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In functional and healthy families, parents and children have clearly defined roles — the parent cares for the child while the child grows and develops. However, in some families, these roles are reversed, and this is known as parentification.

“Parentification is when a child has to fulfill the roles and responsibilities of a parent. This may occur because the parent has asked the child to take on this role or because the child notices that no one else is filling the role, crestor compared to lipitor ” Dr. Cara Goodwin, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, tells SheKnows. “Parentification may include being responsible for household tasks such as cleaning or cooking, caring for younger siblings, or serving as emotional support for their parents.”

According to Goodwin, this family dynamic becomes problematic when the child is asked to complete tasks or provide support that is inappropriate for their developmental level and when the parents’ needs consistently come before the child’s needs. “In these circumstances, parentification may be considered child neglect.”

What causes parentification?

Parentification can occur for many reasons, says Goodwin, including the parent’s own family background or attachment issues that may cause them to unconsciously see their children as parental figures.

“For example, the parent may have experienced abuse or neglect themselves as a child. This type of history may lead parents to have particular cognitions and attitudes (such as believing that their child is mature enough to handle the role), which then lead them to parentify a child.”

Parentification can also occur when the parent experiences issues related to substance use and abuse or struggles with mental health, since these issues may prevent parents from effectively meeting their responsibilities as a parent.

The types of parentification

What are examples of parentification?

Below Goodwin outlines examples of parentification.

  1. When a child is worried that their parent has had too many alcoholic beverages, they may feel responsible for cutting their parent off from another drink.
  2. When the parent is not present to care for the child, the child has to care for themselves and/or the household, including cleaning, making dinner, and putting themselves to bed.
  3. When a child is responsible for carrying for younger siblings and/or helping them with their homework.
  4. When a parent asks a child for advice, comfort, or to make important decisions for the household.
  5. When a parent shares inappropriate information with a child about a romantic relationship or their relationship with the child’s other parent.

What is emotional parentification?

“Emotional parentification is when a child feels responsible for helping to regulate the parent’s emotions and to provide advice and guidance to their parent,” Goodwin says. Examples include:

  1. When a child has to help a parent to manage symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  2. When two parents are arguing and the child has to mediate the conversation.
  3. When a parent gets into the habit of talking to a child about financial stressors.
  4. When a parent asks a child for relationship advice.
  5. When a parent burdens a child with the problems they are facing in their own life.

What is instrumental parentification?

“Instrumental parentification is when the child completes physical tasks that are related to the role and responsibilities of a parent,” Goodwin explains.

  1. When a child is responsible for putting younger siblings and themselves to bed.
  2. When a child has to remind the parent about important appointments or dates.
  3. When a parent makes a young child prepare dinner for the whole family.
  4. When a parent lets a child decide on their own limits for screen time.

How does parentification affect relationships?

While parentification doesn’t always require treatment or therapy, Goodwin says research finds that parentification may impact a child’s personality, future relationships, and social-emotional development.

“Parentified children are more likely to show substance abuse, serious mental illness, and impaired relationship and parenting skills as adults. They may also go on to have the same dysfunctional relationship with their own children.”

If you’re experiencing any unresolved trauma or issues from your childhood parentification, Goodwin recommends seeking help from a licensed mental health professional in order to understand the impacts of parentification, as well as to prevent repeating the same dynamic with their own children.

Before you go, check out the mental health apps we swear by for a little TLC:

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