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.
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.
|Dr. Cara Gardenswartz is a licensed clinical psychologist who provides therapy to individuals and couples and runs psychotherapy groups. Her expertise include relationships, depression, anxiety, life transitions, trauma and addiction. She has over 16 years of education, training, and experience in her field. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and went on to earn her Master's and Doctorate in Psychology at the UCLA. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.|