When The Child Becomes The Parent


Parentification and its effects

Traditionally, parents are supposed to be the guardians of a child. They have a duty to care for the emotional and physical needs of their child and must ensure that the child’s needs are met. But when one parent does not fulfill his or her role, the child steps in to fulfill the role or is made to feel responsible for filling the void of the missing parent. This role reversal is termed as parentification.

Parentification is an uncertain happening of events which forces a child to fulfill the role of an adult in childhood. It can occur in cases of divorce, constant fighting between parents, in households with single parents, and or separation. The child witnesses a depressed parent, or the sour emotions of the parents and takes on the task of rescuing either one or both the parents by sacrificing his or her own needs to give attention to the parent in need, to provide comfort, and sometimes even guidance to the needy parent.

Children are not aware that their power is limited and that their parents are ideally responsible for their emotional and developmental needs.The child either consciously or sub-consciously steps in to fill the void of the missing parent. If a child consciously steps in then it suggests that the child has undertaken the responsibility on his own accord to handle the vulnerable situation. In other cases, the parent transfers responsibilities to the child probably because the parent feels unable to cope with all the responsibilities of the family.

The child tries so hard to do what is unexpected of him at that age that the result is inevitable. Clearly one cannot expect a child to succeed at being a parent at such a tender age. So, naturally, even after trying so hard, the child faces failure and blames himself for that failure. And this feeling of failure remains with the child and damages his or her personality. The child has to mature suddenly and in turn loses out on many normal experiences in life. Thrown into a situation where the child has to suddenly play the role of an adult, he undergoes a premature transformation; from being care-free irresponsible and playful, the child now becomes careful, responsible and mature.

The Targeted Child

There is no special method or pattern by which a child is chosen to carry out responsibilities or become the support of the needy parent. In a family with more than one child, the eldest or most mature child is usually the child prone to be parentified. Gender considerations mean that sometimes the eldest boy or eldest girl is selected, to match the sex of the missing parent. Intense parentification can also be defined as spousification, where in the child takes place of the missing spouse and becomes a surrogate spouse in childhood itself.


There are two basic kinds of support that a parent seeks from the child which divides parentification into two broad categories.

1. Emotional or Psychological Parentification

Emotional or Psychological Parentification occurs when the parent leans on the child for emotional support. In this case, the parent tries to use the child to fill the void of the missing parent. Hence, the child is looked upon as the surrogate spouse and this in turn goes on to make the child the substitute parent figure. As a result, the child also becomes a parent figure for any siblings that he or she might have. The child welcomes the responsibility, trying to provide support to the parent and eventually becomes the parent’s confidant. In a normal bond of marriage, the couple shares responsibilities and duties. But in cases where one spouse goes missing due to whatever reason and the other becomes incapable of handling emotional responsibilities single handedly, the child is drawn in to the situation to take over.

Another scenario which creates emotional parentification is when children are witnesses to adult fights all the time. Children do realize in time that their parents have problems. But parents should not make them realize it while they are still children. Parents should avoid discussing a bad marriage with children when they are still young. There are appropriate people to discuss adult issues with. When children get involved they take on a role which they are unprepared for. The child suppresses his or her own needs which often go unnoticed by the people around because they are so busy attending to their own issues. Every child wants to please their parent but it comes at an expense.  When a child grows up naturally, he or she has to deal with issues from school or college, issues related to peers, the next math test, acne, or getting a date. These are common problems and through this the child learns to mature slowly and steadily. Exposure to adult problems in childhood will not only burden the child but hamper his personal growth. Inability to deal and resolve adult problems due to incapacity makes the child feel like a failure and this feeling is often taken way ahead into the child’s future life.

So where should one draw a line the emotional bonding between a parent and a child? But that doesn’t mean that parents should hide their emotions from their children completely; anything that is not detrimental to the child’s development should be shared with the child. Breaking down in front of your children is normal sometimes, but after the break down it is very important to put up a brave front soon. Children need to know that their parents can provide them with a safety net to grow up. If a child feels that his or her parent cannot cope with parental responsibilities due to their problems, the child feels obliged to step in.

2. Instrumental or Logistical or Functional Parentification

In the case of “Instrumental” or “Functional” Parentification, the parent gives the child the responsibilities to carry out household tasks that relieve the anxiety of a non-functioning parent. This could include carrying out all kinds of household chores; from physical chores like cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and paying bills to more complex chores like looking after younger siblings, getting younger siblings ready for school, helping with homework, giving out medications, and much more. This differs from teaching a child to manage assigned chores and tasks, which is healthy for child development. In this case the child has no choice but to perform the task because the child is now the surrogate parent. This leaves the parentified child without opportunity to behave as a child and engage in normal childhood behaviors.

Post Parentification Impact on the Child

The effects of parentification process can be seen during childhood and even in adulthood. A parentified child has no freedom to make mistakes or to explore life as it unfolds. They are overburdened with not only physical tasks but also providing emotional support.They become isolated from their peers and may associate with individuals who are older. They carry an enormous burden which proves to be unhealthy. During the process of parentification, a child may give up his or her needs of attention, comfort, and parental guidance to care for the logistical and emotional needs of his or her parents and siblings.

One cannot deny that the impact of parentification on the child is more horrifying rather than beneficial. The abnormal crossover of age and roles makes the child prone to some destructive personality traits which remain with the child for the rest of his or her life.

Some severe outcomes parentified children face as adults are:

1. Unstable Relationships As Adults

A parentified child has difficulty connecting with others. The child feels that he or she may not be capable enough to sustain a relationship as they have not been successful in keeping their family together. They will break relationships because they feel incapable and unqualified to be in long term relationships.

2. Anger

One of the most noticed trait in parentified children is anger. They have outbursts for unknown reasons and they tend to become very moody. The anger can be explosive or passive.

3. Perfectionism

A parentified child creates goals since childhood to ensure everything falls into the right place at home. This trait of perfectionism grows into adulthood too.

4. Control Freak

Right from a young age, it becomes habitual for the parentified child to take control of the household matters and siblings as well, and by default, he or she begins to feel in charge of everything.

5. Fear Of Incompetency

The fear that he or she may not properly meet his or her own demands and expectations is something that never leaves a parentified child. It is one of the long term effects of parentification.

6. Confrontation Issues

Since the child has already witnessed a lot of confrontation between the parents while growing up, he looks to avoid any kind of confrontation and solves issues by escaping.

7. Becoming A Caregiver

The parentified child feels the need to care for the welfare and feelings of others more than required. He or she will go out of the way to comfort someone in need. Due to this the child hardly finds time to meet his or her needs. They always look to please others.

8. Feeling of Fraud, Failure, Shame and Anxiety

Pretending to be somebody that one is not makes one feel like an imposter. The true nature of the child doesn’t emerge and the child is always ashamed about being someone else. The child feels disconnected from the real self.

9. Acceptance Of Too Much Responsibility

The parentified child is habituated to take responsibility of more than he or she can handle even as an adult. This habit of doing extra all the time makes the parentified child a workaholic in adulthood.

10. Feeling Of Hatred Towards Parents

The child starts to blame the parent for not letting him or her grow in a normal atmosphere. In other cases, the child blames both parents as it is because of both parents that the child grows into an abnormal human emotionally. This resentment remains long after the parents have died.

Children enter this world with countless needs. Until they are old enough to take care of themselves, children are supposed to be relatively free from the demands and concerns of the adult world. The bottom line is that the child remains depressed for one reason or another because of the destructive growing years. Parentification is a kind of emotional abuse which goes unnoticed in many households. And the unavoidable result of parentification is losing one’s own childhood; something that’s every child’s right.

Mehak Budhrani

How do you think such a situation can be avoided? Write your opinions in the comment box below.

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