Growing up, did you take on more of a caretaker role rather than having the chance to be a child? Or did your parents often vent to you far before you were ready to support them emotionally? If these questions resonate with you, you may have experienced parentification. It’s a role reversal where children adopt parent-like traits at a young age. And while learning how to care for yourself has benefits, excessive responsibility can cause implications well into adulthood. Let’s discuss why and how to heal.
What Is Parentification?
While parents are expected to provide unconditional love and address the physical needs of their children, providing adequate shelter, food, and structure, sometimes the role gets reversed. Indeed, parentification occurs when parents assign adult responsibilities to their children and rely on them to assist with their emotional needs. In other cases, children will assume the role because their environment conditions them to do so. Yet while researchers indicate there are benefits to parentification, like self-efficacy and competence, they also show adverse childhood experiences negatively affect their cognitive, emotional, and physical development.
2 Types of Parentification
Two types of parentification exist.
- Instrumental occurs when parents assign responsibilities that aren’t age-appropriate. For example, paying bills and organizing finances, taking care of the household through continued grocery shopping, cooking, or cleaning, and taking care of any siblings. It’s important to note that teaching your children how to care for themselves is perfectly okay, but it crosses the line when children feel pressure to care for the household because their caretakers are unable to
- Emotional involves providing emotional support, such as serving as a mediator in arguments and listening and offering advice to their caretakers
15 Symptoms of Parentification in Children
There are several signs/symptoms that indicate parentification.
- Anxiety through consistently worrying for others
- Sharpened empathy and sensitivity to connect with others
- Difficulties playing and having fun as a child
- Experienced academic difficulties and social challenges
- Exhibited disruptive behavior as a child
- Self-medicated with substance abuse
- Felt like you carried the weight of responsibilities in your household
- Your caregivers consistently asked for your input in arguments
- Feelings of shame and guilt
- A feeling like you missed out on being a kid
- Experienced somatic symptoms like headaches and stomach aches from anxiety
- Assumed the role of the caretaker and peacemaker
- Took on responsibilities inappropriate for your age
- Your caregivers struggled to care for themselves and consistently asked for your help
- Felt like your efforts and time weren’t appreciated or recognized
4 Long-Term Effects of Parentification
Unfortunately, the effects of parentification may continue into adulthood, causing several physical and mental implications. For example, someone who was parentified may experience
- Insecure attachment and an inability to trust others which can negatively affect future relationships
- Integrational trauma, where adults will carry the trauma to their offspring creating a vicious cycle
- Increased vulnerability to chronic stress, cardiovascular problems, and other physical illnesses
- Greater risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other mental health implications
How to Heal From Parentification
1. Honor your inner child
The best way to heal from parentification is to get in touch with and honor your inner child. The carefree, playful, and spontaneous part of who you were as a child are the elements of your personality that become suppressed through parentification. So the first step to reawaken this self is to become aware of it. While it may feel awkward at first, begin acknowledging that your inner child exists within you and create dialogue. You can ask, “What makes you happy? Scared? Sad? And what do you need”? These questions reconnect you to that voice to allow you to fulfill your inner child’s needs. Additionally, reconnect with your inner child by…
- Prioritizing play. Swim, hike, create art, take a fun class or travel. Do anything that feeds your soul
- Giving yourself self-compassion. Learn how to stop negative self-talk by challenging your thoughts and by practicing ways to love yourself more through caring for your mind and body
- And reflecting on your childhood. What did you not receive as a child? For example, if your parents limited your freedom, begin parenting your inner child by prioritizing more excitement
2. Prioritize self-care
Assuming the role of a caretaker at a young age may teach you to neglect your needs to help others. But it is essential to prioritize the most important relationship in your life; the one you have with yourself. This means caring for yourself holistically by nourishing your body with vitamin-enriched foods, exercising, receiving enough sleep, and learning how to put yourself first with easy self-care tips. You’re worth it.
3. Validate your emotions
A part of healing your inner child involves giving yourself the emotional validation you didn’t receive during childhood. And the first step is learning how to label and affirm your emotions as they arise without judgment. For example, “I feel sad. Why? Because I didn’t receive my dream job, and it’s okay to feel how I do.” Next, ask yourself what you need to feel better. Perhaps you need a day to engage in self-soothing techniques. If so, allow yourself the time and space to feel better.
4. Maintain boundaries
While it may feel foreign to assert yourself, boundaries are a critical aspect of prioritizing self-care. To learn how to set healthy boundaries, reflect on your values and past times when you felt upset. What happened? And what value was crossed? For example, upon reflection, maybe you realize you’re frustrated that a friend doesn’t respect your time and always shows up late. If this is the case, follow the emotion-behavior-consequence strategy and say, “I feel upset when you show up late, and if it continues to happen, I won’t be able to hang out as much.”
5. Connect with others
A long-term effect of the role reversal between parents and children is the hindered ability to trust others. You may struggle to ask for support and feel you can only rely on yourself. Or you may sabotage healthy relationships for fear of getting hurt. Yet a part of your healing involves learning how to repair those wounds by rebuilding your trust. For example, you could connect with others who also experienced parentification through support groups or by going slow. Pick one friend you feel comfortable with and share one thing causing you pain, and after, evaluate how you feel. Trust builds over time. It’s okay to take baby steps
6. Receive support
If you’re experiencing anxiety or depression, it’s worth speaking to a mental health professional. Indeed, there are several modalities that will address and heal the trauma you experienced as a child. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy will help you transform unhelpful thought patterns, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy will help you confront and release traumatic memories, and dialectical behavioral therapy helps identify self-destructive or self-sabotaging behaviors. Whatever concern you have, there is specialized support to help you move forward.
While parentification can cause consequences that affect you as an adult, remember that help is available. You can persevere, heal, forgive, and break patterns of trauma.
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