A ‘parentified’ child is a term that psychologists use to refer to a situation between the child and the parent in which a role-reversal has occurred resulting in the child having to care for the parent (emotionally and/or physically) rather than the other way around.
I have already written articles about narcissistic parents (e.g. click here) but I will briefly repeat the ways in which they often interact with their children.
Ways in which the narcissistic parent may interact with their children :
The diagram below gives an indication of the narcissistic parent’s typical behavior patterns :
1- they may show limited or no empathy with their children’s feelings
2- they may be emotionally abusive towards their children (my mother, for example, would refer to me as ‘poof’, ‘scabby’, and tell me she wished I’d never been born, and that she felt ‘evil towards’ me, or ‘murderous towards’ me. She also constantly threatened to throw me out of the house and did exactly that when I was thirteen)
3- they may treat their children as an extension of themselves, rather than as a unique individual with his/her own hopes, dreams, needs, desires, etc.
4- they may constantly seek/demand admiration from their children
5- they may perpetually expect to be treated as the ‘center of the child’s universe’, rather than the other way around
6- they may constantly demand that the child pays them attention (this may involve dramatic gestures – when I was about ten and alone with my mother, she threatened to take an overdose of her tranquilizers and commit suicide, for example, making it necessary for me to phone for help; she never took the overdose, however)
7- they may constantly behave in a grandiose manner
8- they may display only shallow emotions (e.g. the child may sense any love and affection s/he is occasionally shown is extremely tenuous, fragile, conditional, and transient)
9- they may generally exploit their child (again, to use a personal example, from about the time I was eleven, I operated as my mother’s personal counselor – indeed, she used to refer to me as her ‘little psychiatrist’).
What Is The Parentified Child Deprived Of?
The parentified child tends to be deprived of :
– being treated with empathy
– being treated as a unique individual with their own needs, desires, ideas, etc
– being unconditionally treated with positive regard
– having his/her needs treated as a priority
– having his/her faults accepted
– being treated with patience
Essentially, then, the parent is emotionally unavailable to the child. The emphasis is on the child meeting the needs of the parent (e.g. the parent’s need for attention, admiration, and emotional nourishment).
Effects Upon The Child :
When the child who was brought up by a narcissistic parent becomes an adult, s/he may find that his/her own functioning has been adversely affected by his/her narcissistic parent’s influence. For example, s/he may :
– feel lonely and isolated from others
– have low self-confidence/self-esteem
– have problems with his/her relationships with others (including family, friends, and work colleagues)
– have low empathy with feelings of others
– be highly self-critical
– have a low stress-tolerance threshold
– often feel overwhelmed by, and unable to cope with, the demands of other people
– have an inability to form satisfying and fulfilling intimate relationships
– feel they are always operating on a different emotional level compared with others
– react badly to criticism – e.g. feel far angrier and hurt because of it than would be more objectively warranted
Parents who are narcissistic (or those who have borderline personality disorder) may also act as what some psychologists refer to as an ENERGY VAMPIRE. In my case for example, from about two or three years after my parents’ divorce (I would have been eleven by then), my mother would use me as her own personal counselor (she even used to refer to me as her ‘Little Psychiatrist’ which would involve me spending countless hours spread over countless evenings after I had returned from school trying my best to reassure her and comfort her (she was prone to hysteria and her moods were unstable and volatile). At the time, my love for my mother was boundless (despite her cruel treatment, see above) and I was permanently preoccupied with trying to reduce her levels of distress (even when my father took me on holiday, I would be worrying about her in the car on the journey the coast, the first thing I would do on arrival at the holiday camp was to phone her and make sure that she was alright. When it comes to so-called energy vampires, such behavior is not unusual as they tend to exploit other people’s compassion and sensitive nature (I was an exquisitely sensitive child and became a super-empath in relation to reading my mother’s ever-changing moods.
Also, ‘energy vampires’ tend to maximize their own problems by using hyperbole and melodrama when communicating them. Other characteristics include:
- not taking responsibility for their harmful behavior towards others
- exhausting your energy levels
- blaming others and manipulating others into feeling guilty
- wanting always to be in the spotlight, maximizing their own successes out of all proportion whilst diminishing and resenting the achievements of others in case these move the spotlight away from him/her
In order to prevent oneself from becoming overwhelmed by energy vampires, it is often necessary to implement firm boundaries in relation to how we interact with them although some choose to sever relationships with the energy vampire entirely.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)