Updated: May 10
If you’ve arrived at this blog it is likely you have heard me talk about parentification either on a podcast, radio or my social media.
When you read this, it may bring relief that you can finally name the dynamic that is present in your life, but it also may bring up anger, sadness and grief. Pause at any stage and take time if you need to journal, process or seek emotional support.
Awareness is not a passive process. It takes careful scrutiny of our internal dynamics and how things have been set up by our conditioning. Afterall, we cannot change anything unless we are aware of it.
Susan’s journey in therapy
(Susan’s name has been changed and written permission has been sought and granted)
Susan was 33 when she attended me for therapy. On her first session she said;
“I’m kind of embarrassed I really don’t need to attend therapy, on paper I have a great life. I should be happy, I don’t know why I’m here"
“I can’t relax, it’s like I’m always on edge. I can’t seem to trust my own decisions or instincts. I feel like I’m living, but not really living if that makes sense?” Susan
In Susans friendships, she was constantly trying to please them to earn their love and approval and yet, however much she gave of herself, it never seemed to be enough.
Many of Susan’s friends did not reciprocate and it hurt her deeply.
On that first session Susan told me how loving her family was, and how she had a really close relationship with her mother and her 3 siblings.
When I asked her how her family would describe her she said
“They’d all say that I’m the stable one, the reliable one. I’ve always been told that I have an old head on young shoulders”
Susan gravitated towards older people even at school
“I was always friendly with people a few years ahead of me, I could never really relate to people my own age”.
Susan was very much proud of this, she saw her maturity very much as a strength and held onto it very tightly and when Susan started telling me about her family, she described herself as being the
“go to person” “if something was wrong I’d fix it”
Towards the end of the first session I asked
“You seem to be able to handle everything?”
It was the first time I saw a hint of fear, buried beneath a mountain of control, she said
And with the utmost conviction Susan said
“I can handle anything that’s thrown at me”
Susan said her and her Mams relationship had become strained since she started getting serious with her partner and decided to move in with him. Susan was bereft because her and her mam were so close but her Mam wouldn’t visit her, even though Susan would desperately beg her too.
When Susans mother eventually visited her she was hyper critical of many things in Susans new home.
"The paint was an odd colour, the butter tasted funny, the candles smell was making her nauseous".
Susan was angry, hurt, resentful. Now when she needed her Mam, she wasn’t available to her, either physically or emotionally.
Susan was being taught again that her needs, wants and desires were not important. Susan’s Mam was dismissing something very important to her as if it was irrelevant. Susan was shocked to become aware that this dismissiveness was a common theme throughout their relationship.
Susan would get angry and then dismiss it saying
“maybe I am asking for too much, I should be grateful for what I have”
When Susan talked about her childhood she never volunteered information about how much responsibility she had as a child, because it never once crossed her mind that what she was going through, wasn’t healthy.
Susan talked a lot about her Mother and all that her Mother was going through. It became obvious that Susan’s Mam, viewed her life out of a lens of being the victim, everything was always happening “to her”. Susan was viewing her Mams life through the same lens, not realising the lens her Mam was looking out of was distorted one, due to her own emotional detachment.
When I would ask Susan what impact did her Mams emotional detachment have on her as a child, it was as if I was speaking in a foreign language. She didn’t understand the question and couldn’t answer it, she said
“I don’t know, it’s always all about Mam, Always.”
Susan described how her Mam would confide in her about their marriage. Her mam told her she never wanted to tell her own sister or friends what was happening in case they would think badly of her husband.
“It’s different she can tell me because I will always love him cause he’s my Dad” Susan
Susan’s mam always confided in her daughter not only about her martial relationship but also her money worries. Susan said they weren’t destitute but money was never plentiful. She said there was always arguments about money. At 12 Susan said that she was always trying to sort out their financial and marital problems. Susan comforted her Mam often and was regularly her confidant.
At 13 Susan had a part–time job and she also took over some of the household bills to help them manage their money better. It made such sense to Susan to do this. When I asked her if she thought this was age appropriate she said
“Oh my Mam didn’t have a choice, I insisted.”
“It’s the same when she’s down, I can just feel it, I know so I wait until she’s on her own and I ask her what’s wrong. She won’t tell me the first time but I ask again because I can see she’s so sad and she tells me”. Susan said “Mam has no one else to talk to, and she’s much happier after she talks to me, I’m a good listener.”
As a child Susan felt special and very grown up that her Mam would confide in her. Susan felt respected that her Mam would trust her and treat her like an adult to help solve her problems. Susan quickly became her mother’s protector and did not want anyone to upset her. Her Mam often said
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, you’re the only one who listens to me”
Susan felt more emotionally mature than her Mam and believed that if she kept up what she was doing she would be able to rescue her Mam from all her sadness. When I asked one day
“What would that mean if you were able to rescue your Mam?”
She was sombre and replied
“Well i’d get my Mam back”.
When asked “What would that mean for you?”
With a forlorn expression on her face Susan quietly said
“I wouldn’t have to worry about her anymore, it would mean relief and freedom”
“What age do you feel?”
She cried and said
Often Susan’s and her mams emotions were enmeshed. If her mother was angry/upset/sad, Susan would be too. Susan was so involved in her Mams emotional wellbeing, it was hard to know where her Mam’s emotions ended and Susan’s began.
Susan rebuffed any argument, when I would suggest that her Mam had a role and responsibility in shielding her from financial problems, marital problems and relying on her for emotional support as it creates a huge emotional burden that can follow one for life, but Susan would shake her head and say to me
“You don’t get it. I offer, I do it. I don’t get asked”
One day I shared this story with Susan about a mother who took her 13 year old daughter Maria out shopping. Maria had saved up money for weeks and was very excited. They stopped for tea whilst shopping and Maria really wanted to buy her Mam a bun for a treat. Maria’s Mam thought this was the sweetest thing, she was so proud of Maria for being so thoughtful and she told her so and thanked her.
In the next shop Maria’s Mam was looking at a top and she said it was a bit expensive she wasn’t going to buy it. Maria said she wanted to buy it for her and laughing her Mam said
“no way that’s too much”
BUT, Maria insisted.
It was then that I explained to Susan the mothers role, as the parent, was to thank the child for being sensitive to her needs and being so empathic and kind. But to clearly state, in no uncertain terms, that as the parent, it was the parents responsibility to make purchases like that, or not make purchases in this case.
What lead from that discussion was Susan imagining what implications Maria would have had if her Mam had blurred the boundaries and had allowed Maria to take a role beyond her developmental years. Maria would have unconsciously been neglecting her own needs to put her mother’s first. Parentification is insidious and it can go unnoticed and even be praised by society. The consequences however for the parentified child is to rob him/her of their innocence and make them responsible for someone else’s happiness and not their own. The parentified child, would learn to quash any desire they might have and put the needs of others first, abandoning themselves in the process.
When Susan’s Mam inappropriately relied on her, it blurred the roles of parent and child. In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent cares for the child and offers both instrumental support food/shelter/structure/ and unconditional emotional support love/affection/holding space for the child’s emotions/guidance/boundaries.
When her mam was unable to offer these things consistently, Susan became parentified and took on the role of parent and had to offer emotional and financial support to her mother.
In therapy Susan grieved for her lost childhood but first she had to see what she was missing because you cannot grieve if you don’t know what you’ve lost. Susan lost her childhood, robbed of the activities that are developmentally appropriate and in the process Susan learned how to supress her own needs and disassociate from them, disconnecting from herself and losing her sense of self by always putting others needs ahead of her own.
When Susan began to become more aware of how her emotional needs had been neglected she rightfully felt angry in therapy. She was angry with her mother, that she could not take accountability and could not see what she had done. No no matter how many times Susan said she would not fall back into the role as parent, she regularly did until she set boundaries in place. Over time Susan learned to stop seeing her Mam as a victim and instead as a co-creator of her own life, who actually was well able to do things for herself, even if she chose not to.
When Susan stopped doing what her mother expected and no longer conformed to mothers wants/demands, her mother would become hyper critical and make passive aggressive comments. Her Mam had really controlling behaviour and would regularly withdraw her love and affection as punishment and give Susan the silent treatment. As Susan began living her own life she began to see that her mother was one person in public and a completely different person in private and in times Susan felt like she was going crazy as her mother dismissed and denied her experience. Susan began to see that her Mam was jealous of her life, her successes and always made it all about her.
Susan began to reconnect to the lost part of herself, the silenced part, the angry part, the playful part. Susan one day smiled and reflected that it was now at 29 that she felt younger than she ever had before. She said
“I don’t know how to describe it, I feel like I can let my hair down, I feel freer than I ever have done my whole life”.
I describe Susan’s conditioned behaviour as one similar to being on an aeroplane.
When the oxygen mask falls down, instead of Susan putting on her own mask she is running around putting the oxygen mask on everyone else, trying to recuse them.
Not realising that they are responsible for putting on their own mask, and in the process she unintentionally is suffocating herself.
As an adult, Susan seeks safety in relationships by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. She adapts and blends in to fit in, unconsciously abandoning her own wants, needs, preferences and boundaries. Susan’s behaviour was purposeful in childhood but it is detrimental in adulthood.
Safety is not the absence of fear but the premise of connection. Children need to form attachment in order to feel safe. Susan had to adjust who she was, to fit who her parent was. She had no choice but to adjust. But this disconnected her from self, from her gut is the trauma because when you disconnect from yourself, you no longer have yourself. This disconnection from the self is painful for the child and in the case of the parentified child they are left alone in that pain, as there is rarely any emotional support given from the parent. Dr Gabour Maté states that Trauma is fundamentally a dicconection form self. And why did we disconnect? Because we learned that it’s too painful to be ourselves.
Kids unconsciously are always asking themselves;
Who do I need to be to get love/security/connection in this family?
If a child realises that caring for parents provides these feelings of love and stability, then the child will take on the role of caregiver.
However, where parentification occurs, it is beyond their developmental abilities and therefore has far reaching consequences.
Is Susan’s case, she struggled so much trying to figure out “what was wrong with me” because when she looked back at her life she couldn’t see what possibly could have happened to make her the way she is.
When Susan looked outward she couldn’t see any abuse. Susan couldn’t see anything “bad”that had happened to her so she internalised it and instead thought there was something wrong with her.
That’s because emotional neglect is not what you can see, it’s what you can’t see. It’s the encouragement and praise that didn’t happen. The comforting, understanding and quality time, that wasn’t given. The loving support and empathy that wasn’t offered. The kind words and affirmations that wasn’t given. Susan couldn’t see something because there was nothing to see, it was what wasn’t provided to her (and that is the trauma).
Susan didn’t get validation about her feelings. Her Mam often didn’t listen to her feelings and dismissed them or minimised them. Susan was forced to deal with her emotions alone.
Children are not traumatised by their hurt, they get traumatised because their alone in that hurt. Left alone with their feelings it often leads to self-blame, self doubt and low self-worth.
Susan was a parentified child and felt that her mam wouldn’t be able to cope without her. Susan acknowledged that as a child, her mam confided secrets to her and went to her for emotional support. Susan felt like she was the mediator in her parent’s marriage and often had to diffuse arguments and give advice on adult situations. Susan always felt responsible and ahead of her years and did practical things that were not age appropriate like being in charge of bills. Susan was prevented from having a “normal” childhood because she had to grow up too quickly. Susan was the counsellor, confidant, problem-solver, emotional regulator that everyone relied on and could now see the huge emotional burden that followed her for life.
The message was always reinforced because everyone complimented Susan that she was so mature and responsible that Susan just thought this was who she was.
It is the rejecting responses from Susan parents to her own emotional expression that aliented her from her feeling.
Susan learned at a very young age to push down her own needs and feelings to focus on her mother. She was so disconnected to her feelings that now as an adult she didn’t know what she wanted. Carl Jung emphasised that when our own emotional intelligence is restricted, we often do not know what we want, and can consequently mightily struggle with even the smallest decision. Susan’s mother rejected Susans own emotional expression and the roles were reversed. Susan was parentified and now the child must be emotionally available to the parent but the parent is not emotionally available for the child.
Two types of Parentfication;
Emotional Parentification is an invisible childhood trauma and is a result of when the child feels responsible for the emotional wellbeing of other family members. The emotionally parentified child learns to put the needs of others before their own and is depended upon for emotional support from a parent and rarely getting emotional support in return. If the parent is emotional neglectful to other siblings the parentified child might provide emotional support to them also and try to make the siblings feel safe and loved.
Emotional Parentification is the participation in the “socioemotional needs of family members and the family as a whole”
Where the child is “Serving as a confidant, companion, or mate-like figure, mediating family conflict and providing nurturance and support (Jurkovic, Morrell & Thirkield, 1999 p.94)
If you are now a parent reading this please know that every parent will emotionally fail their children on occasion. It isn’t these occasional failures which corrode the very foundation of the child’s sense of self that their lives are built on, it’s the chronic failure to meet their emotional needs.
Instrumental Parentification is when the child is pressed into physical labour such as cooking, cleaning, taking care of younger siblings, paying bills, taking care of medical appointments and other “adult responsibilities”. The parentified child is often pressed into a mothering role of her siblings and feels like it is her responsibility to take care of them and meet their emotional and/or physical needs.
When I talk about Instrumental Parentification I’m usually met with a lot of resistance from parent because it is reasonable for a child to be given age appropriate chores to build a sense of competency and responsibility. It is also normal that older children take on more responsibility for brief periods of time, e.g if the parent is sick for a few days. These situations are very different from the neglect associated with the pervasive, persistent and intense demands places on a parentified child.
Effects in adulthood
Susan came to believe that it was her duty to serve others, to care and rescue. What served Susan well in childhood in order to attach to her mother receive love and validation and feel safe is the very behaviours that are detrimental in adulthood as she became a people-pleaser and was unable to set boundaries in her life. Susan was fearful of intimacy as she was never allowed to fully be herself so she unconsciously pushed away love and intimacy. In therapy she acknowledged that these “walls” were there to keep her safe but also kept her in isolation and she felt incredibly alone.
Susan was a chronic perfectionist and blamed herself when even the slightest thing went wrong. It sent her into a shame spiral. Susan constantly compared herself to others telling herself that everyone else was “normal, happy”. Susan’s nervous system was in constant high alert which she described as being “tired but wired”.
Why does it happen?
There are many reasons why parentification occur. It typically occurs when a parent, who may not malicious, but is arrested in their emotional development or are experiencing some form of physical impairment, that is impacting the role of reliable/predictable parent. e.g;
Divorce / Unhappy in their marriage
Death of a parent
Addiction in one or both parents
Chronic disease or disability by a parent/sibling
Mental Illness in a parent/sibling
Physically or emotionally abusive relationship between parents
Having immature, emotionally unavailable or depressed parents.
Finally some parents are just flat-out neglectful, creating the perfect storm for parentification.
The emotionally unavailable parent believes they have done their best but deep down they know it has not been enough. Pete Walker states that “A fawn/type codependent is usually the child of at least one narcissistic parent”
Before therapy whenever Susan ever tried to talk to her Mam about this, her Mam would tell her that she was crazy that these things didn’t happen. Her Mam wanted to convince Susan that her reality is completely false that what she saw, she didn’t see and what she heard, she didn’t hear. Her mam punished Susan for being ungrateful and demanding and gave her the “silent treatment” which further added to Susan’s hurt and shame. Susan became extra compliant, hoping that being the “easy child” that she would be loved. This act of manipulation forced Susan to question her thoughts, memories and the events occurring around them. Susan’s Mam persistently put forth a false narrative which lead Susan to doubt her own perception of events. It’s not that Susan’s Mam didn’t love her, it’s that she felt that Susan was simply an extension of her and she never saw Susan as the adult that she’d become.
Parentification is when the roles are reversed between parent and child. The child grows up in an environment where they are either assigned or take over the parenting duties for a sibling and/or the parent themselves. The parentified child becomes their caretaker, mediator and protector, they can become pressed into a mothering role to their siblings. When this role reversal happens the child feels like their parent cannot survive without their help.
Parentification is the distortion or lack of boundaries between and among family subsystems, such that children take on the roles and responsibilities usually reserved for adults. (Boszormenyo-Nagi & Spark 1973)
Take your time and acknowledge how you are feeling. You may have lots more questions and want me to follow on with Susan’s story, if so please feel free to drop me an email with any insights you may have gained or any questions you would like me to follow up with on my next blog.
I’m sorry so many resonate with this, parentification can be a toxic family dynamic and it is an unspoken Trauma.