Childhood, until the mid-18th century, it is commonly believed, was not conceptualized as a particular stage in life. As reflected in pre-19th-century child portraiture, children were depicted, through dress and context, as miniature adults.
While we may have moved away from rigid expectations of young children behaving like grown-ups, we still tend to glorify the precocious child who gracefully demonstrates mastery of adult tasks or behaves with adult aplomb.
What is parentification?
The problem occurs when children adopt parental roles that they perceive as having been vacated by one or both parents. Parentification happens when parents encourage (or permit) children to take on parental responsibilities on a regular basis, and with the expectation that the child can perform as an adult, without consideration for what this might cost the child.
The child as emotional support
When children start to worry about one or both parents, that is an indicator that the child needs to be reassured that the parents are okay, and the child should be redirected to focusing his attention on caring for himself. Parents can reassure children that though they (the parents) might be sad or having a tough time, they are still fully capable of caring for themselves as well as the needs of the children. Parents might even comfort the children by sharing that the parents are getting whatever help they need to feel better and move forward to a happier future. They can relieve the children’s concerns by reaffirming the fact that the family is best served when the child fully engages in her own role and accompanying responsibilities.
Note: It is vital that parents seek support and help from appropriate professional and peer resources. Parents who fail to get help for themselves out of a sense of pride or delusion about their own vulnerabilities do a disservice to their children, who end up picking up the slack and supporting the parents’ unidentified needs.
The child as confidante
It is never appropriate or healthy to confide in your child the way you would in a friend or confessor. This is particularly true if the confidence involves information about the other parent. Among the many problems this creates is damage to the safety and sanctity of the parent-child relationship. This simple, seemingly banal event, shifts the child’s role from care recipient to caregiver, responsible for holding and managing complex information and feelings, keeping secrets, and processing all of this alone. The dependent child can not and should not be expected to have an emotionally reciprocal relationship with his/her parent.
The child as messenger
Unless your child is in the employ of Federal Express, he should not serve as a messenger of anything. It’s stressful being a child. It’s stressful going through any transition of divorce. All energy needs to be focused on growing up. God knows, not enough kids develop into mature, capable adults. Let them focus their energy on doing their homework, dealing with their friends and their clubs and committees, working on their grades, and just developing into big people.
What’s the problem with it anyway?
Parentification sets children up to fail, feel emotionally overwhelmed and confused about appropriate expectations and boundaries. Parentification makes children responsible for aspects of adult life that are beyond their understanding and capacity and which they are ill-equipped to manage. Children will pick up on the sense that there’s a lot on their shoulders while experiencing an anxiety that they have neither the life experience or emotional know-how to proceed effectively. Not only are appropriate boundaries between the child and parent distorted, the child’s sense of realistic boundaries of his or her role also become blurred.
Parentification can burden children well into adulthood, if not for the rest of their lives; it prepares them to enter relationships where they assume the role of rescuer or those where they constantly subjugate their needs to those of the other. Children learn that in order to have their needs met, they must first take care of the other. This other-focused approach severely compromises their ability to self-care and become self-reliant, independent adults.
Parentification robs children of the foundation they need to develop into emotionally healthy, psychologically stable adults.
What’s the difference between parentification and children maturing and taking on more responsibility?
Development is nonlinear, and children can be applauded when they demonstrate maturity and excel at new skills. If children are growing and parents are encouraging them, boundaries and roles are aligned. This is not parentification and must be distinguished from it.
Can a kid help make dinner? Absolutely. Should a child be responsible for making sure the family eats a balanced meal together and at a regular time each night? No. The shift is from the child contributing and participating as a conscientious member of the family, versus the child feeling and acting on a sense that he or she is responsible for taking care of the family unit. Implicit in this responsibility is fear. Fear that if the child doesn’t step in, the family will not be managed, the parents won’t be able to care for the family, and the child’s needs will go unmet.
In what circumstances is parentification likely to occur?
Children of divorce are vulnerable to being parentified, as there is an actual absence of a parent that must be negotiated and adjusted to. But it’s important to note that divorce in no way mandates parentification, just as “intact” families are not guaranteed freedom from it. Parentification happens in all sorts of family systems and has a multitude of causes. It is something that all parents should be aware of. Even if your marriage is fairly intact, people go through job losses, depressions, losses of parents, difficulties at work—all kinds of things that could put them in a position where they’re more emotionally depleted and overwhelmed than is ideal for maintaining their parental role.
Parentification also arises in families in which parents communicate poorly with one another or have an acrimonious relationship. Conscious, attuned parenting is the best defense against parentification. Developing healthy inter-spousal communication is critical. Establishing appropriate support systems so you can be a resource to your children is also essential.
Red flags of parentification—what to watch for from your kids, your spouse, and yourself:
I become concerned when I hear the following:
“The kids are both worried about their dad. Stevy even said he wants to live with Dad because he wants to be sure Dad is okay and doesn’t want him to be lonely.”
“I’ll have one of the kids ask him about winter break—if I ask him, it will end up in an argument.”
“Make sure you tell Mom that your practice is changed from Tuesday to Thursday, and she needs to pick you up.”
“Make sure you give Mom the check.”
“Tell Dad to pay the support on time this month.”
Be mindful if:
You are asking things of your children in order to get your needs met rather than serve theirs.
You find yourself depending upon your child to calm you down, comfort you, listen to you, alleviate your loneliness, agree with your feels about your ex.
You routinely use your child as a wingman so you can engage in adult social activities.
You come home from dates and disclose/debrief in detail with your child.
You rely on your child in order to make decisions concerning major issues such as where to live.
Parentification is a form of abuse engaged in by otherwise sophisticated, conscientious parents. This is why it’s so important to be aware of it. No one these days believes it’s okay to beat a child or lock him in a closet; however, many otherwise wonderful parents inadvertently engage in boundary-violating interactions that can do significant damage. Think of parentification as carbon monoxide—its subtlety does not mitigate its deadliness.
Children, just by their very being, can be a source of joy, pride, and satisfaction, but you should not be getting your emotional needs met from your children—not when they’re still children, and probably not ever.