What is Parentification and How I Experienced It

A few weeks ago in my newsletter, I mentioned parentification and I got a few emails from people asking me to explain it a little bit more. Parentification is where a child is forced or expected, to act as a parental stand-in from a young age. Before I get fully into it, I want to acknowledge that I’m not a doctor or therapist. All of this comes from my own experiences and research. As a mental health advocate, I talk about things that often affect our mental health from a point of personal or lived experiences. If this is something you’re struggling with, please reach out to a therapist or mental health professional.

Parentification can be a result of abuse or neglect but not always. Sometimes it’s feeling like you have to be the parent to your siblings because your parents are abusive or absent due to addiction. Sometimes it’s a result of poverty and a lack of resources so you have to step up. Or you’re parenting your parent because they have a mental illness, a physical disability, serious medical condition, addiction, or they lack the emotional support of other adults.

Parentification is generally classified as parent-focused or sibling-focused and then either as instrumental or emotional.

Parent-focused means you were primarily taking care of your parent. Sibling-focused means you were taking care of a sibling or siblings.

Instrumental revolves around practical responsibilities.

  • Physically meeting the needs of your siblings or parent by feeding them, helping them get dressed, or bathing them.
  • Being in charge of cleaning, cooking, or grocery shopping.
  • Paying bills or budgeting the family finances.

Emotional revolves around being forced to be an emotional support system.

  • Listening to your parent talk to you about adult problems.
  • Giving advice or comforting your parent over age-inappropriate problems.
  • Mediating between your parents or family members.
  • Being the one to make your siblings feel loved, safe, and protected.

While it’s good to have healthy communication with your kids and for them to have household responsibility, it becomes harmful when it deprives the child of the opportunity to just be a kid. When it forces them to mature at a rapid rate, and when it affects their mental, emotional, or physical health. Parentified kids also often don’t receive emotional support or validation of their feelings resulting in chronic stress, depression, anxiety, and issues that follow them into adulthood.

My Parentification Story

For me, parentification happened because I was the oldest daughter of a single working mom who had two jobs and was trying to make ends meet. I was eight when my parents got divorced. My dad had always been one of those hands-off, watches tv after work (don’t bother him!), disengaged parents. After they divorced, he picked us up every Saturday for a few hours, took us to the park, or let us wander around a bookstore, and that was the end of his contribution.

My mom had two jobs almost all of the time after that. She slept when she wasn’t working and I remember that she was always cranky and stressed out and she cried a lot. My younger brother is also autistic and there were a lot of extra challenges she had as a parent. One time he wandered away from the house and there was a police search to find him. When he was little he had a lot of meltdowns and self-injurious behavior.

The woman had her hands completely full.

When I was 9 or 10, my mom started working at a center for individuals with severe mental, intellectual, and developmental disabilities. They also had a summer daycare program specifically for children with those disabilities and because she worked there, she got daycare for free, for all of us.

That summer was fun in a lot of ways. We went on a lot of field trips and I loved the teachers but my sister and I were the only neurotypical kids. I became the teacher’s little assistant. I’d bring them diapers or wipes. I’d help feed some of the other kids when they were busy. I pushed wheelchairs when we went on field trips. I just remember this overwhelming need to be good and helpful because I knew that my being there was a “favor” for my mom.

When I was eleven or twelve and my mom would be at work in the mornings. Every school day, I’d have to get my brother and sister up. I’d need to bathe and dress my brother and pack his lunch. Then I had to wait with him for his bus. Once he was picked up, I had to run the few blocks to make it to my school on time. That was when my anxiety-tummy-aches started.

I resented my childhood for a really long time.

Looking back, I have no idea how my mom did what she did. I’m 35 now and I couldn’t do it and she was in her mid-20s. It sucks that I had to be put into that situation but I know it sucked for her too. Being able to have empathy and compassion for why things happened doesn’t change the fact that my childhood wasn’t typical and that it had a lot of long-lasting effects.

Signs that you were parentified as a child

  1. You felt responsible for your siblings or your parent.
  2. Your childhood lacked the feeling of play that other kids seemed to have.
  3. You felt like you had to be the peacekeeper or voice of reason between your parents.
  4. You felt like your family wouldn’t make it without you. There was the feeling that without you everything would fall apart.
  5. You were given responsibilities that weren’t appropriate for your age.
  6. Your childhood consisted of compliments about how good and responsible you were.
  7. Your anxiety and depression started at an early age.
  8. Between school and family responsibilities you felt overworked or experienced burn out.
  9. As an adult, you have issues letting people take care of you. Or you have an extreme need to feel taken care of with no responsibilities.
  10. You tend to be the caregiver in all of your relationships.
  11. You’ve felt like your entire life has consisted of you being of service to others.
  12. You find yourself in codependent relationships.

How to Heal From It

Because being parentified can have such varying effects on your life, how you move forward is such an individualized process. Many people who go through it develop intense stress, anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder and they tend to internalize those things because they’re so used to not feeling able to ask for help. For others, it affects their relationships as they get older and they struggle to rely on other people.

Many people find it helpful to focus on their inner child and let themself have periods of play and be responsibility-free.

Therapy can help you process your emotions and find a way to move forward.

Further Reading

14 Signs You Were Parentified as a Child

Growing Up Too Quickly: Parentified Children

How Parentification Impacts Teen Mental Health

What Is Parentification? Spotting the Warning Signs and How to Let Kids Be Kids