What is Parentification and How Can it Damage You?

Role reversal doesn’t make children resilient, it creates trauma.

Parentification is a long word for something that’s damaging, and underrecognised.

Going through a painful divorce, losing the affection of your spouse, having a bad patch or just feeling emotionally drained can all be reasons for parents to use their children as emotional props. But that is never an excuse. Children should be protected from the emotional turmoil of divorce and depression, not co-opted into a parent’s pain or used as a pawn in an acrimonious decoupling.

It can be even more damaging when parents globally abdicate from the responsibility that comes with looking after children. When roles in families are diffused, confused or reversed, children don’t get their needs met. They can also be burdened with problems and responsibilities before they have developed the means to cope or understand. Children in this situation grow up too fast, never getting the opportunity to develop autonomy and enjoy their childhood.

Parentification can occur when one or both parents have mental health issues and it seems to be common in narcissistic families where the family is structured around getting the needs of parents met, rather than providing a healthy environment where children are nurtured.

Parentification [occurs when] one or more children will fulfil the parental role in the family system (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973). The child may act as parent to other children in the family or may be expected to care for the parent (i.e. role-reversal), or both. Role-reversal is […] a specific type of parentification and, it might be argued, potentially a more pathological one, since intense or prolonged occupation of this age-inappropriate role may not only limit the individual child’s development, but also adversely affect the next generation through repetition of this family pattern.

The parent requiring care may have emotional, physical, or intellectual impairment or a combination of these. Even when the child is not the main carer or the parental incapacity is time-limited or episodic, issues of stigma — being used as interpreter or translator for consultations involving the parent ; fears about the future ; fears of contracting the same illness ; limited social life ; lack of communication in the family and elsewhere about the illness and the problems it creates; having no parent to discuss their own concerns with ; failure of empathy on the parent’s part towards the child — may all take some toll on the child’s life.

The Parentified Child: Early Competence or Childhood Deprivation? Bryanne Barnett & Gordon Parker

Parentification can encompass “role reversal in which a child parents the parent, as well as enmeshment (closed, entangled, and angry preoccupation of the child with the parent), triangulation (serving as go-between and mediator between parents or siding with one against the other), and ‘‘spousification’’ (acting as a sexual mate to a parent; Sroufe & Ward, 1980).” (Mayseless et al). Obviously sexual abuse is an extreme form of spousification and probably should be considered as a separate category due to its lifelong impact on children.

In narcissistic families, the kind of exploitation and enmeshment that occurs with role reversal is common. For some children, the only way to receive affection or be close to the parent is when they make themselves emotionally (or functionally) available. Often the child is unaware of the fact that this is neither normal, nor healthy. They are forced into a position where they give up their childhood in order to have any kind of relationship with their parent.

[…] Minuchin (1974) suggested that role reversal develops when families are unable to maintain hierarchical generational boundaries in which parents guide and nurture their children and children seek comfort and advice from their parents.

This may happen in a variety of situations, such as when parents divorce or when one parent is chronically ill, alcoholic, or mentally ill. To maintain a certain equilibrium within the family, the child may substitute for the parent in some respects and may act as parent vis-a`-vis siblings or as a parent, friend, or mate vis-a`-vis the parent.

Role reversal can result in children who are unable to receive care in relationships:

West and Keller (1991) describe a case study of a parentified child whom they considered to manifest Bowlby’s compulsive care-giving attachment pattern. As described by Bowlby (1977), such an individual ‘may engage in many close relationships but always in the role of giving care, never that of receiving it … the only affectional bond available is one in which he must always be the care-giver … the only care he can ever receive is the care he gives himself’ (p. 207).

Owing to depression or some other disability, the mother is unable to care for the child but expects or demands that the child cares for her, and perhaps younger siblings into the bargain. West and Keller point out that (1) this mode of attachment may offer the child in question the best means of achieving closeness to the parental figure — ‘propitiate or be rebuffed’; (2) as predicted by the theory, the template for this interaction may continue to be used in relationships in later life — where the price of closeness is expected to be ‘ deference and subjugation of self ’.

The authors suggest that a display of attachment behaviour on the part of the child evokes anxiety and distress rather than a comforting response from the parent.

Distressing the parent results in guilt and fear of abandonment for the child. To achieve and maintain closeness to the parent, to avoid passivity and helplessness, the child must offer rather than solicit care; must not expect to receive help in containing and processing anxiety but, on the contrary, must give such assistance. Later on, such children may appear very self-sufficient and choose a partner who is as needy as was the parent.

This role-reversal restricts the child’s development, with the inevitable degree of failure increasing guilt and lowering self-esteem. The emotional unavailability of the parent produces an experience of acute and chronic loss. The capacity to ask for care is suppressed, but the need remains strong and unassuaged. West and Keller point out this is very different care-giving from that which arises in appropriate circumstances in adult life.

In addition to being anxious about the sick and needy parent, the child may also find him or herself being responsible for obtaining medical help for the adult when this is required, overseeing parental medication, looking after younger children, concealing the family’s difficulties from outsiders, and so on.

[…] although the anger experienced by the child when care is not appropriately forthcoming must be suppressed or repressed, the ensuing guilt is likely to remain a powerful (and maladaptive) motivating force. This situation is associated with insecure attachment, specifically the resistant pattern in childhood (Haft & Slade, 1989), and preoccupied pattern (Main & Goldwyn, 1988) if the model continues unchanged into adult life.

Barnett & Parker

Children who are co-opted into providing emotional support to parents quickly learn to suppress their own needs, but they also learn not to value their own privacy or that of others. They never develop good boundaries and are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in relationships, because they have never learnt how healthy relationships work.

In a 1996 memoir, Mary Karr describes her experience of role reversal in childhood:

The big game for me once she’d started drinking was to gauge which way her mood was running that I might steer her away from the related type of trouble.

Hiding her car keys would keep her off the roads and, ergo, out of a wreck, for instance. Or I’d tie up the phone by having a running chat with the busy signal (seven-year-olds don’t yet have any phone life to speak of), so she couldn’t dial up any teachers or neighbours she was liable to bad-mouth.

If I could thwart her first urges to call So-and-So or head down the highway to Yonder-a-place, eventually she’d get onto something else or pass out.

From Mayseless, Bartholomew, Henderson, and Trinke

Having to look after a mother with substance abuse problems leaves a child with few options. The attachment system is designed to keep children safe by ensuring proximity between parent and child, but proximity in these cases is anything but safe. In order to maintain a relationship, a child in this situation is forced to relinquish the hope of getting her own needs met and co-opted into looking after the parent. Sometimes, the co-option is more subtle and the child is favoured with attention in exchange for supporting the parent emotionally.

Bowlby (1982) describes the child whose relationship with their mother is extremely close; so close that he or she is prevented from developing other relationships outside the family. Such a mother may have grown up anxiously attached herself and now tries to use her child as an attachment figure.

‘ Far from the child being overindulged, as is sometimes asserted, he or she is being burdened with having to care for his or her own mother. Thus … the normal relationship of attached child to caregiving parent is inverted’ (p. 671). The child may become anxious, guilty, and phobic (p. 675).

These parents rely on a child for emotional support, confiding in them and asking them to listen to their problems. This can include complaining about the other parent. In extreme cases, the child can become a de-facto partner, in the impossible situation of unwittingly trading closeness for the opportunity to develop a healthy and autonomous self.

Several studies have examined ‘‘spousification,’’ a form of role reversal in which the child is called upon to act as a spouse or mate toward the parent by providing emotional support and intimacy with sexual components (e.g., Sroufe & Ward, 1980). This form of role reversal is associated with more problematic behaviour of the children when they are young (Carlson, Jacobvitz, & Sroufe, 1995; Jacobvitz & Sroufe, 1987), when they become adults (Walsh, 1979), and when they become parents (Burkett, 1991).

From a relational perspective (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973), role reversal is seen as stemming from unfulfilled needs of a parent to be parented and cared for, needs that are directed toward a child rather than toward the parent’s own parents, friends, or romantic partner.

The child is called upon to care for the parent as a way of balancing unresolved issues that were not settled in the parent’s own family of origin. From an attach- ment perspective (Bowlby, 1980), the parent is seen as unable or unwilling to give the child the required protection, support, and care, presumably because the parent needs reassurance and protection.

In an attempt to maintain the relationship, or some level of proximity and closeness within the relationship, the child adopts a caregiving stance toward the parent. This strategy partially satisfies the child’s attachment needs for proximity and closeness, although it entails inhibiting the child’s needs for parental support and guidance (Bowlby; Mayseless, 1996; West & Keller, 1991).

[…] parental alcoholism and substance abuse are associated with role reversal (e.g., Bekir, McLellan, Childress, & Gariti, 1993; Chase, Deming, & Wells, 1998). In addition, various forms of problematic parent–child relationships, notably sexual abuse (Burkett, 1991) and physical abuse (Macfie et al., 1999), are associated with role reversal. Finally, divorce also has been associated with role reversal (Weiss, 1979; Johnston, 1990).

Outcomes of Role Reversal

[…] role reversal is problematic when it requires long-term, age-inappropriate contributions from the child and when the child’s own developmental needs are not met (Boszormenyi- Nagy & Spark, 1973; Chase, 1999; Jurkovic).

Further, detrimental outcomes are expected when the child’s efforts are not acknowledged and valued (Chase; Jurkovic). Current conceptualizations of role reversal suggest that excessive role reversal in childhood leads to problems in developing autonomy, and hence to enmeshment and preoccupation with relationships (e.g., Chase). In particular, excessive role reversal is expected to promote a tendency to relate to others through excessive caregiving at the expense of satisfying one’s own emotional needs.

In partial support of these speculations, researchers note an association between role reversal and general problems in functioning, such as depression and anxiety (Jacobvitz & Bush, 1996; Jones & Wells, 1996; Wells & Jones, 2000), as well as lower levels of identity exploration and commitment in women (Fullinwinder-Bush & Jacobvitz, 1993). In addition, retrospective accounts of role reversal are associated with the tendency to act as a caretaker in adult relationships (Wells, Glickauf-Hughes, & Jones, 1999; Valleau, Bergner, & Horton, 1995).

Mayseless, Bartholomew, Henderson, and Trinke.

Young carers are often not given a choice. They are too young to make the realistic choices that would allow them independence. Stuck in a situation where they are exploited with no escape, they grow up learning that relationships are places where they can never get their needs met and where closeness comes at the cost of their sense of self.

Download my free ebook for daughters of narcissistic mothers here.


Bryanne Barnett & Gordon Parker The Parentified Child: Early Competence or Childhood Deprivation? Child Psychology & Psychiatry Review Volume 3, №4, 1998

Mayseless, Bartholomew, Henderson, and Trinke ‘I was more her Mom than she was mine:’’ Role Reversal in a Community Sample: Family Relations, 2004, 53, 78–86 2004, Vol. 53, №1

Writer, artist, psychotherapist & seeker of the Snitch. Download my free ebook here: https://mailchi.mp/amandarobinspsychotherapy.com/narcissistic-mother-ebook

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