There they were again. The mother, rolling around on the hospital floor histrionically, shivering and crying (with no tears). But as dependent, needy, dramatic, and undoubtedly troubled as the mother was as she repeatedly presented at the hospital, it was her nine-year-daughter who stands out in my memory.
It was quite clear that, at least in this snapshot, it was the daughter who was the ‘grown-up’.
She, the nine-year-old, was the comforting and organizing ‘adult’. She spoke to staff, comforted her mother, and, rather uncannily, made gracious small talk in the manner of a polite middle-aged matriarch as her mother was sedated.
These were the days when I worked in a psychiatric unit, way back in the late ’80s. I was an auxiliary nurse, sometimes called upon to (hopefully) calm patients if they became disturbed to the point of violence. I didn’t know much of the background in this particular case – whether there was a father at home or to what extent the social services were involved. I think it was just the two of them.
But I’ve never forgotten this stark illustration of role reversal. How a child can be squeezed into the role of parent to their own parent.
The parentified child
Children of alcoholic or mentally ill – or simply irresponsible, demanding, immature, or feckless – parents may be forced to forgo the usual nurturing care a child needs. Circumstances or unreasonable demands force them to grow up at lightning speed.
We might hear “I didn’t really have a childhood” or “I was more like a father to my mother.” Children who are carers to chronically ill parents may feel responsible for ensuring their parents’ needs are met before or instead of their own. Children who are responsible for the care and welfare of a sibling or siblings are also in effect filling a parenting role. And if a parent is sick, this may just be the way it has to be.
But sometimes a child is forced to provide emotional succour to a physically healthy but emotionally unstable and demanding parent.
In some cases, a parent may use their child as an emotional substitute.
The child may come to be a confidant, providing emotional reassurance or even taking on the role of partner, spouse, or parent to their own parent.
In such cases, the parent has likely failed to construct boundaries around what they and their child both need. The parentified child is burdened by obligations and demands that preclude a carefree childhood.
It may be that it’s the oldest child who is selected for parentification by the (actual) adult. But certainly the gender of a child can play a role in parentification.
So if a father or husband figure is missing from the family, the oldest male child may be selected by the mother to fulfil an adult role. Likewise, the oldest female child may come to fill the emotional role of an absent wife for the father. The preference for parentification may therefore match the sex of the missing parent.1
At any rate, the child is pressured and shaped to fulfill the role of an adult at an early age.
So what effect might such a childhood have on a human being?
A life with no play
People, myself included, sometimes complain that young people now risk being too coddled and therefore infantilized. It’s said that overprotective ‘helicopter’ parents don’t give their child any opportunities to take reasonable risks and therefore learn self-reliance and confidence during free and unstructured time.
Feelings are prioritized over all other considerations and fragility emphasized or reinforced if a child is overly protected. And that certainly can be a whole other problem. Without some risk taking and the enjoyment of spontaneity, it’s harder to develop into a resourceful and resilient human being.2
The parentified child is the opposite of coddled or nurtured. And they can become resourceful and resilient because of their early experiences.3 So we should never assume that parentification has inevitably damaged or traumatized a person. Not all adults who were parentified as children develop problems. In fact, research has found that only a quarter of children who are made to be overly responsible will suffer in later life as a result.4
But as with all things, balance is needed.
I think there are possibly multivarious reasons a child might grow up too soon, if not exactly parentified by an adult. One may be that the adult, subconsciously or otherwise, wishes to live their own dreams through their child, wanting (perhaps way beyond the true best interests of the child) their child to become the person they themselves never were.
This may breed a kind of maladaptive perfectionism in the child, who feels compelled to just play tennis, or practice music, or study, so that life is reduced to a quest for achievement. And of course, the play is taken out of playing a sport or musical instrument if the child is hothoused too relentlessly.
The child comes to feel a great burden of familial expectation on their shoulders from a young age.
Now some burden and expectation can produce the antifragility effect, in the sense that stressors are essentially the only thing that can build strength in a person.5 So avoiding all stressors, even if that were possible, wouldn’t be great for an individual.
But what about the disadvantages of an early life with little or no carefree play, overburdened with emotional and practical responsibility?
The parentified child as an adult
A sense of a lost childhood may haunt the adulthood of a parentified child. Some adults who were parentified as children may find it hard to express their feelings, perhaps because as a child they hid them in a bid to protect their mother or father, or perhaps because their own feelings or opinions were just never as important as those of the parent.
They may find it hard to relax, play – yes, even adults need play6 – socialize, trust, or let others do things for them. They may feel anger and resentment towards the parent who parentified them, whether that parent is alive or not. They may grow up to be a ‘people pleaser’, desperate for approval to the point where they will take total responsibility for the success or otherwise of a relationship. They may be prone to guilt or imposter syndrome and have low self-esteem, with a sense they are ‘damaged goods’ because of their dysfunctional childhood.
They may also experience a pervasive sense of anger.
Anger and resentment can be signals that we didn’t get, and perhaps still aren’t getting, what we need. A sense of betrayal or even envy at other people’s ‘normal’ family backgrounds may also be a feature of the parentified client’s psychology. A sense of grief at what they never had but desperately needed.A sense of betrayal or even envy at other people's 'normal' family backgrounds may be a feature of the parentified client's psychology. A sense of grief at what they never had but desperately needed.Click To Tweet
The parentified client may show patterns of difficulties in forming relationships or excessive passivity or dominance in relationships. Raising their own children may prove problematic because of the lack of boundaries they themselves had as children.7 If they have developed mental health problems such as OCD, depression, or an anxiety disorder, they may even end up over-relying on their own children – and so the parentification cycle continues.
So how might we help the adult client who was parentified as a child? Well, that depends on what precisely they present with.
Step one: What does your parentified client actually need?
Information gathering is, of course, a vital step before establishing goals. It’s unlikely a client will use the clumsy term ‘parentified’! And you don’t necessarily have to yell out in diagnostic triumph, “Ah, you were parentified!” But by listening to people’s accounts of their lives and childhoods, we can get to know and recognize the pattern.
Does your parentified client have traumas that need to be resolved? If the parent was dramatic or abusive or both, there may be horrendous memories still active within your client which need to be deconditioned. So on the principle of dealing with the worst first, we’d certainly need to check for any trauma.
Do they find it hard to ‘let go’ and have spontaneous fun? Does everything have to have a discernible bottom line or tangible purpose?
And importantly, does your client still have a relationship with the parent who required them to be an adult in all but age? Can we help them manage that relationship now? Or do they need to move on in order to process the past?
Step two: Putting the past to bed
I always like to discern to what extent a client lives in the past. Does your client talk and think about the past a lot? Do they feel they are ‘damaged goods’ because of what happened to them? Or do they fret and fear the future? Perhaps it’s a bit of both. I’ve found that parentified clients tend to focus on the past as though trying to solve some emotional tangle or conundrum.
Other than using the Rewind Technique if necessary for really strong PTSD, I’ve found it valuable to help clients at least reframe some parts of their past. One parentified client kept asking me why her mother couldn’t have given her love as a child.
Eventually I did something I’d heard another therapist do. I looked her in the eyes, stretched out my hand and asked her for a million pounds. She actually laughed.
Because I don’t have it to give you. It is not within my capacity to give it to you!” She was laughing fully now.
“And that’s your answer right there,” I said. “I mean about your mother. She just didn’t have it in her and so couldn’t give it to you.”
Now this is something she’d already known intellecutually. But now she had this truth as an illustrated experience.
Remember, reframes need to be experienced, not just cognitively accepted.
Sometimes we can use ritual when helping a client let go of the past. I had a client write down all the aspects of her childhood that were painful to her and seal them in a small wooden casket.8 She then buried the casket in her garden while saying ‘goodbye’ to that part of her life.
I suggested she would keep all the learnings from the past but let go of having to think about it so much. She was surprised by how effective she found this.
There are other methods too, of course, of helping clients leave the past behind.
Certainly people need to let go of their past by coming to terms with it. But therapy should equip clients with the capacity to deal with the future, not just take them on a long archaeological dig into an unchangeable past.
Step three: Waking up the present life
Often we need to help the parentified client to relax more, to let go of their need to control everything (if this is a byproduct of their early conditioning) or worry less what others think. Or sometimes we need to help them overcome a sense of nagging guilt, because often parentified children have been trained to feel guilty throughout their childhood.
So how can we go about doing this?
As always, we can ascertain and gather and amplify the resources already present within the client in order to help their therapy. So what resources did your client perhaps develop because of their parentification? Diligence? Strategic thinking? Organizational skills?
We need to help them focus on their missing emotional needs and fulfil them more in their lives. When needs that should have been met before become met now, it can feel quite miraculous.
Ultimately, we meet our needs where we can. Just as the parent may have used their child to fill a missing need from some adult figure that was absent for them, so too adults who were parentified as children may unconsciously seek to complete their needs in this way. If a boy doesn’t have a father in his life, he may find a father figure later on or in some other capacity.
Helping clients become clear about what their needs actually are can help them meet their needs in healthy ways and therefore begin to thrive.
Having to be mature beyond our years early on isn’t always a disadvantage. Sometimes it may help form wonderfully adjusted, productive, even happy human beings.
People, it should be remembered, find ways to thrive amidst all kinds of adversity.
I sometimes wonder what happened to that nine-year-old daughter, who must be genuinely middle-aged now. Something good I hope.
Watch Mark Do Therapy
- According to the so-called ‘mother of family therapy’ Virginia Satir. See: Satir, V. (1972). Peoplemaking. Science and Behaviour Books.
- See: Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Penguin Press.
- See: Katz, M. (1997). On Playing a Poor Hand Well: Insights from the Lives of Those Who Have Overcome Childhood Risks and Adversities. Norton.
- See: Taleb, N. (2014). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Random House.
- See: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797610376653
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