Some children don’t get much of a childhood. When children have to act like adults – taking responsibility for their siblings, parents, and running a household– there are lasting effects.
What is a parentified child?
A parentified child is one that has taken on some or all of their parent’s responsibilities. Out of necessity, the child becomes the parent and the parent acts more like a child.
Parentified children take responsibility for practical tasks like cooking, cleaning, and paying bills. They put their younger siblings to bed and help them with homework. They also take care of their parents – covering mom with blankets after she’s passed out on the couch, acting as her crisis counselor or confidant (sometimes this is called being a surrogate spouse), bearing the heavy burden of trying to solve adult problems.
Often parentified children are the oldest or middle in the birth order. Children of all genders can become parentified. Children as young as two or three may start to take on parenting responsibilities by comforting or feeding their younger siblings.
Why do children end up taking care of their parents and siblings?
Kids become parentified when their parents can’t/won’t fulfill their responsibilities. This often happens when a parent is addicted to drugs or alcohol or is seriously mentally ill. Even if the parent is physically present, they are incapable of parenting and acting like a responsible, mature adult. They don’t know how to keep their children safe. They are often emotionally immature, unpredictable, and lack even a basic understanding of child development. And they lack awareness of how their behavior impacts their children and others.
How does being a parentified child affect you?
Caretaking is hard work – challenging and exhausting both physically and emotionally – even for adults. So, there’s a lot working against parentified children. The human brain isn’t fully developed until we’re in our early to mid-20s. So, even teenagers lack the cognitive reasoning skills, life experience, and impulse control needed for effective parenting. Not to mention that parentified children have few, if any, role models for how to parent or organize and complete adult tasks. And they usually lack resources like money or a car that make parenting a bit easier.
In addition, they may have to contend with a needy, destructive, abusive, or undermining parent who sabotages their efforts and makes more work for them. And their siblings may also have more challenges than average children due to abuse, neglect, or undiagnosed health, mental health, or learning difficulties.
At the same time, parentified children have to parent themselves. They have to figure out how to cope with their own feelings, trauma, and growing up experiences. They don’t have attentive and loving parents to offer encouragement, guidance, comfort or validation. They feel alone, overwhelmed, scared, and angry. Often, they have to give up their own friends, interests, and goals because they are so busy caretaking and filled with shame and unworthiness. Parentified children don’t get to be children.
It’s an understatement to say that parentified children are under a lot of stress. Here are some of the challenges they may continue to face in adulthood, as a result.
- Increased health and mental health problems (see ACES studies for more information)
- Compulsive caretaking, attracting troubled individuals in need of rescuing, fixing, or helping
- Difficulty trusting
- High levels of anxiety, rumination, and worry
- Feeling inadequate
- Being overly responsible, having trouble relaxing, having fun, and being spontaneous
- Trying to control people and situations
- Difficulty setting boundaries and being assertive
When you’re taking care of everyone else, you learn to deny your own needs and feelings. Out of necessity, you have to push them away and as a result, you end up believing that your needs and feelings don’t matter. You get disconnected from yourself, unable to see your value – other than as a caretaker – and feel like you constantly have to prove your worth through perfectionism, overworking, being responsible for and taking care of others. And when you don’t feel you have intrinsic value, it’s hard to stand up for yourself, set boundaries, feel confident, and go after what you want in life.
What is codependency?
We could simply sum up the list above as codependency*. Codependency is essentially a difficulty feeling good about and loving ourselves which makes it difficult for us to have healthy relationships with others. Codependency can also be described as one person in a relationship over-functioning while the other under-functions. That certainly sounds a lot like the relationship between a parentified child and his or her parent. This, unfortunately, becomes the template for all our other relationships.
Healing from codependency and parentification
You didn’t cause your codependency, but you are the only person who can change it. I’m not going to lie – it’s hard. I see people in my therapy office daily who struggle with codependency and the fallout from their dysfunctional childhood. But you can get better little by little, by taking small steps daily.
How do you start healing?
- Read a self-help book. There are so many exceptional books to choose from. Some of my favorites are by Melody Beattie, Pia Melody, Claudia Black, Peter Walker, Jonice Webb, Louise Hay, Brené You can find more suggestions here.
- Find a therapist. If finances are an issue, look for a non-profit counseling agency, city or county-run mental health clinic, sliding-scale therapists, and Open Path Collective.
- Try a 12-step meeting (Al-Anon, Codependent Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families). You can attend in-person, online, or by telephone. All 12-step programs are free.
- Focus more on your self-care and less on trying to make everyone else happy and meeting all of their needs.
- Learn to set boundaries. Boundaries are essential in all healthy relationships and reflect your self-worth and desire to keep yourself safe. Boundaries also give you physical and emotional space from difficult people, which you need in order to heal and do your own recovery work.
- Use some of the tools in my free resource library. Sign-up for access to the tools and my newsletter here.
A note about the term codependency: Codependent and codependency can feel like icky words. No one likes to be labeled as having a problem or issue. And it can feel particularly unfair because codependency is likely the result of hurtful things that were done to you as a child. You are, of course, more than your codependent traits. And these traits developed as a way for you to try to cope with scary, hurtful, and confusing things that happened to you. I use the term because I have yet to find a succinct alternative that encompasses the entirety of codependency.