As children grow up, their parents tend to trust them with more responsibilities. Whether it’s doing chores, babysitting younger siblings or playing a more active role in planning weekends, there are many age-appropriate ways for kids to develop skills that will serve them as adults.
But some parents take things too far at times – or even regularly. These caregivers might fall into the trap of “parentifying” their kids.
What exactly is “parentification,” and how does it work? Below, child development experts break down this phenomenon and share their advice for those who want to avoid raising parentified children.
What is parentification?
“Parentification is the phenomenon that happens when a parent relinquishes the role of parent, and a child feels the need to step into that role,” said Kristene Geering, a parent educator at the family resource Parent Lab.
“So instead of the parent taking care of the child’s needs, the child takes care of the parent’s needs. That can be emotional needs, day-to-day needs like household chores and organising schedules, or a combination of the two.”
Put in simple terms, it’s a sort of role reversal between children and their caregivers.
“Parentification is bestowing the role and responsibilities of a parent onto a child in a way which is excessive, carrying an emotional toll on the child and getting in the way of developmentally appropriate social, emotional and academic endeavors,” said Dr Khadijah Booth Watkins, associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.
She noted that this phenomenon is also known as adultification, spousification, child carers or parent-child role reversal.
Parentification is different from simply assigning chores or certain responsibilities to children as members of the household and instead involves greater burdens that profoundly affect their mental health and development.
The concept dates back to the late 1960s with the work of family therapist Salvador Minuchin, who studied family structures and relationships in challenging economic and social conditions. Psychiatrist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy and social worker Geraldine M. Spark further developed the idea of parentification in the 1970s.
“Some examples of the emotional aspect might be a parent who doesn’t know how to manage their own feelings of grief, sadness, or overwhelm and looks to their children for support,” Geering said. “That might look like a mother crying, sharing all of her problems with her child, and even saying something like, ‘I’m so sad ― I need you to make me happy,’ or, ‘If it weren’t for you I don’t know what I’d do.’”
While some parents might say these sorts of things once or twice in a moment of weakness, parents who repeatedly suggest that their child is responsible for their feelings are parentifying their children. As for daily logistic needs, Geering pointed to Charlie Bucket, the protagonist of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who gives up much of his own childhood to work and take on extra responsibilities for his impoverished family.
“An example of both types would be like the character from ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ who has to take care of both the emotional and physical needs of his mother and brother after his father dies,” she added.
Why does it happen?
There are many reasons and circumstances that can lead to children being parentified. For example, parents with serious medical conditions, mental illness or substance abuse disorders might struggle to carry out the duties and responsibilities of a caregiver, Booth Watkins said.
“Families who are facing hardship ― financial hardship, divorce, loss of a spouse, etc. ― can engage in parentification,” she added. “Parentification can also occur in immigrant families who may not be proficient in the language, and struggle navigating an unfamiliar system.”
In these situations, a child might be expected to carry out tasks like grocery shopping, preparing meals, keeping the house clean, paying bills, caring for siblings and even taking care of the parent.
On the more extreme end of this spectrum, they might be facing serious poverty or war or living under a violent regime or in a neighbourhood where kids have to grow up too fast.
“It’s easy to jump to blaming parents in these situations, but it’s often a question of resources, internal or external, and not a conscious choice on the parents’ part. But the child still feels the impact, regardless of why.”
“Other ways in which parentification comes about is born out of a parent’s need for emotional support,” Booth Watkins said.
“In some instances, the child acts as the parent’s personal therapist. In other scenarios, because the child feels like the parent is unable to tolerate their emotions, the child will minimise or suppress their emotions. Parentified children have learned, over time, that their needs and emotions are a threat to their parent’s health and emotional well-being. They worry that if they share their emotions, they risk upsetting, dysregulating, or hurting the parent.”
She noted that parents who were victims of child abuse and neglect may struggle with emotional regulation and seek help from their children. Parents who are overwhelmed and lack support from fellow adults might also turn to their kids. The same might go for parents with narcissistic or dependent personalities.
As a result, a child might become their parent’s confidant, secret-keeper, advice-giver, conflict mediator and source of emotional support.
“Parents may not realise this is happening, or they may see it happening and not be able to stop it because of external circumstances,” Geering said. “I think it’s easy to jump to blaming parents in these situations, but it’s often a question of resources, internal or external, and not a conscious choice on the parents’ part. But the child still feels the impact, regardless of why.”
How does parentification affect children?
“Short-term, children feel a sense of responsibility that really doesn’t belong on their shoulders,” said clinical psychologist Jenny Yip. “They lose a bit of their childhood experiences because of that sense of responsibility to support their parent. They might be missing out on playing with their friends or taking on that extracurricular activity because they feel that their parent needs them to be available.”
As a result, parentified children can have trouble connecting with peers their own age. They might feel reluctant to participate in or fail to find enjoyment in developmentally appropriate pursuits like playtime. It’s not uncommon to see academic issues as they juggle competing demands from school and at home.
Because parentification can involve a great deal of stress, there might be physical manifestations. Booth Watkins pointed to somatic effects like headaches, stomachaches, anxiety, impaired focus and concentration, aggression, emotional dysregulation and changes in sleep and appetite.
“Additionally, when children aren’t afforded the space and opportunity to experience and express emotions or are overly burdened with supporting a parent’s emotional needs, they can demonstrate lack of confidence and low self-esteem,” she added.
“They can exhibit self-doubt, or an unhealthy desire to please others, which can often be at the expense of their happiness. They may struggle with being assertive and advocating for themselves, feelings of guilt, depression, and a sense of loss and grief over the childhood they were not afforded the opportunity to experience.”
Feeling deprived of a childhood can also lead to feelings of anger and depression down the line. And because parentified children often learn to ignore or suppress their own feelings, they struggle to identify, express and address their emotions. Without supportive adults to validate their feelings, they develop self-blame and guilt around their emotional state.
In the long term, parentified children might struggle with relationships as they face abandonment issues, difficulty setting boundaries and poor communication.
“In the absence of a healthy attachment, parentified children often develop an insecure attachment to their caregiver, which results in issues with trust and security and taking an overly self-reliant stance, which lends to isolation, difficulty being vulnerable, or asking for what they need from others,” Booth Watkins added. “They often find themselves in unhealthy relationships where they assume a caregiving role, as this is the role most familiar to them.”
Yip pointed to a general sense of worthlessness that may result from trying to help a struggling parent.
“It’s not realistic for a child to be able to fix a parent,” she said. “If you’re putting all of your effort into trying to fix this person whom you love so much, and you can’t accomplish it, as a child, you’re going to feel like you weren’t worthy enough for your parent to make changes.”
How can parents stop or avoid parentifying their children?
The key to avoiding parentification or putting an end to bad tendencies that have already begun is to develop awareness of this behavior and how it manifests.
“Limit adult information to just adults,” Yip said. “Oftentimes, kids don’t have the understanding of adult relationships to be able to grasp the little nuances in the issues that you’re presenting to your child.”
She also emphasised resisting the urge to use your child as your confidant.
“For example, a single parent or newly divorced parent might be using their children for emotional support, and they tell their children everything,” Yip said. “Don’t ‘emotionally vomit’ on your children, because it’s not their responsibility to hold your emotions.”
Find other outlets to process your emotions, like a trusted friend, family member or therapist. Take stock of the people in your life who can offer support when you’re feeling mentally overwhelmed or physically ill. If you’re struggling with getting food on the table, examine the resources in your community.
Remember that there are other ways to meet your needs that don’t involve relying on your child. If nothing comes to mind at first, set aside time to brainstorm and identify the people and resources in your life.
“I’ve spent a ton of effort and intention building a community around my family, and during the times when bad things have happened, I have always been able to call on members of that community to step up and step in,” Geering said. “Likewise, I’ve been there to do the same for others. This model creates an environment where my kids are still learning how to be independent and do chores and emotional intelligence and all of those good things, but they aren’t in a situation where they have to have skills far too soon for their developmental stage.”
“Don’t ‘emotionally vomit’ on your children, because it’s not their responsibility to hold your emotions.”
If you’ve already done your fair share of parentifying, make efforts to restore the natural balance of the parent-child relationship.
“Enlisting a trained therapist to support the youngster as they process their experience can be extremely beneficial,” Booth Watkins said. “They may require support and guidance as they begin to re-learn about boundary-formation and setting healthy boundaries and peer relationships. Additionally, they may require support rebuilding their confidence and self-esteem and addressing [an] unhealthy desire for responsibility and perfectionism as well as over self-reliance and independence.”
The support of a therapist can help parents understand healthy boundaries and process their own trauma as well. Ultimately, parents should try to get past any guilt, shame or blame they might feel about their role in parentification, as those emotions won’t help in the long term.
“I also want to take a moment to say there are a lot of families really hurting out there right now, again for circumstances that are well beyond their control,” Geering said. “For those parents, they may really be in a situation where their kids have to take care of siblings or meals or even have a job outside of school so that the family can survive. Sometimes life just isn’t fair.”
In those situations, parents recognising what’s going on and naming it for their kids can help them feel seen.
“I think it’s worse for a child to feel they’re responsible for everything, and that no one even recognises it ― that leads to the kind of internalisation that can mean unhealthy relationships later in life,” Geering said. “If a parent can say, ‘Hey, I know you’re doing all of this work. I see you. It’s a lot, I know. You can always come to me and talk if you’re feeling overwhelmed,’ that can at least help the child see the parent is still there to hold their feelings about a really bad situation.”