Parentification: Healing From the Trauma of Having to Grow Up Too Soon
Parentification is a cause of invisible childhood trauma. It occurs when the roles between a child and a parent are reversed, where the child has to step up as the caretaker, mediator, or protector of the family. It is a form of mental abuse and boundary violation.
The wounds we suffer in childhood — especially psychological ones — can last a lifetime. They can affect our everyday lives, underscore our relationships, and undermine our ability to lead a happy, fulfilling, and productive life.
Parentification is a toxic family dynamic that is rarely talked about, and is even accepted as the norm in some cultures. However, research has found that it can have far-reaching negative psychological impacts. Unlike physical abuse, parentification is invisible and, therefore, more toxic and insidious. In parentification, one or both parents are unable to cope with what it means to be a parent to their child. The child is either assigned or takes over the parenting duties for a sibling or even the parents themselves, becoming caretaker, mediator, and protector. In many instances, the parentified child feels as though their siblings or their parent cannot survive without their help.
After having been parentified, even when the children are grown or removed from the orignal situation, the trauma remains. Psychological or mood disorders and even chronic diseases can occur as a result. Studies show that parentified children are much more likely to be depressed later in life.
What is Parentification?
Parentification is when the roles are reversed between a child and a parent. It is a form of mental abuse and boundary violation.
Some of the situations that parentification can arise from include:
- Death of a parent or sibling
- Alcoholism or drug addition of one or both parents
- Chronic disease or disability of one or both parents, or a sibling
- Mental illness in a parent/parents or sibling
- Physically abusive relationship between parents
- Physically or sexually abusive parent/child relationship
- Having immature, emotionally unavailable or depressed parents
Generally, there are two types of parentification:
- Emotional parentification happens when the child becomes the parents’ counsellor, confidant, or emotional caretaker. Sometimes, this involves a form of ‘Emotional Incest’, where the child is being treated as an intimate partner to the parent. Perhaps the parents were unhappy in their own marriage or dissatisfied with their lives. They might tell the child about their frustrations, cry excessively, complain about their relationships or even hurt themselves in front of the child. Whatever it is that they share with the child, it is too much for their young psyche to handle.
- Instrumental parentification is when the child engages in physical labour and support in the household, such as housework, cooking, cleaning, taking care of younger siblings, taking themselves to the doctors, and other ‘adult’ responsibilities.
Often in cases of parentification, the home life of the child is punctuated by horrific tasks, like preventing an addicted parent from overdosing or protecting their siblings from violent outbursts. Exposure to situations like these erases the joy of what should be a carefree time in a child’s life.
Sensitive, gifted and empathic children are particularly prone to being parentified. This is not because the adults maliciously try to harm the child, but because the child intuitively picks up on emotionally unsafe and unstable conditions and takes it upon themself to provide care and support for the family. This can eventually lead to an overwhelming sense of anxiety about the needs and feelings of others and, eventually, an early advance into maturity that equates with a ‘lost childhood’.
Being robbed of their innocent childhood, these children grow up to become adults who have a gap in their psyche. They bury anger, resentment and grief, which may burst out at unexpected times, affecting their ability to be close to someone, sustain a career, and feel stable.
The harsh reality is amplified to the extreme while a significant portion of their most formative developmental is, essentially, removed.
Abuse is never deserved, it is an exploitation of innocence “ ― Lorraine Nilon
Parentification from Having Immature Parents
Some of us have immature and emotionally limited parents. They are unable to ‘love us’ the way we need to be loved. This is a controversial statement in our culture, and yet, acknowledging reality could be the most bitter yet powerful medicine for our souls.
Mature parents can love their children with liberal and consistent love and attention, emotional openness, allowance for mistakes and playfulness, as well as act as models for virtues such as courage, empathy, temperance, and compassion. In contrast, immature parents may be emotionally unstable, punitive, controlling, and unable to separate their projections, desires and wishes from their child’s life.
Immature parents are not ‘bad people’, but simply children living in adults’ bodies, and therefore have limited capacity. They may do their best but still be unable to sufficiently offer us what we need as children.
As a child of an immature parent or parents, we are traumatized even when no one has actively done anything physical to harm us. It is the invisible pain that hurts the most.
It is not about what was said, but what was not said — the praise, the affirmations, the positive feedback.
It is not what was done, but what was not done — the absence of physical presence, quality time, intellectual stimulation, meaningful conversations, family rituals, fun and games.
There might not have been any explicit trauma, but on a level deep inside, we did not feel welcome in the world.
When we have immature parents, parentification is inevitable. As children we became the adults in the family, taking on parental responsibilities for ourselves, as well as our siblings and our parents.
We were the counsellor, confidant, problem-solver, emotional regulator, and the one everyone counted on. Sometimes, we even took on these roles as a useful scapegoat. We were given all the responsibilities, but none of the power.
But regardless of how mature we might have been or acted, we were only children. Being burdened with excessive responsibilities sets a toxic trap; we believed it was our failure that caused bad things to happen to our family, and the seeds of shame and guilt were planted in us deeply.
The roles in the family were reversed in the first place because it was not safe for us to bring our child-self into the relationship. If we were to bring our needy, vulnerable child out to our parents, hoping and yearning for care, we would be disappointed, traumatized and hurt.
So, from the get-go, we learned that the only safe thing to do was to rise above our pain.
We might have been angry, but the only solution we knew was to suppress that emotion.
We might have been depressed, but all we could do was hide it and soldier on.
It was never a conscious choice we made, but suppressing our feelings was the only option we had.
Therefore, even as grown-ups, we struggle to play, be spontaneous, relax in intimacy, trust our instincts or other people, and we ultimately feel that we are only living a partial life.
“Trauma… does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive.”
― Danielle Bernock
Parentification Caused you to Turn Against Yourself
— How Their Immaturity Became Your Shame
The classic symptoms of chronic childhood trauma, or Complex PTSD, are shame and guilt. This is what we have carried forward from our childhood.
As children, it was very difficult for us to be angry at our parents, even if they had hurt us and let us down. Admitting that our parents were neglectful or abusive was a life-threatening prospect, for they were the only people we could depend on.
If we knew our parents could not tolerate disobedience, or that we would be punished for creating conflicts, it ‘made sense’ for us to blame ourselves rather than risk confronting them. We dared not be critical of the authority figures whose goodwill was essential to our survival, so our young minds preferred to deny our pain. This results in the psychodynamic process of ‘turning against oneself’, where we redirect anger and resentment for others internally toward ourselves. We started to interpret any mistreatment as our fault or as something we deserved. Our righteous indignation became internalized guilt and shame.
In part, self-blame is also related to our need to feel in control. More terrifying than anything else in this world the feeling of complete powerlessness in an unpredictable, precarious universe. Even to adults this is an existential threat, let alone to children. To evade such horror, we resorted to the conclusion that it was our fault that bad things happened. We would rather believe we had done something to make it happen — because we were not good enough, or that we didn’t do what we could. We thought that if we hadn’t expected too much, hoped too much, trusted so much, we would not have been hurt. Self-blame gives us an explanation for the unbearable injustice that occured; somehow it was more tolerable than the alternative — that the people we trusted had betrayed us, or that the world is a hostile place. As psychologist Fairbairn said, ‘It is better to live as a sinner in a world created by God than to live in a world created by the devil’.
Emotionally under-developed parents believe that they have done their absolute best, though deep down they know it has not been enough. They may be plagued by unconscious shame and guilt, but ironically take it out on their children in the form of emotional abuse, guilt-tripping, or excessive control. Others may resort to excessive material provisions for their children. We may look like we are loved based on what can externally be seen, yet inside we feel like orphans. If we dare let our truth leak out into the world, we are punished for being ungrateful and demanding. So, we have no choice but to bury our truth within a facade of normalcy. This creates a vicious cycle that locks us in the codependency of a dysfunctional home.
Many of us become stuck in a toxic dynamic because of our family’s conscious or implicit investment in denying the problem. It is easier for them to stay blind to their shortcomings and to discharge responsibilities. Even as adults, our parents’ inability to own their flaws leaves us in a place where we are being tripped over and ignored every day, but there is never an apology.
In her book For Your Own Good Swiss psychologist Alice Miller coined the term ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ to describe a mental control device some families use to maintain a position of power and to normalize a dysfunctional dynamic. ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ consists of a list of doctrines that are passed on from generation to generation. Here are some of them:
- Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents.
- Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.
- Obedience makes a child strong.
- The body is something dirty and disgusting.
- Strong feelings are harmful.
- Parents are always right.
- Parents are creatures free from drive and guilt.
- Duty produces love.
- A high degree of self-esteem is harmful.
- A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic.
- Severity and coldness are a good preparation for life.
- A pretence of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude.
- The way you behave is more important than the way you really feel.
- Neither parents nor God would survive being offended.
(For Your Own Good, pp 59−60)
“When you can identify the insecurities inside the person that is hurting you then you can begin to heal. It isn’t about you. It is about their past.”
― Shannon L. Alder
PARENTIFICATION: YOUR SURVIVAL MECHANISM
To survive in a home with immature parents, we have adopted various strategies based on our personalities and the resources that were available, but the impact of parentification carries on beyond childhood.
Some of us made jokes and became the comedian in the family. Now we don’t know how to be vulnerable to others without the disguise of humour.
Some of us became extra compliant, hoping that by being an ‘easy child’ we would be loved. We came to believe it was our duty to serve, help and rescue, and this pattern continues into our adulthood, when we become people-pleasers and unable to set boundaries.
Some of us left home early to pursue our freedom, but the trauma never left us. We may become wary of relationships and fearful of engulfment, so we isolate ourselves and push away love and intimacy.
Some of us shouldered all responsibilities diligently and became perfectionist adults who are unable to release control or relax. If our parents were not just unavailable but also emotionally volatile, we would also have trained ourselves to become hyper-vigilant, always watching out for signs of upset or anger in the people around us.
We may blame ourselves for everything that goes wrong, assuming responsibility for other people’s dysfunctions or misfortune. We constantly try to fix things and even neglect our own needs while trying. When things do not go the way we want them to or when we make the slightest error, we drown in cycles of guilt and shame.
What we carry as adults as a result of parentification depends on a myriad of factors, part nature, part nurture:
If your parents tended to praise you only for what you did and not for who you were, your internalised inner critic would always be evaluating your success. Rather than allowing you to just ‘be’, you are pushed to be a ‘human doing’. The only way you know to survive in the world is to work hard, to achieve the next credential, and to never slow down. You live according to metrics and standards set by society, rather than your spontaneous true self. Your patterns leave you empty on the inside, and from time to time, you wonder if you are acceptable without something impressive to show.
If your parents were depressed and relied heavily on you for love and comfort, you would have learned to define yourself through the eyes of others. You feel ungrounded, as though the centre of gravity lies in other people and not in yourself. While you are highly empathic and attuned to people’s needs, you lose touch with your own needs. You may feel you are constantly trying to earn love from those around you, and yet however helpful and loving you are, people may not reciprocate. When they don’t, it hurts deeply.
If you were overburdened with responsibilities as a child, it is likely that you have become highly sensitised to errors, imperfection and unfairness in the world. You have a harsh inner critic inside of you, constantly telling you that you are not doing things correctly or perfectly enough. You live with constant pressure to fix things, correct things and to make things right again. Being highly judgemental and critical, your inner critic also comes between you and those you love. Those around you feel scrutinised and pressured, even if you do not mean to make them feel that way.
If your parents have emotionally or physically abandoned you, you may, for your whole life, feel like an orphan spiritually. You feel misunderstood and alone in the world, unable to fit in. Your inner critic derails your self-esteem by comparing you to others, telling you they all have a happier, more ‘normal’ and fulfilling life.
If your childhood environment was unstable and unsafe, you would have been deprived of the opportunity to cultivate trust in the universe. Doubt and fear become your primary habits. Rather than taking productive action, you are often held in ‘analysis paralysis’, making a long list of ‘what might go wrong’.
Always vigilant and watchful, you scan the environment for threats or danger.
If your parents were bullies, you would have learned early in your life to survive on power and assertion. You see the world as a dog-eat-dog place, and it is risky to let your guard down. It becomes impossible to reveal your vulnerabilities to anyone, or to let people in to help and comfort you. You are ‘allergic’ to soft emotions such as sadness and neediness. You have put up a wall to keep you safe, but it also keeps you in isolation. Even if you have achieved power in the world, you feel incredibly alone.
“Adulthood is an attempt to become the antithesis of the wounded child within us.”
― Stewart Stafford
Parentification Trauma- Healing and Bouncing Back
Despite the horrific impact of parentification, healing from it is possible. Adults who have been parentified are highly sensitive, empathic, kind and intuitive. In a way, they will become gifted parents because they have been doing it since they were young.
The goal of therapy or healing is to start prioritizing your needs before you jump into rescuing or pleasing others. You might have been a skilled parent figure to others all your life, but now it is time for you to parent yourself. As a child, you needed love, attention, and to be listened to. You also needed room to play, make a mess, and freely explore the world without being burdened with responsibilities. If you were deprived of these in the past, it is now within your power to reclaim our lost childhood.
The first step to healing is to tell your story as it is. You might have spent years trying to hide or deny the truth, in order to protect yourself and your family. Perhaps you have few memories of your childhood or find yourself hitting a wall of emotional numbness when you search within.
When someone asks you about your parents, you are unable to speak negatively of them. You may even feel guilty for not having been a ‘happier’ person given everything on the outside seemed ‘fine’ in your childhood.
Since the trauma you experienced was mostly invisible, you have difficulty gaining recognition for the trauma you have endured.
But the insidious nature of your trauma does not make it any less valid. Acknowledging the reality of your lost childhood, however painful at first, is the first step to healing. You begin to grieve the childhood you deserved but never had, and can make room for healthy and justified anger. Without this step, you will continue to expend energy in denying, suppressing and rationalising your past, which blocks the healing process.
In this delicate and potentially precarious process, compassion is essential. Before we generate compassion for anyone else, however, we must learn to cultivate self-compassion. Self- compassion is a relatively new concept in western psychology, whereas self-contempt is a common trait in western culture.
Having been parentified, your automatic default is to assume things are your fault. Your inner critic constantly tells you that you are not doing enough, you are not good enough, and that when bad things happen, it is your job to mop up the consequences. As you spiritually mature into becoming your own person, however, the time comes to put things right and to say no to your internalised bully.
But we do not hate our ‘adapted self’ who is perfectionistic, highly anxious and trapped in people-pleasing ways.
Our defensive mechanism forms an honourable part of us. We can greet it, bow to it, thank it. We say: ‘Thank you for your service, my brave soldier. I now know what to do, and finally, you can relax and rest.’
Then we turn to the child in us that has been neglected. We say: ‘I am sorry about what you had to go through. I am sorry no one was there for you when you most needed someone to stand up for you.’
To the sad, lonely, wounded one in us, we say: ‘I am sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.’ Then, we repeat in the gentlest, most compassionate whisper, again and again: ‘I am sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.’ (Hoʻoponopono)
You may make a list of people who have loved and supported you, then close your eyes and imagine them forming a circle around you. Allow your body to soak in the feeling of being loved.
If you have little experience of genuine support in life, contemplate what you might say to a person or a child you love. Imagine holding a vulnerable person in your heart, and experience the tenderness. Then, see if you can direct those tender feelings towards yourself.
You, too, deserved to be unconditionally loved for who you were, not for what you did or how you looked to the outside world. You were a completely innocent being, birthed into this world from the universe. Even if your actual childhood was nauseatingly painful and full of holes, it is never too late to give yourself the childhood that you deserved.
“Our parents cannot love us the way we need them to.” Acknowledging this truth involves us courageously processing challenging emotions such as deep grief, anger, and hurt. But these feelings can be temporary if we don’t block them. If we know that we are on a path towards liberation, and allow these feelings to go through us, we will be liberated and rewarded with freedom in the end.
Inner peace and tranquillity might be the highest form of joy. Doing the emotional work to heal our childhood hurt and transcend the wounds created by our parents is an essential path to attaining that joy. If we never transform our wounds, then our triggers for anger, guilt and shame will always be lurking in the background, catching us off guard, sabotaging our relationships, and blocking our creativity. It is only when we can walk the courageous path of seeing the truth that we can get to the other side of it.
Our childhood wounds do not block our path towards happiness and freedom, they are the path.