I’m used to hearing things like this from my therapy clients:
“Mom cried to me whenever she broke up with her boyfriends and it was my job to soothe her.”
“Dad talked to me about the household financial stress. It was my job to reassure him he could handle it.”
“My dad complained to me about his relationship with his own parents.”
“It was always my job to calm Mom down so that she didn’t yell at my siblings.”
“Dad could get as upset as he wanted but he yelled at me when I got upset.”
“It felt like if I didn’t handle things, nobody would.”
Welcome to the world of emotional parentification. Emotional parentification is a role reversal in families during which, according to famed family therapist Salvador Minunchin “a child fulfill[s] the role of a parent within the family subsystem.” Emotional parentification can look like a child mediating between family members, acting as a parent’s de facto therapist, and being privy to their parents’ adult issues, such as dating struggles or financial woes. Emotional parentification does not refer to moments when a child sees their parent upset and gives them a loving hug. Emotional parentification is a chronic role reversal based on the parent’s inability to manage their own emotions and sufficiently care for their child.
Emotional parentification happens for a variety of reasons. Some parents turn to their children because they simply never learned to handle their feelings or were themselves parentified and learned that it is the children’s role to take care of their parents. Others suffer from addiction or mental illness and lack either the skills or bandwidth for emotional care. Still other homes rely on emotionally parentified children because parents are working multiple jobs and come home depleted, unable to do the emotional work of caring for children.
Emotionally parentified kids learn that it is their job to grow up fast and swallow their own emotional and developmental needs to keep the peace at home and manage their parents. These kids may get “so mature for their age” or “so low maintenance.” While meant as a compliment, these phrases simply describe children who were asked to bypass their own developmentally appropriate role of child to become a little grown-up. And those roles take a toll.
Emotional parentification has been shown to significantly impact a child’s emotional and psychological well-being. One study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that emotional parentification was associated with increased symptoms of anxiety and depression in kids. Another study found that emotional parentification was associated with higher levels of emotional distress, a lower sense of control over one’s life, and an increased likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors.
As adults, formerly parentified children can struggle with boundary setting and emotional regulation. They learned young they were in charge of their parents’ emotional world and attempts to take care of themselves or say no to their parents could lead to rejection or abandonment. Meanwhile, instead of learning how to manage their own feelings, they took on their parent’s. This leaves formerly parentified children with a profound lack of skills for how to process their own experience and a lot of incentive to learn to swallow their feelings.
Parentified children can also struggle to form healthy relationships in adulthood. When a child learns to be attuned to and respond to their parents’ emotional needs, they may internalize the caretaker role in other relationships. As adults, they may struggle to identify the difference between their own needs and their friend’s or romantic partner’s needs. This can lead to over-functioning in relationships and taking on the responsibility of managing another’s emotions. Formerly parentified children may also struggle to trust others to manage themselves because they grew up in homes in which adults were unreliable.
Parentification, if left unchecked, can lead to a multi-generational legacy of unfair care work for children. The cycle ends when a parentified child is able to heal from their experience, build healthy, boundaried relationships, and allow their children to be children.