- Kaitlyn Pfiester
What is Parentification?
If I Was Parentified, How Do I Keep from Doing the Same to My Child?
Parentification is when a child is given the role of “parent” or “caregiver” in the family. If you were parentified, you might have been responsible for keeping track of your younger siblings or constantly watching your step to keep your parents in a “good mood.” Either way, you likely learned from a young age that your job was to take care of others physically and or emotionally, depending on the situation.
This can wreak havoc on your mental well-being both then and as an adult. In most cases, your thoughts and emotions were silenced, invalidated, or wholly ignored in favor of the family unit.
How parentification affects you as an adult
Like any form of trauma, being parentified as a child will affect each person differently. What one person struggles with, you may not as much, and vice-versa. Still, there are a few common threads victims of this type of child neglect show:
You feel responsible for everyone’s safety and/or emotions.
This is likely to show up in romantic relationships or close friendships and is a difficult pattern to break. You were likely told your whole life (even if it wasn’t in words) that you are the reason the people around you are happy or sad. This kind of pressure is crushing. You may find yourself apologizing to your partner for things that aren’t your fault or avoiding conflict with friends for fear of them getting angry with you. This is partly because, subconsciously, you may be afraid of triggering the deep sense of shame that came with rejection as a child.
You find yourself struggling with people-pleasing.
People-pleasing is when you put others first to the detriment of your own needs, wants, and in some cases, health. While many things can lead to someone struggling with people-pleasing, parentification is a major one. This is due to never having your needs met when you were younger and learning that everyone else’s needs come first.
Having no real sense of self
Like the last two points, when your needs are consistently pushed aside, there is no room to explore who you are. This can often lead to chronic anxiety and depression.
Finding yourself as an adult is no easy feat. Where do you even start? If you’ve found yourself struggling in this area, try thinking back to when you were very small. What did you enjoy then? What did you enjoy doing before the world was put on your shoulders?
Even something as simple as coloring in a coloring book can be a great place to connect your inner child to the person you are today.
Patterns of poor decision making or “immature” actions due to not having a childhood
In other words, you are living out your “childhood” in your 20s or even later in life.
Of all the above points, this one is the hardest to see in yourself. No one wants to think of themselves as immature, but if you were denied your childhood emotionally, it’s only natural for your mind to want to explore things now that you have the freedom, so be kind to yourself.
How to Stop Parentification and Break The Cycle
Seeing and understanding the ways parentification affects a person throughout life can be a wake-up call for parents. We are products of our environment. If you were raised with emotionally unavailable or neglectful parents, it can be tremendously difficult to keep from doing the same to your children. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Give age-appropriate responsibilities.
This can be hard to figure out. After all, if you were parentified, what you were asked to do seemed “normal,” and figuring out what is age-appropriate can be confusing. Some examples of age-appropriate responsibilities are:
For Grade school children:
● Cleaning up their toys when they’re finished playing
● Cleaning up their room with your help
● Hanging up/putting away their backpack after school
● Take out the trash after dinner
● Cleaning up their room with supervision
● Feeding the family pet
● Cleaning the bathroom once a week
● Help with cooking dinner
● Feeding the family dog as well as taking it on walks a few times a week
Remember that your child is not your friend.
While it’s great to have a good relationship with your child that allows you to talk and have fun, this can quickly become problematic if you’re not careful. Remember, you are responsible for them and their safety at the end of the day. The best way to save yourself from this pitfall is to avoid pushing your adult issues onto them.
There is a delicate balance between communicating issues to older teens and dumping your problems on them. One of the best ways to sort this out is to run any issues you wish to discuss with them by a therapist, a few friends, or your partner. Ask them if it’s better to let your child in on the topic, or depending on the problem and the child's age, keep it under wraps.
The best thing you can do as a parent, especially a parent who was parentified, is to allow your child to be independent. Encourage them to make their own decisions when appropriate and push them to think for themselves, something you never got the chance to do growing up.
Taking it too far the other way
As humans, we tend to overcorrect when we recognize something is wrong. However, if we overcorrect too much in this area, that can also cause our children harm. Talking to a therapist and getting an outside opinion can be extremely helpful. Parenting is difficult! And if you didn’t have a good example growing up, it’s even more complicated.
Parentification trauma is nothing small. Even as an adult, the marks it leaves can lead to further hurt in current and future relationships. To truly help your child, you first need to heal yourself. Do what your parents or caregivers didn’t have the courage to do.
Here at BetterPsych, we are here to help. Therapy can be hugely beneficial in healing your wounds and helping you along your parenting journey.
If you would like to find out more about how we can help, contact us on our contact page or call us at (833) 496-5011.
You aren’t in this alone!