‘Parentification’ Children Who Play the Role of Parents

There are many parents who, due to their circumstances, promote an exchange of roles with their children and make them their parents. A phenomenon that undoubtedly marks children so strongly that it is inevitable that in adulthood it leaves its trail.

Obedient, attentive children, with a sense of responsibility almost impeccable, but with a childhood stolen in part and with a sack of emotional wounds that limit their personal development. They are the victims of parentification. Let’s go deeper.

What is parentification?

Parentification is a term used by the psychiatrist Boszormenyi-nagi to refer to a very common phenomenon in dysfunctional families. This is the unconscious process whereby children become parents of their parents and therefore assume greater responsibility than they should for their age and maturity.

In parentification there is an absence of generational barriers that causes distortion in children when parents are not able to legitimize themselves.

The fact that it is an unconscious mechanism has its explanation that, to this day, treating children as if they were small adults is socially accepted, in addition to the fact that children see their influence increased momentarily. Undoubtedly, a situation that involves more flattery than criticism, but that is still a mental trap for the parties involved.

n addition, this situation may be further aggravated if the parents suffer from a mental disorder, such as a narcissistic, dependent personality or a borderline personality disorder, among others.

Although there are several classifications on the process of parentification, one of the most common is the one that distinguishes two types of parentification:

  • Emotional. It occurs when parents expect their children to reassure them when they are upset or to protect them from the emotional consequences of their actions. In this way, they assign their children the role of emotional support of their needs. A situation that masks after the denial of the reality of their children with the justification – rational and distorted – that they do it for their good.
  • Physical or instrumental. This is one in which children are expected to take care of domestic or economic needs, food preparation, care of other siblings or other responsibilities that correspond to parents.

Between both types, physical or instrumental parentification is considered less harmful to children, since assuming roles related to emotional needs can be much more stressful. In this case,  the emotional needs of the little ones are forgotten , taking all the prominence of the parents.

Authors such as Hooper and Wallace claim that the two types of parentification are related to disorders such as depression, anxiety, and somatization.

The emotional wounds of parentification

Parentification is considered a form of violence or psychological abuse.

According to a study by Earley & Cushway in 2002, “… penalization during childhood has an impact on the development of the identity and personality of the individual, on interpersonal relationships and on relationships with the children themselves during adulthood “

In addition, it has also been proven that those adults who were penalized during their childhood are more likely to develop the impostor syndrome. That is, to experience deep personal insecurity, despite having achieved great achievements and successes and to think that it is not thanks to them, but to extrinsic factors or blows of luck.

As we can see, parentification leaves its mark on adulthood, due to the emotional wounds that it has generated in children and which in some cases also affects the spouses of penalized adults in their childhood and their children.

However, some authors agree that this process of role reversal can be beneficial in some cases.

  • On the one hand, it can be gratifying for the child’s safety needs,  if he perceives the situation as a sign of recognition and gratitude (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 2003).
  • Jurkovic has linked the highest levels of emotional parentification with the highest levels of interpersonal competence. In this case, it has to do with the development of the fulfillment of responsibilities for the development of skills and abilities by children, which in some way influence them to become more competitive adults in life.

However, we cannot forget that regardless of these »benefits», each stage of life has its development patterns and characteristics and in the case of parentification these are not respected. Hence, this situation is related to alterations in the physical, emotional, intellectual and social development of children. Although you should not lose sight of the particular situation of each person.

For this reason, not all children who have been victims of this phenomenon have the same emotional result : some experience high levels of functioning, others experience low levels, and others have a combination of both depending on certain areas.

Undoubtedly, parentification is another phenomenon that reminds us of the importance of the links between parents and children and how their development can influence throughout a lifetime. A situation that we must take into account and to which psychological therapy is recommended as soon as it is identified.

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