I have already touched upon the topic of ‘parentification’ in other articles but, in this one, wish to examine its possible harmful effects a little more closely.
First, let’s quickly recap what is meant by the term.
What Is Parentification?
Parentification refers to when a role reversal occurs between a parent and a child. To elaborate: the child is used by the parent to fulfil their own needs which, inevitably, leads to the child’s own needs at best becoming secondary to those of the parent or pretty much neglected altogether. Specific needs of the child that may be sacrificed, according to the researcher Chase, include the need for attention, the need for care and the need for guidance.
Such needs are neglected and the child is forced or coerced into taking on responsibilities with which s/he is not equipped to cope psychologically.
THE TWO TYPES OF PARENTIFICATION: EMOTIONAL AND INSTRUMENTAL
Parentification can be of two specific types (though they may occur simultaneously. These are:
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
Emotional Parentification: this is the most psychologically damaging of the two types. It occurs when the child is coerced into meeting the emotional needs of the parent. For example, my own mother, when I was as young as ten or eleven years old, would talk (seemingly endlessly) to me about her own myriad personal worries and concerns yet display no interest in my own life at all. I became her confidant and personal counsellor (but without being in a position to charge a fee) and she would discuss with me the intimate details of her relationships with the succession of men she dated and brought home. My father had abandoned us when I was eight years old so my mother had no husband with whom to talk about her infinite set of worries. Indeed, such a situation is far from uncommon in households in which the child becomes parentified.
If there is more than one child in the family, the one who is chosen to be emotionally parentified is often the most sensitive, compassionate and vulnerable one. This was certainly true in our household. Typically, I’d be counselling my mother whilst my brother was upstairs in his bedroom listening to music or out with friends.
Effects of emotional parentification: such parentification of the child represents unequivocal emotional abuse. The child’s innate concern for the parent and desire to please her is indisputably exploited. My own mother would positively reinforce my caring and compassionate behaviour towards her by referring to me as her ‘little psychiatrist’. To what degree this represented cynical manipulation of me by her I suppose I will never know.
Because emotional parentification involves a violation of personal boundaries it has also been referred to by experts in the field as covert incest, emotional incest and psychic incest.
As adults, those of us who were emotionally parentified as children are more likely than others to develop significant problems relating to others, including friends and partners. This is because we never learned from our parents how to develop healthy emotional bonds with others. The psychologist Bowlby found evidence that we are also more likely than others to develop what he called ‘anxious attachments’ (this can involve us being ‘clingy’ and constantly in fear we will be abandoned by those for whom we care).
Emotional parentification is thought to be especially damaging when the massive responsibility the child is taking on goes unacknowledged or is minimised and the child receives no support for what s/he is doing.
A second effect of having been emotionally parentified as a child is that we may become adults who are predisposed to outbursts of extreme anger and rage, especially in situations which trigger, consciously or unconsciously, memories of having been abused in childhood.
Instrumental parentification: here, the child is forced to take on physical responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, washing, caring for younger siblings etc. It goes way beyond ordinary expectations for the child to occasionally help out with small tasks.
Whilst very far indeed from a desirable state of affairs, such parentification tends not to have the devastating psychological impact that emotional parentification can have.