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Your Son's Not the Man of the House

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Dr. Cara Gardenswartz: Children need to rely on their parents to take care of them. In many families, however, children do not experience the carefree years of childhood. They are too busy being responsible little adults, attentive to their parents' needs.

young boy with arms folded

The term "parentified child" applies to children who grow up in an environment in which a parent allows or demands that they take on a parent-like role, such as assuming responsibility for the welfare of the family. They are typically the firstborn. Parentified children also become responsible because they cannot trust that they will be cared for -- their home may be inconsistent or unpredictable. Most often, children take on a parental role because their parents -- e.g., single parent, abused parent -- don't have enough resources or lack the ability to be self-sufficient. (It's important to note, of course, that many single parents do not parentify their children because they are able to find internal or external resources to avoid such a scenario.)

The parentified child may be encouraged to be the "man of the house" or the "little adult." The child may prematurely prepare meals and take care of the household, and may "parent" his/her siblings, since someone needs to do it. The parentified child might also become the substitute "spouse" and be expected to "have it all together" in order to partner with or protect mom (or dad). For instance, the eldest daughter might become the sounding board/"therapist" for her mom (who is hurt by her breakup). She may feel responsible for making sure her mother feels worthy and good about herself. The parentified eldest male may be taught to show his mother affection -- affection his mom should be receiving from a partner or friendships. He might also protect her from an abusive man.

Signs that you might have a parentified child.

  • Your child is extremely diligent and acutely responsible for his/her age.
  • Your child worries excessively about making mistakes.
  • Your child blames him/herself for anything she does "wrong" (or anything that goes wrong) and takes little credit for anything she does right.
  • Your child doesn't have fun and takes him/herself very seriously.
  • Your child says to people, "My Mommy/Daddy needs me."
  • Your child seems depressed.
  • You expect your child to act like an adult, take care of his/her siblings, or meet your needs.

What happens to parentified children?

Initially, it may seem that there are rewards for the parentified child. Family members and other adults may remark on "how cute" the child's grown-up behavior is. Teachers might be impressed by how studious the child is. The child may feel proud of being his mom's "go-to" man, or feel important because Mom tells her everything. However, these rewards are deceiving. Overly responsible children tend to be serious and unable to relax. They always need to be in control. When children have to become little parents, they learn that their own feelings/needs are not as important as others'. They may miss out on developmental milestones such as developing friendships or learning to balance their individual needs and goals against the needs and goals of others.

As adults, they may not even know who they are outside of their caregiving role. They worry about offending people and making mistakes. They can become depressed and anxious, due to years of worrying and shouldering undue burdens. Sometimes they escape through drinking. Their adult relationships can suffer because they never learned how to be in age- and role-appropriate relationships. Parentified children may try to live out their missed childhood by rebelling when they are adults. In extreme cases, they may suddenly abandon their adult responsibilities (such as their role as a spouse or parent) because they are already burned out from being an "adult" for so long.

If you were a parentified child, it's important to make sure you don't replicate the same experience with your children. You need to take care of yourself by valuing yourself and your time outside of your relationship with your peers, family, or other support systems. Set clear limits about what your role is with your children and what their role is. Make sure home life is consistent and reliable so your children do not have to take care of themselves. Also, make sure you don't overprotect your child (by satisfying all of their needs) in order to ensure that they are not parentified.

In short: Parents, please be parents. Ask yourself if you might be unconsciously parentifying your child. And if you are, seek help. You are now on your way to helping your child be a child, and in turn, becoming a healthy and successful adult.

next: Parents Rammed Cars into Burning Day Care
9 comments so far | Post a comment now
Messymom June 8, 2009, 12:10 PM

Yikes- i think in some ways i am parentifying my daughter without even knowing it. I’m going to read up on this more. Any books recommendations. (i’m not a terrible mom!)

dean June 8, 2009, 12:30 PM

This made me think about the older Dugger girls.

Nell June 8, 2009, 2:47 PM

Dean, you are correct. It can also happen to children of sick parents, and it can be H@LL for the next generation when THOSE children have children. My dear, sweet Grandma was sick a lot when she was alive, and it caused my mother to be responsible for her younger siblings (my dear and sweet aunts). At the age of 12, my mom claims that her father would come home and give HER the check to pay the bills and run the house, because Grandma was in the hospital often. She also claimed she had to get my dear aunts ready for school. My mother and I do NOT get along. When asked her reason, she claims that she doesn’t know how to treat me like a daughter because she was never treated like one. I still don’t speak to her to this day. Anyway, I’m trying to break the cycle with my daughter.

Ruby June 8, 2009, 5:43 PM

I am so glad to have read this article which was passed on to me by a friend who knows of my concern regarding my granddaughter. It is her father, who since my daughters accident, gives her too much responsibily with the younger ones. I have asked my daughter to read the above with hopes that this will make a difference going forward. Thank you Dr. Gardenswartz.

jennifer June 8, 2009, 9:41 PM

great article- great reminder to let kids be kids!

Monica June 9, 2009, 1:49 AM

Good article. Kids already have enough on their shoulders these days.

mark June 10, 2009, 12:05 PM

Hello. I just read the article”Your Son Is Not The Man Of The House”, and, as an adult male, I can relate. My father was an alcoholic and womanizer. He and my mother divorced when I was only two years old. I was raised to always be responsible, to be good and to please my mother, and of course, others. The very opposite of my father. I’ve always had a strong fear of offending and I am very hard on myself for any mistakes I make. However, I made a conscious decision to raise my children differently. I gave them more independence than I ever had and encouraged them to make their own decisions. Now they are two young successful adults capable of taking care of their needs without excessively worrying about what other think. When I look back on my own life I wish I had enjoyed myself more and not worried so much about the feeling or perceptions of others. I think one can balance their needs and the needs of others. I have always been way to far on the side of meeting others needs.

pat carr June 17, 2009, 12:15 AM

great article. it’s exactly what i am suffering from and suffering hard. i was used to physically take my father up and down the stairs from age 13 on past 20, along with a lot of other things. i had no childhood or adolescence and it’s causing me a LOT of problems now. i especially liked the section about being “burned out for beign an adult so long” that’s how i feel, sometimes i don’t want to live one more minute with the shameful memories of being forced into such a rediculous role. I am so angry and bitter.

anna September 3, 2009, 11:12 PM

So true, i grew up in a way without parenting. About the only thing i wasent responsible for was my room and board. My mother often used me and my sister as outlets for her anxiety- often she became a different person in front of her family vs. her freinds. It did give me some problems growing up as a teenager as i was so used to being seriously yelled at or crabbed at that i didnt understand sarcasm until i was more or less 10 years old.

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