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Parentification and the Codependent Four-Year-Old

Perhaps I was four, maybe three. The age doesn’t matter. But it was definitely Thanksgiving. Mom was on “bun detail.” She’d been assigned to bring the pre-buttered dinner rolls to our family Thanksgiving Dinner.

Mother’s always had a very whimsical side. She introduced me to poetry, magenta sunrises and her firm belief that, “Of course God has a sense of humor. Just look at babies and monkeys. They’re hilarious!” On this particular day, her sense of whimsy saw the correlation between buns and, well, buns. Before I knew where I was, I found myself flat on my tummy on the kitchen table, britches pulled down with butter spread on my…well, you get the point.

Mom thought it was hysterical.

And this is where the story of babyish codependence begins. Personally, I saw nothing humorous about having my derrière buttered. Worse still, I was a little lady and knew I should not have my britches down in front of my dad, who was sitting at the kitchen table. But what makes the story so memorable is that I was terribly worried, concerned to see if my Dad was laughing.

Vividly I remember craning my neck around, peering up into my dad’s face to see if he was laughing, or at the very least, smiling at this buttery predicament I found myself in. I was incredibly worried about this. He was always so gloomy. Months of quiet gloominess might pass but sooner or later he would inexplicably, abruptly explode into a towering, PTSD inducing rage.

He wasn’t laughing.

Years later, I asked Mom, “Did Dad laugh?”

“Of course he did!” she warbled in “that” way I now associate with gaslighting.

Well, I may’ve been young, but I wasn’t stupid.

He didn’t laugh.

Over thirty years later, I realized that it’s unnatural for a four-year-old to be worried about their parents’ moods. A four-year-old should be coloring pictures, dressing dollies and making mud pies. Not worrying about whether their parent is too moody to laugh or not!

Fast-forward three years. Now I’m seven years old. Drying dishes with Dad. I vividly remember being overtly happy, overly gregarious trying desperately to get him to crack a smile or laugh. To no avail.

Fast forward a decade. This time I’m seventeen and Mom is telling me, “Daddy’s really down. We have to make him laugh.” Parentification! It has a name. A name I was thrilled to discover sixteen years later.

When you’re parentified at a young age, you stop growing up. Oh, I’m not saying you’re not mature, responsible, down-to-Earth and even old-before-your-time. What I mean is that your own maturation process has stopped. At seventeen, I consciously knew that the period of time devoted to me growing up had ceased. It was time to take care of my parents. Now I watch seventeen-year-olds goofing off with their friends and comment, “I was never that young.”

The only problem was that I also wasn’t grown up. I was a mature, responsible, down-to-earth, prematurely old carbon copy of my parents. There was no “Lenora,” per se. I was too busy taking care of them, keeping them happy, not making any waves, trying to be inaudible and invisible, playing the clown to manipulate Dad into laughter. It wasn’t really safe to become an authentic, unique, opinionated person in my own right. That came later. I finished growing up in my thirties and no longer feel incomplete, un-grown-up.

Parentification cheats you. It’s unfair. It’s wrong. Looking back, I realize how much my parents used me during my twenties. They could have manned-up.  Could have been independent as they were before and are again now, thus allowing me to also enjoy independence. But they chose not to. They made up rules disallowing me from moving out, having a home of my own and the life I wanted. So I was always around, a paying, serving, shopping, helping personal assistant.

Of all the hurtful, dysfunctional, narcissistic things they’ve said and done, this stands out. This makes me the most angry. An anger I’ll never get over and talk about way too much. I lost a decade of happiness. Stolen! Time is the one thing that can never be reclaimed nor recovered. Worst of all, I blamed myself. I thought there was something wrong with me. That I was a failure, a deadbeat, unable to launch, incapable of making my own decisions, unwise, stupid, weak, unadult, perpetual kid.  No matter how much I did, how successful my career nor how much my parents said there was nothing wrong with me (“It’s the world. It’s dangerous for young women out there. We’ve worked too hard on you to throw you to the wolves.”), the damage to my self-esteem was legion. Not being “allowed” to move out, being basically held against my will, spoke louder than any words they could say to buoy my self-esteem. Actions spoke louder than words. Now realize it was “them” not “me,” but the bruise to my self-esteem is still painful.

Like so many parents, they played the “Care for Your Elders” card too soon, before they actually needed that care. Yet another reason that I, like so many children of narcissists are saying, “Sorry, you’re on your own in old age. Already been there; already done that. Not making that mistake again!” It sounds harsh and heartless, but it’s not. It’s called survival.

When you finally break from “needy” parents, they will do everything in their power to make that transition hard for you. At the very least, they’ll ruin your joy in your new life. This reminds me of a scene from The Big Bang Theory where Howard Wolowitz plans to take the fifth floor apartment above the one Sheldon and Leonard occupy. On the day he plans to move out of his over-bearing, over-protective, over-possessive mother’s house, we hear this hollered conversation, clearly audible through the walls of his mother, Mrs. Wolowitz’, house:

Howard: Enough with the guilt, ma, we’ll still see each other. I’ll come over every night and have dinner with you.

Howard’s Mother: The hell you will! What am I running here, a fancy restaurant? Does this look like Olive Garden?

Howard: Okay, I get it, you’re angry. You don’t want to see your little bird leave the nest.

Howard’s Mother: Little bird? You’re almost 30, fly, for god’s sake!

Howard: Fine, I’ll stay! You happy, crazy lady? I sure as hell hope so, because you’re ruining my life!

“You’re causing us financial hardship by moving out,” my Mom sweetly informed me when I bought my townhome. Ah, ye olde (false) guilt trip! So, I consciously worked to not be happy, trying to match her unhappiness as though it was unfair of me to be happy about moving out when she wasn’t. I even offered to continue to do their grocery shopping and take her to her dentist appointments. (Thankfully, she declined.)

I am Howard Wolowitz! Ah Codependence, thou reeky folly-fallen flap-dragon, thou art my name! (Gotta love the Shakespeare insult generator!)

If you’re the parent of a wee tot, watch yourself! Be as happy as you can be for them. Be as emotionally healthy as you can be for them. Don’t ever let them feel responsible for your moods. And most importantly, let your little birdy fly. When they’re ready to leave the nest, whether YOU are ready or not, push ’em out.

Don’t worry. They’ll find their wings!

Parentification and the Codependent Four-Year-Old

Lenora Thompson

For five years, "Narcissism Meets Normalcy" has followed the real-life, ongoing story of freelance writer, Lenora Thompson, and her readers’ healing journey from narcissistic abuse to healing, peace and happiness. In August 2020, Lenora launched a new blog, "Beyond Narcissism…And Getting Happier All the Time" as she and her readers explore the new world of peace and happiness. "Beyond Narcs…Get Happy" is 100% reader supported! To learn more about Lenora, her husband Michael’s heroic fight against Pulmonary Alveolar Proteinosis and to subscribe to her other writings, please visit Thank you!

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APA Reference
Thompson, L. (2018). Parentification and the Codependent Four-Year-Old. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Apr 2018
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