Breaking the Cycle of Parentification

11741376_sThis blog post was written by Recovery Help Now’s, Leslie Kolb, MSW.

Parentification occurs when a child feels obligated to act as the parent to their parent, whether it is in the practical way, like taking care of siblings, making dinner, or cleaning the house, or emotionally, when the child has to provide emotional support for the parent. This can occur for many reasons, but if a child is somehow forced into a parental role when they should have the freedom to behave like a child, it can delay their development and affect them through adulthood. Parentification can cause underlying anger, difficulty forming connection in relationships, and people-pleasing behavior. It can impact self-worth and the ability to form one’s own identity.

As we have discussed parentification this month, you may have come to realize that you were parentified as a child, or perhaps you are involved in a relationship with someone who was parentified. In learning about parentification, we can begin to identify and accept our own experience with it, building the foundation for healing and growth. But how can we then move forward in our lives and break the cycle so our children do not experience the same?

First and foremost, we must find a way to heal our own emotional wounds, most likely through individual or group therapy. Even if we can identify the behaviors of our parents and the ways in which those behaviors affected us, it can take time to process the feelings of hurt and loss that accompany the realization that we were never given the care we as children deserved. Sometimes we have to grieve never having been given a safe childhood in which we could be ourselves, make messes, and play irresponsibly. Sometimes we have to accept our anger and forgive our parents for not providing the stable foundation we so desperately needed. Working through the effects of parentification may take time, but in doing so we are able to take the first step of breaking the cycle.

As you move through your healing process, try to recall the ways in which you experienced parentification. For some, parentification is instrumental, meaning that as a child one was required to tend to many or most household chores and responsibilities, especially in the absence of one or both parents. Often these duties end up being asked of the eldest child in the family, simply because the eldest child is often the most “qualified” to be able to handle the household responsibilities. If you experienced instrumental parentification, you may want to ask yourself, “In what ways can I require my children to complete chores in order to teach responsibility without placing too much burden on their shoulders?” One approach might be that you limit a child’s chores to one or two duties per week, so that the child has plenty of playtime and homework time to tend to their own needs. Another approach might be that you are actively mindful of not relying on your child to complete household tasks and instead asking them to help out only occasionally. How else might you approach this differently from your parents?

For others, parentification may have been emotional, meaning that as a child one was required to tend to one or both parents’ emotional needs. Often one parent relies on a child for emotional support and friendship, blurring the relationship boundary. Children who take on the role of mediator between fighting parents can also find themselves emotionally parentified, because they feel responsible for being “the glue that holds the family together.” To break the cycle of emotional parentification, as parents we must be very mindful of the boundary between parent and child as well as our children’s need to feel that we are a secure emotional base to which they can return when scared, upset, or hurt. It is important to show a child that even if he misbehaves, his parents will not stop loving him, or that even if she establishes independence by playing with other children on the playground, her parents will still be there waiting for her when she returns. What other ways can you think of to care for your children emotionally? How might you do things differently than your parents?

This week, consider whether you received the kind of love and care you needed as a child. Sometimes it can be difficult to admit that our parents might have fallen short, even if they did the best they could. Just because they weren’t perfect doesn’t mean we don’t love them. But loving our parents doesn’t negate our needs and doesn’t mean that we aren’t entitled to feel sad or angry with them because of something we longed for but never received. Acknowledging and accepting our experiences can help us break the cycle and move forward to give our children more our parents gave us.


Elana Clark-Faler
1 Comment
  • Susan Riley
    Posted at 06:12h, 14 August Reply

    I think this is a great post and can really relate thank you for writing it. I face all of the above and it also has effected me in many ways similar.

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