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What is Parentification?

Why parentification may occur after a divorce or separation and how to prevent it from impacting your children.

How does parentification work?

Parentification refers to situations where a parent leans on a child for support, resulting in the child assuming a parent's physical, emotional, or logistical responsibilities. Where traditional parenting involves parents giving and children receiving, parentification reverses those roles, so a child provides care and attention instead of receiving it. This reversal can lead to significant mental health issues for children if left unaddressed, often leading many parentified children to seek treatment as adults. The two primary forms of parentification are emotional and instrumental.

In situations with emotional parentification, a child is expected to provide emotional support and reassurance to their parent. A parent in this situation may overshare their emotions and difficulties, resulting in the child feeling obligated to comfort the parent. When a child attempts to share their feelings, the parent may scold the child and refuse to listen or provide reassurance. With emotional parentification, children learn to push their feelings away but oblige and validate their parents' feelings.

Instrumental parentification is a more complex version where a parent imposes additional needs and practical responsibilities on their child. Parents who engage in instrumental parentification task their children with duties that are not developmentally appropriate to meet their own needs.

Why does parentification happen?

More often than not, parents do not willingly and intentionally engage in behaviors that lead to parentification. In most cases, a parent may go through a significant, challenging life event that impacts their ability to serve as a caregiver. Without realizing it, the parent may begin to lean on their child for support in an unhealthy way.

Typical circumstances that influence whether a parent engages in parentification include:

  • Going through a divorce or separation
  • Managing a chronic illness or disability
  • Experiencing a death in the family
  • Dealing with substance abuse
  • Being subjected to physical or mental abuse
  • Lacking maturity or emotional availability
  • Managing mental health issues
  • Experiencing financial hardship
Lonely teenage girl

How does parentification impact children?

Children who experience parentification in any form can mature much earlier than usual due to engaging in fewer age-appropriate responsibilities. Instead of playing with friends or participating in developmentally appropriate activities with their peers, they are at least partially barred from experiencing a complete childhood.

Once they become adults, parentified children may deal with a myriad of issues related to suppressing their emotions and seek treatment. They may have poor communication skills and an inability to develop healthy, secure relationships with others. In other cases, parentified children may form a more profound sense of emotional intelligence and empathy, which is often perceived as a silver lining rather than a potential benefit.

Common symptoms exhibited by parentified children may include:

  • Heightened feelings of anxiety, stress, depression, self-doubt, or other negative emotions
  • Headaches, stomachaches, and other physical signs of stress that can't be attributed to a specific source
  • Issues with social interaction, difficulty with schoolwork, and other forms of disruptive behavior
  • Minimized or nonexistent interest in participating in activities with their peers
  • An inability to recognize and connect with their feelings

How can I avoid parentifying my child?

If you're concerned that you're subjecting your child to some form of parentification, you're already on the right track to finding a solution and protecting your child from its harmful effects. Here are three tactics to help you avoid or stop parentifying your child.

1. Reinforce your parent-child relationship

Once you're aware of your actions and choices potentially causing the parentification of your child, do what you can to keep your child away from a parent's role. As a parent, you must be a steadfast caregiver for your child and not vice versa. Even though your child loves you and may try to reassure or comfort you, do not become dependent on them. Lean into the intended relationship between yourself and your child, and do what you can to re-establish and maintain boundaries. Children thrive when their parents are consistent, and this is especially the case when parents overcome the inherent inconsistencies of shared parenting relationships. Even if you are able to be completely consistent between homes, it is crucial to support them emotionally and provide the reassurance they need.

Daughter reading with father

As a parent, ensure your interactions with your child fit a healthy parent-child relationship. If you're overwhelmed by your divorce or experiencing another shared parenting issue, avoid sharing complex feelings and explanations with your child. You can share your emotions in a way they can understand without setting the expectation that they should support and console you. Focus on whether your child is also working through similar feelings, and help them recover while seeking outside support for yourself.

2. Make sure responsibilities are age-appropriate

Chores are an essential part of childhood that parents can implement to teach their children responsibility and independence. If you assign chores without considering your child's age and abilities, you could impose parental obligations that may negatively impact your child. Additionally, giving your child too many responsibilities can lead to them feeling overwhelmed and becoming parentified.

Tasks that may contribute to parentification include:

  • Paying bills
  • Scheduling medical appointments
  • Shopping for groceries or household necessities
  • Earning money for the household
  • Mediating arguments between parents
  • Cooking dinner for the family
  • Caring for younger siblings

The goal of chores is to teach responsibility in a developmentally appropriate and supportive manner, so it's crucial to avoid giving tasks that deal with significant responsibilities. Research chores commonly assigned to children of different ages to ensure your child learns age-appropriate lessons while helping around the house. Children in shared parenting situations should have similar, if not exact, responsibilities between households to reinforce consistency in their routines.

Child petting a dog

Chores that are great for a range of ages include:

  • Cleaning their room
  • Making their bed
  • Feeding pets
  • Watering plants
  • Helping with laundry

3. Express your emotions in a healthy way

As children grow, they learn about emotions and how to react to them in themselves and other people. Children typically observe and learn about feelings by interacting with their peers, reading books, or watching shows with age-appropriate interactions. Parentified children usually get a crash-course lesson on heavier, more complex emotions because their parents lean on them for moral and emotional support. As a parent, you must strive to keep difficult emotions from personal hardships or relationships to yourself.

Just as you would handle oxygen masks on an airplane, you must first care for yourself to properly care for your child. Instead of venting to your child, find healthy outlets for expressing your emotions. Lean on friends, family, and other adults who can understand the depth of your feelings and truly help you process them. If your experiences exceed the capabilities of your loved ones, seek professional help from a licensed therapist, psychologist, or parenting coach. Whether trying to overcome parental burnout or prevent yourself from experiencing significant emotional duress, do what you can to protect your mental health.

Experiencing a divorce or separation can be a catalyst for parents to engage in parentification, which is why a co-parenting service can be very helpful. TalkingParents equips parents with tools that help with organization and accountability, reducing behaviors associated with parentification and stress for all involved. Secure Messaging and Accountable Calling enable parents to communicate about their concerns, solutions, and expectations regarding any parentifying behaviors or symptoms. The Info Library can help parents share chore routines and expectations between households to ensure their child has consistent, age-appropriate responsibilities. If concerns about parentification are left unaddressed, parents can access their Records of interactions and potential evidence if they need to return to court and request a modification to their parenting plan.

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