• Trish Ellerson

Parentification


Growing up too quickly?

A parent's role is to provide their child with emotional and physical support to foster their growth and development. Sometimes parents are unable to fulfill their child’s emotional or physical needs and the child must take over.

Parentification is a role reversal in which a child takes care of a parent, sibling (s) and parental responsibilities. It emphasizes a parent's emotional or physical needs being met by the child which often involves the child operating above their developmental capacity.

Taking on certain responsibilities before our time can deprive us of experiences crucial to our development and have lasting effects. Perhaps you had a parent you felt you needed to take care of and be there for. You might have felt overwhelmed and anxious at a young age trying to manage problems you didn’t fully understand. You may have little to no memory of playing and engaging in childhood activities or feel it was your responsibility to take care of your siblings and make sure they felt safe and loved. You may have also identified as the peacekeeper of the family trying to manage family conflicts and received compliments from other adults about how responsible and mature you are for your age.


Types of Parentification


Emotional

Involves the child fulfilling the specific emotional needs of the parent, responding to the need, and providing support. It may include a child mediating fights between their parents and giving advice about problems that are inappropriate for their age. This type of parentification is more closely linked to negative effects in adulthood compared to instrumental parentification.


Instrumental

Taking on physical tasks that are not age-appropriate such as cooking, cleaning, doing dishes, paying bills, and taking care of siblings.

As these children become adults they may have learned to put others before themselves and continue to place their own needs aside. This can impact the ability to trust others and maintain healthy relationships. There may be a pervasive need to please others and struggle with setting boundaries. This can cause them to overextend themselves to others physically and emotionally and experience a sense of fear, isolation, and helplessness.


How Therapy Can Help


Therapy can provide the necessary support and understanding to break the cycle of parentification. It can provide a safe space to help you reconnect with you inner child, employ boundaries, and re-establish an understanding of relationships in a healthy, meaningful way. It can give you the capacity to free yourself from enmeshed family dynamics and work through feelings of guilt and shame. As difficult as these experiences are to bring into awareness. Once it is recognized it can be processed in a safe therapeutic space.


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