Parentification - sometimes known as ‘emotional incest’ - occurs when a child under the age of 18 is compelled to assume the physical and/or emotional care-taking of a parent or younger siblings at the expense of their own developmental needs. It can range from an older child being told to help the family by taking care of a younger sibling, to becoming the pseudo partner and confidant of a parent.
No matter which end of the scale this may fall on, forcing a child to assume any adult role is a hidden form of child abuse and exploitation.
Parentification most often occurs after a divorce; during family unpredictability; with parental alcohol or drug abuse; with parents who are chronically emotionally or physically unavailable; with parents struggling with mental or physical health issues; and within rigid cultural and religious practices.
Having our children take some responsibility in the family home is a healthy part of childrearing; ‘you help make the mess, therefore you help clean it up’, yet parents must be ever mindful of a child’s capabilities at their current age and stage and not exceed them. There is a vast difference between parentification and teaching children responsibility and many parents blur that line.
Dr Alice Miller in her book ‘The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self’ highlighted the cultural and religious based form of this form of abuse;
“Child abuse is still sanctioned - indeed, held in high regard - in our society as long as it is defined as child-rearing.” Miller said.
Through the abuse of parentification, Miller gives examples of the inner dialogue that may arise in such a child;
- "If I'm a really, really, good girl then mother will finally see me and take care of me"
- "If I stay strong and protect mother, she will see me”
- "If I give mother what she wants, she will stop abusing me."
At the age of six, one woman became the principal caregiver of her drug addicted mother and her infant brother simultaneously. Her baby brother’s crib was placed next to her own bed so she could assume the role of surrogate mother and forced her to become his parent and protector to the detriment of her own emotional health.
“During dope sickness, she would unleash a lot of fury onto me,” she said of her mother, “I became the buffer or scapegoat of her rage to divert it from my younger brother.”
Eventually, at age nine, her grandparents took in her and her then 3-year-old brother, but the trauma of their former living situation stayed with both children. By the time she was 14, she was suffering from daily panic attacks, OCD, and depression. It wasn’t until she was an adult that she began to understand the connection between her childhood experiences and numerous chronic illnesses. Her brother went on to become addicted to drugs and his relationship with his older sister shattered.
Parentification can become a matter of life and death for children navigating their teenage years. When an adolescent should be resolving Erikson’s crisis stage of ‘Identity vs Identity Diffusion’, but find themselves cast in the role of principal care-giver to their younger sibling(s), they can often feel stuck and unsure of who they really are. Their reactions to this false identity being thrust upon them can swing two ways; resentment of their young sibling(s) accompanied by the guilt and shame they experience from the resentment; to feeling conflicted and trapped in a life that is not their own, resulting in suicidal ideation or even completing suicide.
“I began to hate my little sister, then I’d feel guilty for that because it wasn’t her fault” one such adolescent girl said, “I couldn’t make my mom understand that I just wanted to love my little sister, not raise her.”
This teen girl developed an emotional urgency to care-take those around her; frantically trying to resolve the interpersonal clashes between her friends, and when she was unable to do so, feeling a crushing sense of failure that drove her to the brink of suicide. She was measuring her sense of worth against a role she’d been cast into that she was ill prepared for.
Survivors of childhood parentification can carry that artificial sense of self throughout their lifetimes and become life-long caregivers to those around them, even choosing spouses who they believe need ‘parenting and protection’ and never experience the unfettered joy of genuine love.
Children need to be left to be children; to navigate their developmental stages with the support and nurturing of loving parents. Anything less than that is at best exploitation and at most child abuse.
Aaron D. McClelland, MPCC-S - www.interiorcounselling.com