A very subtle way to create damage in your child is to turn that child into your parent. This process is called parentification, not to be confused with parenting. Parentification can be defined as a role reversal between parent and child. A child’s personal needs are sacrificed in order to take care of the needs of the parent(s). A child will often give up his/her own need for comfort, attention, and guidance in order to accommodate to the needs and care of logistical and emotional needs of the parent(s) (Chase, 1999). In parentification the parent gives up what they are supposed to do as a parent and transfers that responsibility to one or more of their children. Hence the child becomes parentified. That child is the “parental child” (Minuchin, Montalvo, Guerney, Rosman, & Schumer, 1967).
Types of Parentification
Emotional Parentification: This type of parentification forces the child to meet the emotional needs of their parent and usually other siblings also. This kind of parentification is the most destructive. It robs the child of his/her childhood and sets him/her up to have a series of dysfunctions that will incapacitate him/her in life. In this role, the child is put into the practically impossible role of meeting the emotional and psychological needs of the parent. The child becomes the parent’s confidant. This can especially happen when a woman is not having her emotional needs met by her husband. She can gravitate towards trying to get these needs met from her son. It is as if the son becomes emotionally her surrogate husband. What child does not want to please their parent? An innocent child, is exploited by the parent and it creates a form of emotional and psychological abuse. This type of relationship can be the equivalent of emotional incest. Parentified children have to suppress their own needs. This comes at the expense of having normal development and causing a lack of a healthy emotional bond. These children will have difficulties having normal adult relationships in their future.
Instrumental Parentification: When a child takes up this role he/she meets physical or instrumental needs of the family. The child relieves the anxiety experienced normally by a parent that is not functioning correctly. The child may take care of the children, cook, etc. and by this essentially taking over many or all the physical responsibilities of the parent. This is not the same as a child learning responsibility through assigned chores and tasks. The difference is that the parent robs the child of his childhood by forcing him/her to be an adult caregiver with little or no opportunity to just be a kid. The child is made to feel as a surrogate parent over the siblings and parent.
Future Problems as Adults
Intense Anger: Parentified children can become very angry persons. They will tend to have a love-hate relationship with their parent. Sometimes this adult child may not know why they are angry but will be angry at others, especially their friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, and children. They can have explosive anger or passive anger, especially when another adult happens to put expectations that might trigger their parental wounds of emotional exploitation.
Difficulty with Adult Attachments: The parentified adult child can experience hardship in connecting with friends, spouse, and his/her children. This person could be operating out of deficits in knowing how to attach. Hence he/she could find it difficult to experience healthy intimacy in relationships. Relationships will tend to be distorted on some level.
Chase, N. (1999). An overview of theory, research, and societal issues. In N. Chase (Ed.), Burdened children (pp. 3-33). New York, NY: Guilford.
Minuchin, S., Montalvo, B., Guerney, B., Rosman, B., & Schumer, F. (1967). Families of the slums. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Samuel Lopez De Victoria, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist in private practice. He is also an adjunct psychology professor at the Miami Dade College in Miami, FL. He can be contacted through his web site at DrSam.tv