What Is Parentification?

I heard a term last week in Esther Perel’s podcast Where Should We Begin that gave me great pause.

“Wait, there’s a term for that?” I thought to myself.

Parentification is the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as a parent to their own parent or sibling. In extreme cases, the child is used to fill the void of the alienating parent’s emotional life.

Parentification is most common in one-parent households or where one or both parents suffer from substance abuse. In either situation, one child will pick up the slack from the lack of an additional parent or because their parent is inebriated.

This ranges from care-taking (watching/protecting younger siblings, cooking, clothing or bathing) the other kids while the one parent works to taking care of the parent (and other kids if there is more than one) because the parent is too inebriated to function as an adult.

Another common misstep is saying, “you’re the man or woman of the house now,” to the eldest child in the event of divorce or death. This unfairly puts the burden of adult responsibility on to the shoulders of children.

What if you didn’t grow up in a single-parent household and neither one of your parents had a substance problem. What if your mom fed, clothed, and bathed you? Then what?

Go back to the very last line of the definition, “In extreme cases, the child is used to fill the void of the alienating parent’s emotional life.”

So, if you were your parent’s ‘partner in crime’ or helped parent your younger siblings, and knew about and tried to assist with their adult problems, understood the financial struggles, ran interference with your other parent, and/or was an ear for one parent’s worries and concerns then you fall into this category of parentification.

Being the parentified child is a lonely experience because they have no parent to turn to for help and guidance. These kids carry the full burden of the family trauma. They lose out on the chance to experience their own childhood and are often resented by the other kids because they are doing the limit setting and child rearing.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD, mentalhealth.net

The loneliness this creates is indescribable. You can’t imagine unless you’ve experienced it.

Moral of the story: If you’ve experienced this kind of bullshit, you’re not alone. Me, too. It sucks, be angry (for a little while), but know you’re not alone. 

Everything you have ever wanted, is sitting on the other side of fear. (4).png

RamblinRandol is my journey back to loving myself. It’s an open letter on how I’m growing through what I’ve been through. And like Maya Angelou said, “the ache for home lives in all of us…” It’s time for me to feel at home in my own skin.

Click here to be my digital penpal and receive an email from mwah twice a month or hang out with me on Instagram @sjrandol.

Leave a Reply