Did you have a lot of responsibility as a child?
Did you consistently make dinner for younger kids, babysit, clean the house, take care of a sick or compromised parent, or pick up siblings from school?
If you handled adult responsibilities like these as a child, this episode is for you. I am breaking down the causes of parentification, the long-term impact of child parentification, and the steps you can take to begin to heal.
Prefer the audio? Listen here.
What Does “Parentified Child” Mean?
In psychotherapy, child parentification is a role reversal where a child is placed in the role of taking responsibility for adults. They do adult jobs or tasks because the adult is not there or cannot do them.
If you want to defend your parents, you are not alone. I usually see resistance from my therapy clients around this. They feel bad because they believe their parents did the best they could. They say things like, “My mother had to work two jobs to put food on the table and could not be home often,” or, “My father was an alcoholic. It wasn’t his fault.”
None of this is about fault.
Instead, I want you to focus on what needs to happen for you to honestly honor your childhood experiences because when you do, your adult life is often happier and more satisfying. Your relationships can become more equitable, too.
What Circumstances Create a Parentified Child?
There are several reasons child parentification occurs.
You might have had a chronically ill or addicted parent. Or one that suffered from a mental health condition. Maybe you didn’t have other responsible adults in your life or were isolated from a healthy support network.
What is the Long-Term Impact of Child Parentification?
By the time some of my clients were seven or eight years old, they were cooking dinner, washing clothes, taking care of kids, and walking to school to pick up siblings.
When you are outwardly focused on others in this way, it is difficult to develop a clear sense of self.
Think about it: kids are typically self-absorbed. The nature of childhood is “me, the universe.” But this does not happen when you are parentified. Parentification forces you to consider other people’s needs above your own.
Ensuring everyone else is taken care of before you take care of yourself makes it hard to know who you are, what you need, or even what you want in life.
In trying to cope with the difficulty of parentification, studies also say you might be at greater risk of experiencing anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse disorders.
How Does Parentification Affect You in Adulthood?
If you think you were parentified as a child, see if any of these traits resonate with you:
You might be highly codependent. You focus on the needs, wants, and desires of others above yourself. You feel disconnected from knowing yourself because of your compulsion to care for or please others.
You might be an over-functioner. Do you often do more than your share or go above and beyond for others? If you over-function, you might attract under-functioners, and your compulsion to over-function might cause a normally functioning person to under-function.
I have seen this happen many times in my therapy practice. If you constantly tell people, “I’ve got it,” eventually they assume you do and stop offering to help. Over-functioners often don’t realize their need to over-function blocks help. Feeling resentful and wondering Why am I doing so much? Why isn’t anyone else helping me? is a sign of over-functioning.
Parentification can cause over-functioning. If, as a kid, you were told you needed to do something to keep your family afloat, of course, you did what was asked of you. You likely did not have a choice.
When this happens repeatedly, over-functioning becomes a default position. You simply think this is how you are. You might not realize fear is your motivation for over-functioning until you slow down and reflect on it.
You might take emotional responsibility for others. This also falls into the codependency category. If someone is upset, you feel compelled to fix it. Spending your childhood constantly worried about an unstable parent or adult is a huge burden for a child to carry, and is a burden you likely carried into adulthood.
But thinking you can control the emotions of others is an illusion, and feeling emotionally responsible for others requires a lot of bandwidth, time, and energy.
You might be the ultimate caregiver. In your relationships, do you take care of everyone? Do you think about what might make someone else happy more than others? Do you often check in to see if people are okay? Caregiving can show up in friendships and even work relationships.
How Can You Heal From Parentification?
If you experienced parentification and have not stopped to think about it, you may be carrying a heavy burden. Especially if you have not had an intervention or pattern interruption (like therapy or coming to a realization and consciously changing your behavior).
I invite you to take this opportunity to slow down and think about whether you had adult responsibilities as a child, without judgment. Many of my therapy clients minimize the impact of child parentification. They naturally come to their parent’s defense by saying, “My mother was ill” or, “My father was an alcoholic,” or, “They did better than their parents did.”
Again, we are not blaming anyone. But you cannot get better if you do not deal with what is true.
Your mother or father may have done the best they could and their best may have still fallen short. It is not either/or, it is both/and.
I simply want you to be healthier and happier. As an adult, you have the power to make changes you could not when you were a child living at home. Healing requires prioritizing you and your experience and what actually happened in your childhood.
Let’s move into four ways you can heal from child parentification.
1. Reparent Yourself
The first thing to do is reparent yourself. If you were parentified, you probably did not learn how to regulate your emotions, especially if you did not have a parent co-regulating with you.
Co-regulation is how we teach kids about their emotions. Ideally, they witness us managing, expressing, and putting words to emotions, and we help them do the same.
What does it mean to regulate your emotions? Instead of your emotions controlling you, you express, manage, and integrate your emotions by saying, “I am feeling sad” or “I am very angry.”
Reparenting yourself also means taking exquisite care of yourself. It cannot be about other people or work all the time. Trying to get two things done at once for efficiency’s sake is not self-care, either.
Self-care is resting when you are tired and sleeping enough at night. Self-care is, to the best of your ability, hydrating, fueling your body with healthy hoods, and moving your body daily. Caring for yourself the way you would a child you adore.
2. Take a Childhood Inventory
Taking an inventory of your childhood responsibilities can give you greater clarity and help you explore the truth of your experience. The guide (which you can download here) contains questions to help you identify whether the responsibility you had as a child was appropriate.
Being a parentified child sets you up for failure, and these types of failures can leave deep scars. The expectation you will behave like a grown adult as a child is unrealistic and incredibly unfair.
3. Get to Know Yourself
When you are parentified as a child, you learn to repress, ignore, or numb your feelings because the show must go on regardless.
To get to know yourself, become radically curious about who you actually are. Who is the core of you? Get dialed into your likes, dislikes, and how you feel about things.
If you are not sure where to start, download the guide for journal prompts you can answer to reconnect with yourself.
4. Have Fun
The last thought I have for you is to simply have fun. Be in dialogue with your inner child. What brought you joy as a kid? Was it swinging on swings? Swimming? Jumping on a trampoline? Whatever it was, try to bring some of this childhood joy into your adult life. It will do wonders for the child within you.
Fun is also something I feel we get robbed of, especially if we are parentified as children. If you are a workaholic or feel like you need to always be efficient with your time, I challenge you to list at least three things you are willing to do in the next week just for fun. Not because they are productive.
You Can Heal
Here’s the thing: as a grown-up, you are now in a position to heal this part of yourself. You can nurture the child within you who desperately needs you to. When we become psychologically healthy and sound, we become the good parents to ourselves most of us did not have. This is reparenting.
Again, this is not to diss your parents. All parents, even good parents, fail us in some ways. If you were parentified, this failure was major and affected your life deeply.
But codependency and over-functioning don’t have to be the rest of your life. You can decide, right now, to take the four steps above, treat yourself with kindness, and care about how you feel. You can get to know your preferences, desires, limits, and deal breakers. These are your boundaries, but they also make you uniquely you. It is important to know them because you are important.
To begin this healing journey, remember to download the guide for help with seeing the truth of your experience and reconnecting with yourself.
I hope this episode inspires you to take exquisite care of yourself and your inner child. Let me know if this resonated with you over on Instagram (@terricole) or in the comments below. Have an amazing week and as always, take care of you.