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Child Development

The Pain of Parent-Child Role Reversals: 4 Core Themes

Many things can go wrong when children are “parentified” and grow up too fast.

Key points

  • Parentification involves turning to children for support that is inappropriate for their age or culture.
  • This role reversal can contribute to depression, substance use, personality impairments, and low self-esteem.
  • Emotional themes of parentification include fear, intrusion, a sense of absence, and extreme emotional swings.
rmt / Pixabay
Source: rmt / Pixabay

When parents look to their children for practical and emotional support that is inappropriate for their age or culture, it is technically referred to as parentification.

Practical support involves, for example, taking care of younger siblings, paying bills, cooking, cleaning, and caring for sick family members. Emotional parentification is when a parent turns their child into a confidante, friend, companion, or even a spouse-type of figure and seeks their support in mediating conflict.

Parentification often has a substantial and lifelong impact. Research has found that this role reversal can lead to depression, substance abuse, personality impairments, low self-esteem, and difficulties in separation and individuation as one grows older.

What is it like to be a "parentified" child? This was the central question of a study conducted by Shirley Schorr and Limor Goldner of the University of Haifa in Israel. In order to study this inquiry, the investigators recruited 19 women since this role reversal typically happens to girls.

The researchers then interviewed the participants about their parentification experiences in childhood and adolescence and analyzed their narratives for themes.

The results were striking. Most participants experienced role reversal with their mothers and relayed stories of parentification that captured their pain, fear for their lives, and emotional scars over a circumstance that remains ongoing. The analyses identified four overarching themes, each with sub-themes. A general overview of the study’s findings is provided below.

1. “My mother is still five years old”: Causes of parentification

The results revealed a multitude of reasons for parentification, which broke down into two main categories:

External factors encompassed various forms of parental limitations, including mental disability, physical and cognitive impairment, early parenting, parental loneliness, and lack of social support. One participant expressed: “She was very post-traumatic, my mother is still five years old, and this is how I have experienced her all these years, as a child in need of protection”

Domestic violence and divorce were also cited as reasons for parent-child role reversal.

Internal factors refer to personal characteristics, such as birth order. In this study, the eldest or the youngest were found to provide support and attempted to stem parents’ loneliness. Being a caring or nurturing person was also identified as a cause.

2: Distortions of the psychological boundaries between parents and daughters

Six sub-themes of the parent-daughter relationship patterns emerged, in which the psychological and hierarchical boundary between parent and child was violated:

Parentification: As children, all of the participants bore the burden of supporting their parents both practically and emotionally. They provided support, comfort, nurturance, care, and relief for parents, family members, and even themselves. A participant remarked:

I was always very attentive to my mother, she could collapse, fall apart, get into bouts of hysteria with crying and shouting, anger, and sadness. I had to make sure she was stable.

Adultification: Children were also “pressured” to behave like adults before they were ready in order to fulfill their parents’ needs for friendship, companionship, and connection. The women recalled their parents not allowing play or imaginary games, and having to forgo participation in school trips, youth groups, and social events.

Triangulation: All participants reported being pulled into their parents’ relationship in order to keep the family unit from falling apart. They assumed the role of mediator, spouse, and confidant to one parent.

Psychological control: The majority of the women said they were manipulated by one or both parents. They experienced covert control in the form of favoritism over their siblings (which emotionally fused them to their parents), inducement of shame and guilt, being told they were incapable, weak, and ill, and the withdrawal of love if their needs weren’t met. Overt control involved aggression, punitiveness, and physical and sexual abuse, which drew them into an aggressor-victim dynamic with their parent.

Neglect and abandonment: The participants described “passive” neglectful behaviors, rejection, and being denied love. This treatment made them feel like the bottom could drop out, and they could suddenly be abandoned or orphaned. A participant shared:

She was a terribly fragile, disappearing parent. Like, no intimacy, no emotional world. My mother went out of her room at seven in the evening, made us an omelet and salad, and went back to her room.

Merging and enmeshment: Participants felt that their “self” was coopted by their parents from early on. This led to feelings of alienation, nonexistence, confusion, and problems with understanding themselves as separate individuals. One woman in the study recounted: “It’s simple, the inner experience was not mine. I did not exist from age zero, totally, there was nothing.”

3: “Like stepping on glass”: The emotional experience of the relationship

This theme broke down into five sub-themes, which captured the emotional experience of parentification:

Fear and threat: In the absence of safety and grounding, all of the women lived in survival mode. They were hypervigilant about their own safety and that of their family. A participant recalled:

It’s an experience of survival. All the time, you’re surviving, you are alert. All the time. All the time. You can never rest for one moment because you don’t know what will happen the next moment.

Endless intrusion and aggression: Given the lack of boundaries and seizing of psychological control, participants felt that their world was an aggressive one in which their parents “plundered and swallowed” them. They described the parentified relationship as intrusive, attacking, and devastatingly painful.

Nothingness and nullification: A sense of absence and worthlessness was also salient in the interviews. On the more extreme end, the women expressed feeling “dehumanized,” that they were nothing more than an object, and their “self” had been obliterated. They used words like “vessel”, “container,” and “lump of flesh,” which existed in service of their parents' needs when describing their experience.

Extreme emotional swings; a dialectical movement between poles of the self: The participants described swinging between presence and existence at one pole, and invisible and disappearing at the other. Remarkably, the narratives contained over 600 uses of the phrases “on the one hand [...] and on the other.” As one participant put things: “I felt brilliant and mature and interesting and at the same time worthless.”

Anchors of salvation, meaning, and hope: While the participants’ experiences with parentification were dark, they also reported feelings of kindness, competency, and affirmation of their value and support of their parents and family. This helped to bear the burden of parentification: “I felt that I was a source of good, a source of good influence, a source of calm, a source of logic and stability.”

4. “Being my own parent”: Strategies for dealing with the experience

This theme refers to the four main strategies the participants used to cope with the pain of parentification:

Maintaining a balance of horror—emotional vigilance, merging, and splitting the self: All of the women shared what it took to survive the existential threat of parentification, and balance their own needs with that of their parents. They also referenced their singular ability to keep their family from slipping into catastrophe.

The formation of the self as an object used by the self: The women felt that they were “their own parents,” both practically and emotionally. They made up for their parents' shortfalls by providing themselves with comfort, guidance, and assurance. A participant reflected: “I grew up alone mentally, psychologically, and emotionally.”

Achieving separation. Despite the pressures to merge with their parents, the participants managed to separate and form their own identities in their youth—which helped to cope with parental control and enmeshment. They often relied on anger and rebellion to achieve this: “As a teenager, I was endlessly involved in risky situations. I socialized with all sorts of dubious people, even an offender for a time”

Correction and compensation in the context of various relationships: All of the women tried to establish a family unit that embodied “normality and hope”. For example, they tried to establish family routines and relationships with their parents that were more “normal”. They also gave their parents ample opportunities to try and be parents but were often left disappointed.

Some participants managed to find support and nurturance from other adults in their lives, such as grandparents, family friends, educators, and therapists. One participant recalled: “My dad contacted a social worker, and I had a few sessions with her, and I talked to the school counselor, and my grandmother. They helped me get through this period.”

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