The term ‘parentification’ was first coined by Spark in (1973). It describes a common component of relationships whereby parental characteristics/responsibilities are projected onto an individual; namely a child or young person.
Within the parent-child relationship, this process often takes place when children are assigned functional responsibilities, such as shopping, paying bills, cooking meals for the family, and taking care of the general logistics of running a household. This is known as ‘Instrumental Parentification’.
This is commonly observed in family systems within which one or both parents are incapacitated in such a way or are unable to fulfil these responsibilities. This may be due to factors such as:
- living beyond their means
- substance misuse
- having to work in order to keep the family financially afloat
- working to support with the up keep of mortgage payments they did not choose
Ironically, this is believed to be healthy for the child/young adult as he or she begins to see the potential for him or herself in an adult role.
However, when the responsibilities become too overwhelming, or when the child/young person feels obligated to take on the adult position (in order to maintain a balance in the family system) ‘parentification’ can become abusively psychological.
In contrast, emotional parentification requires the child to fulfil specific emotional and/or psychological needs of their parent and is more often destructive for them developmentally than ‘instrumental parentification’.
For example, the emotionally ‘parentified child’ is often expected to respond to the emotional needs of the parent, serve as confidante, source of support, and provide crisis intervention during times of psychological distress. In particular, when their parents ‘intimate’ relationships break down.
The implications for a ‘Parentified Child’….
Such children/young people are more likely to report internalizing problems such as depression and anxiety, as well as somatic symptoms like headaches and stomach aches.
As a result of their experience of ‘Instrumental/Emotional Parentification’ they clearly miss out on the developmentally appropriate and essential activities that typically characterize childhood/young adult hood, such as:
- the formation of healthy interpersonal relationships
- the development of secure attachment to caregivers
- the differentiation of self – becoming the best version of themselves’ and living their own life they were really meant for.
If you would like to explore your experience of being a ‘Parentified Child’ …..
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