsibilities as they grow up. When those responsibilities are age-appropriate, that can be a good thing and help the child build skills like accountability, independence and teamwork. But when a child is saddled with adult responsibilities, it can turn into a damaging phenomenon known as “parentification.”

Parentification is essentially when the child and caregiver swap roles. So the kid is emotionally supporting the adult (known as emotional parentification) and/or managing the logistics of the household (known as instrumental parentification). Emotional parentification tends to be more harmful than the instrumental type.

″[It’s] the phenomenon that happens when a parent relinquishes the role of parent and a child feels the need to step into that role,” Kristene Geering, a parent educator at the family resource Parent Lab, previously told HuffPost

“So instead of the parent taking care of the child’s needs, the child takes care of the parent’s needs,” she said.

Expecting your kid to be a contributing member of the household by putting away their laundry, cleaning up their toys or feeding the dog is not the same as parentification. Parentification is when the burdens placed upon the kid are excessive and prolonged,putting “an emotional toll on the child and getting in the way of developmentally appropriate social, emotional and academic endeavors,” Dr. Khadijah Booth Watkins, associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, previously told HuffPost.

The two types of parentification are emotional and instrumental. Emotional parentification tends to be the more damaging.
The two types of parentification are emotional and instrumental. Emotional parentification tends to be the more damaging. Oliver Rossi via Getty Images

Examples of parentification might be if a child is expected to act as their parent’s therapist, be the caregiver for younger siblings or the peacemaker during adult squabbles.

Clinical psychologist Cindy T. Graham, founder of Brighter Hope Wellness Center, told HuffPost it’s important to keep cultural and ethnic differences in mind when having these conversations, as “many cultures value interconnectedness among family members and ‘pitching in.’”

In cultures where this is the case, “we would also expect to see that the children are allowed to be kids with time to play with other children, be involved in education with other children,” she added. “We would expect that the responsibilities of the home do not regularly overshadow an appropriate childhood experience.”

Certain circumstances increase a child’s risk of being parentified, like if their parent is struggling with a physical or mental health issue, a substance use disorder, a divorce or financial troubles, trauma therapist Maggie Nick told Care.com. Immigrant families may also find themselves in this type of dynamic due to language barriers and culture shock.

“We are more likely to see parentification in single-parent households, with the oldest siblings being most at risk,” Nick told the publication.

If this sounds all too familiar, read on as therapists share the signs you may have been parentified as a child.

You have a hard time holding boundaries.

Struggling to set and maintain boundaries is a sign you may have experienced parentification, said Evelyn Pechous, an associate marriage and family therapist at The Expansive Group. You may have a habit of neglecting your own desires, plans and preferences in order to satisfy someone else’s.

“For example, someone may experience an internal feeling of shame if they communicate being unable to attend a family gathering due to prior commitments — especially if those prior commitments were based on something they wanted to do for themselves,” she told HuffPost.

At the same time, you may not react well to someone setting a boundary with you. You might feel confused or hurt, “particularly if you were unable to set and maintain developmentally appropriate boundaries with caregivers,” Pechous added.

You have trouble relinquishing control. 

In adulthood, you may continue to take on a lot of responsibility and feel a “consistent need to be in control of situations,” Graham said.

“Adults who were parentified as children may struggle with allowing others to take the lead in situations,” she said. “This could also result in having relationships with those who will allow them to take charge. Adults who were parentified as children might harbor feelings of resentment from the lack of support.”

Over time, this inability to let others share some of this responsibility can leave you “overburdened and eventually burned out,” Graham added.

You feel overly responsible for other people’s emotions.

Perhaps your parent treated you like their confidant when you were just a kid and leaned heavily on you for comfort and support. They may have even made comments like, “I need you to make me happy” or “If I didn’t have you to talk to about this, I don’t know what I’d do.” In adulthood, you may continue to feel like you’re responsible for other people’s feelings and well-being.

“The caregiver may also have communicated messages such as, ‘If you don’t do well in class, you’re going to make me angry. So do well so you don’t make me angry,’” Pechous said. “This message can then develop an internalized narrative for the child that they must be ‘good’ or ‘perfect’ to prevent their caregiver from becoming angry.”

You’re a fixer.   

When a loved one is venting to you about something happening in their life, you can’t resist the urge to offer unsolicited advice and solutions in an effort to save the day.

“While adults who were parentified as children can be empathetic peacemakers in their relationships, this can also lead to over-involvement in the interpersonal dynamics of others,” Graham said.

She added: “In short, the adult who was a parentified adult can struggle with internal feelings of discomfort stemming from having to watch others figure out how to navigate their own lives.”

If this sounds familiar, here’s how it may affect you — and what you can do about it:

Therapists offer advice on how you can begin to heal from the parentification you experienced in childhood.
Therapists offer advice on how you can begin to heal from the parentification you experienced in childhood. NickyLloyd via Getty Images

Being placed in situations that were not developmentally appropriate as a kid can hinder your emotional and cognitive development and lead to high stress, anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed, according to The Attachment Project.

Making matters worse, your caregivers may not have given you the comfort or support needed to help you work through these emotions, which “can further interfere with the development of healthy emotional regulation skills,” the project’s website says. You may have also had trouble socially and academically as a kid because of all the responsibility you carried at home.

Long term, you may struggle with maintaining healthy boundaries and relationships. Additionally, you may develop clinical depression “due to a constant hypervigilance of a caregivers’ emotions or challenges with identifying wants and needs,” Pechous said.

But not all of the outcomes are negative, Graham noted. It can be useful to consider some of the positive effects of this kind of upbringing.

“For example, parentified adults may be dependable and high-achieving, or even the ‘rock’ of their families, friend circle, workplace and community,” she said. “They may also be likely to remain calm in difficult interpersonal situations.”

If you’re an adult trying to deal with the parentification you experienced as a child, there are things you can do to process and move forward. For starters, work on identifying your own authentic desires and needs, Pechous said.

“Notice how different situations, such as boundary-setting, physically feel in our bodies. When we are able to slow down and help our bodies understand that we might no longer be in the same environment or unsafety we were in before, our nervous system can become much more attune to the present,” she said.

When we are able to slow down and help our bodies understand that we might no longer be in the same environment or unsafety we were in before, our nervous system can become much more attune to the present.Evelyn Pechous, associate marriage and family therapist at The Expansive Group

Building a consistent routine with protected time set aside for relaxation and self-care practices “can reduce the potential for burnout and overcommitment,” Graham said. “Having an accountability buddy, or someone who checks in to make sure that one is not overcommitted, is also a helpful strategy.”

For some folks, revisiting parts of your childhood that you might have missed out on can be helpful, like “going to amusement parks, playing video games, collecting nostalgic items,” Graham said.

Therapy can also be beneficial, whether it’s individual therapy, family therapy or a combination.

“A therapist who is specially trained in working with families, like a licensed marriage and family therapist, may be especially helpful in navigating these family dynamics,” Pechous said. “I also would really encourage family therapy. Though there is so much value in individual therapy, many of us could benefit from and find repair in attending family therapy with our caregivers.”

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