Growing up is not for the faint of heart.
In fact, growing up faster than expected could be a recipe for trauma and resentment, especially if it’s caused by parents who unintentionally, or, let’s be honest, intentionally parentified their children.
According to Psychology Today Magazine, parentification can happen when children are made to grow up faster than they should.
“One form of childhood trauma that is rarely talked about, but remains insidious and toxic, is parentification,” according to the article. Parentification can be chronic and invisible – unlike physical abuse, but still just as hurtful and painful and could lead to depression.
According to the article, parentification is a form of “role reversal” in a nuclear family where a child is now taking on parental duties. As a result, they have stepped down a bit from their childhood role and are now stepping into roles like their parents’ friends, their siblings’ caretaker, a family mediator or more.
The article states that this is a type of boundary violation because the childhood that one is supposed to have is “robbed away.”
There are various forms of parentification which can unfold in two ways: emotional parentification and instrumental parentification.
Emotional parentification, according to the article, is when a young child must meet the emotional needs of their parent(s), siblings or other family members on a regular basis, per the article.
Some parents have wounds of their own which could result in them not being stable or emotionally healthy enough to recognize what they’re doing, then in turn, damage their children.
“Childish and emotionally under-developed parents tend to be preoccupied with their own life’s tasks or are constantly overwhelmed by their own distress, and do not have any bandwidth to see their child or children’s wants and needs,” per the article.
Typically, sensitive children, empaths and “gifted children” are more easily able to fall into the parentification trap.
The toxic family dynamic, though, could veer into dangerous territory with what the article calls covert or emotional incest, where a parent seeks their child for the support and connection they would usually get from a partner. For example, a parent might inappropriately tell their child about their sexual frustration, cry often in front of the child, sleep in the same bed with the child/adolescent to escape partner intimacy or even make sexualized comments about the child’s growing body.
“Usually, enmeshment is involved. The child is made to feel guilty if they want to be left alone,” according to the article. “They feel obligated to meet their parent’s needs at the drop of a hat and responsible for their happiness.”
The second form of parentification is instrumental/material/physical parentification, which is similar to emotional parentification but just strictly revolving around physical and material things.
Parents who either take no interest in the practical household duties and responsibilities that need to get done might put this job on their child. Children in this form of parentification are then made to be responsible for everything from organizing mealtime, tending to siblings and more.
When facing these extra tasks (not to be confused with age-appropriate typical chores or housework) children can feel tired, withdrawn and unkempt – especially school-age children.
In the majority of instances of parentification, the parents do genuinely love their child, there isn’t any physical abuse or a shortage of love – it’s just with “limited capacity” according to the article.
Healing, however, is available for the parentified child. This can come in the form of sharing one’s story about their childhood experiences.
It could also come in the form of removing the feelings of guilt associated with how, as a child, they were raised, because being parentified was not their fault, according to the article.
Acknowledging, above all, that as a child they were parentified, can be the first step toward healing and showing up fully in that truth.