Parentification is a not well-known phenomenon where there is a reversal of the parent-child roles. It often happens in families with multiple children, and it may occur after a divorce when a newly single parent struggles to adjust to the new situation or a parent remarries, introducing new step- or half-children to the existing family dynamic.
Because it forces children to take on responsibilities they may not be old or mature enough to assume, it can have serious long-term effects.
What is parentification?
It is normal for children to contribute to the household by performing chores or occasionally babysitting. Parentification goes beyond that, forcing children to step into the role typically associated with a parent. This can include caretaking, emotional support and even financial contributions. The children, in essence, become surrogate parents to their own siblings or even to their actual parents.
Physically, they may find themselves responsible for all household tasks. They may also fulfill the primary child-rearer role for younger siblings, preparing them for school, helping them with school activities and homework and caring for them to the exclusion of their own lives. Emotionally, they may become dumping grounds where parents pour out adult troubles when the parents should be taking care of them.
What are the consequences of parentification?
One of the primary consequences of parentification is the loss of a normal childhood. Parentified children lose the opportunity to experience normal activities (socializing, participating in extracurriculars, going on friend or school trips, etc.) and carefree moments that define early years. Because they may carry the weight of adult problems and feel overwhelmed by the constant need to provide support to others, they may develop anxiety, depression or a sense of inadequacy.
As parentified children grow into adulthood, the consequences of parentification can extend into their personal relationships. They may find it challenging to establish healthy boundaries or develop a sense of self separate from their caregiving role. The parents and younger siblings may also develop an unhealthy dependency on the parentified children.
Distinguishing parentification from regular family contributions can be difficult, in part due to the attitude that children should contribute. Newport Academy states that it often goes unrecognized or overlooked. Parents who suspect that their children are objects of parentification at their other parent’s home may need to investigate. They may even need to pursue a custody change. Parentification itself may not be grounds for a modification, but if it creates an unhealthy mental environment, judges may alter the agreement.