Parentification: What Is It? Identification of a Parentified Child


Parents give and kids get in interactions between parents and kids that are healthy. The responsibility of a parent is to give their children care and unwavering love, freeing them up to concentrate their energies on developing and learning. But not everyone has the inner strength and stability to be this kind of parent. Instead, they might place unwise reliance on their kids. As a result, parentification is a phenomenon.

Some 1.4 million children and teenagers in the US undergo parentification, according to the National Coalition for Caregiving. Unfortunately, it is frequently disregarded or ignored. Hence, many more kids and teenagers could fall within this category.

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Parentification: What Is It?

When parents rely on their kids for emotional and/or practical support instead of giving it to them, this is known as parentification. Hence, the child takes on the role of carer. Children who have been parentified are consequently made to adopt adult roles and behaviours before they are prepared to do so. Furthermore, they don’t get any thanks or encouragement for taking on these obligations.

Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, a psychiatrist who is Hungarian-American and one of the pioneers of the field of family therapy, invented the term “parentification.” The phrase depicts what occurs when parent and child roles are switched. As a result, the natural process of a child’s growth is interfered with by this role reversal. The majority of the time, it has detrimental long-term impacts on the child’s physical and mental health.

Forms of Parentification and Examples of Parentification

Parentification can be divided into two types: instrumental and emotional.

Instrumental Parentification vs. Emotional Parentification

When instrumental parentification occurs, kids carry out useful jobs like:

  • In the absence of a parent, looking after siblings or other family members
  • Taking on household chores including cleaning, cooking, and grocery shopping
  • Taking care of other household duties while paying debts
  • Being a carer for a parent who suffers from a handicap, disease, or mental illness
  • Acting as a translator in households where one parent does not understand the language of the nation in which they now reside

In emotional parentification, a kid offers a parent emotional support, such as:

  • Hearing a parent discuss their concerns
  • Giving a parent advice
  • Resolving a parent-child conflict through mediation
  • Serving as their parent’s confidante
  • Supporting and comforting a parent emotionally

Sibling-Focused Parentification vs. Parentification Focused on the Parents

Moreover, parentification can be sibling- or parent-focused. Parentification with a parent or primary carer in mind is referred to as parent-focused parentification. When parentification is sibling-focused, the child or adolescent is acting as a carer for one or more siblings.

In Contrast to Destructive Parentification, Adaptive Parentification

Another distinction between different kinds of parentification was made by Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child author Gregory J. Jurkovic. Adaptive parentification typically entails the child temporarily assuming adult tasks as a result of a situation’s demands. For instance, this might be the result of a parent or sibling becoming ill. Destructive parentification entails what Jurkovic called a persistent “violation of intergenerational boundaries” and is continuing.

The Causes of Parentification

Parentification typically involves some sort of concession for the parent. As a result, it happens more frequently when a parent:

  • Has a problem with booze or other drugs
  • Has a major medical condition or is incapacitated
  • Lacks the emotional support of other adults that they need.
  • Had a childhood marked by abuse or neglect
  • Afflicted by a mental ailment.

A sibling’s illness, divorce, or financial difficulty are additional factors that could foster parentification.

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Risks Associated with Parentification

Parentification can lead to a variety of mental health problems, just like other types of childhood trauma. Children who have been parentified could struggle to develop trust and might struggle to control their emotions, especially when they’re angry. Moreover, parentified children may experience the side effects of underlying trauma, such as anxiety, sadness, eating disorders, and substance abuse.

Young adults who have been parentified frequently suffer with relationships, especially romantic ones. They can be unable to establish appropriate boundaries with others or find healthy ways to satisfy their wants.

Does Parentification Trauma Exist?

In extreme situations, parentification may be construed as parental abuse or neglect. Trauma in relationships may stem from this. Childhood relational trauma happens when the relationships between the parent and kid are somehow strained or severed. Children become trapped in a constant state of stress and are unable to get the care and safety they require.

Parentification of child trauma can have an effect on a child’s life and wellbeing in both the short and long term. Also, the repercussions for the parentified child are worse the sooner parentification starts.

Signs of a Parentified Child

Teenagers who have been parentified may display the following signs:

  • Anxiety, especially when it comes to helping others
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Constant worry
  • Depression
  • Overworking compulsively to complete obligations at home and at school
  • Loneliness in society
  • Guilt and shame feelings
  • Bodily signs of anxiety and depression include headaches, nausea, and so forth.

Consequences of Parentification Throughout Time

Traumatic parentification effects frequently last into adulthood. According to research, having negative childhood experiences increases the risk of developing both mental and physical health issues. The hippocampus, which controls memory, emotion, and stress management, shrinks as a result of the chronic stress brought on by such experiences.

Thus, adults who were parentified as kids or teenagers might go through the following:

  • An improper attitude of entitlement or power
  • Increased risk of physical illness
  • A lack of faith in other people
  • Operating independently with difficulty
  • Involvement in dysfunctional or violent relationships
  • Increased risk of eating disorders, substance use disorders, anxiety, and sadness.

A Questionnaire And Inventory

Dr. Lisa Hooper and her colleagues have conducted in-depth study on parentification for the past 20 years. As a result, they created a parentification scale. The Parentification Inventory is a scale that contains a number of family dynamics-related statements. People select a number between 1 (never true) and 5 (always true) that best represents their experience in response to each statement. The findings show the degree to which the person has been parentified.

Gregory Jurkovic created a similar survey. If parents want to know if their kids are having parentification effects, they can ask them to answer yes or no to the following questions.

  • I frequently feel pressure to do more than my fair share of work in my household.
  • It feels like family members are constantly sharing their issues with me.
  • I frequently feel like the referee in my family. I frequently make sacrifices in my family that go undetected by the other members.
  • In my family, I frequently feel more like an adult than a child.
  • I frequently have depressive feelings for no apparent reason.
  • At times, I think my parents’ only option is to turn to me.
  • There are some members of my family who I get along with better than others.
  • When things at home aren’t going well, I get really uneasy. My family frequently gives the impression that they don’t care about my sentiments.
  • I play a big role in overseeing my family’s financial issues.
  • My parents already have a lot to worry about without adding cleaning to the list.

These descriptions may be applicable to adults today or when they were children. If so, they might have gone through one of the different stages of parentification as a result of their family systems.

The Relationship Between Good Bonding and Parentification

To be clear, talking to a child or teen about their feelings in an age-appropriate manner is not always a bad thing. In fact, if children are aware that a parent is upset but don’t understand why, they may feel puzzled or guilty. Yet, the child should not be relied upon to assist the parent in managing their emotions.

Also, it’s acceptable for kids to assist with household chores or occasionally look after younger siblings or even a parent if they are momentarily ill. In reality, assuming the right amount of home tasks can boost a child’s confidence and competence. Nonetheless, a child’s or teen’s emotional or physical health should not be sacrificed in the name of helping out at home. It shouldn’t interfere with their schoolwork, interactions with their peers, or any other “work” that comes with growing up.

In conclusion, kids should never believe they are in charge of their parents’ happiness or the safety of the family.

Therapy Strategies

The goal of treatment is to deal with the consequent trauma, neglect, and persistent stress. Consequently, the following approaches to dealing with the parentified child are possible.

  • Parentification has a negative impact on parent-child interactions, which can be repaired through family therapy.
  • The goal of trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy is to change unproductive thought habits.
  • Clients receive assistance from dialectical behavioural therapy in recognising and changing self-destructive behaviours.
  • In order to address and release trauma, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) requires particular physical techniques.
  • Children and teenagers can process emotions in nonverbal ways using experiential modalities like creative arts therapies and equine-assisted therapy.
  • The Comprehensive Resource Model incorporates concepts from somatic (body-based) therapies, neuroscience, spirituality, psychology, and the metaphysical.
  • Exercises that promote self-awareness and emotion management include yoga and meditation.

Main Points

  • A parentified kid may be expected to support their parents emotionally or assist them with daily activities (such as looking after a sibling, keeping the house clean, or paying expenses) (serving as a confidante, offering advice, or providing comfort, for example).
  • Parentification’s role-reversal can interfere with a child’s natural maturation process and have a long-term detrimental impact on their physical and mental health.
  • The hippocampus, a region of the brain that controls memory, emotion, and stress management, shrinks as a result of the continual stress of parentification.
  • When a child is often expected to offer emotional or practical assistance for a parent rather than getting it themselves, this is known as parentification.
  • Parentification therapy focuses on treating the trauma, neglect, and ongoing stress that result from it.

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