As a child, were you responsible for cleaning the house? Cooking for your siblings? Taking care of an adult because they were unable to care for themselves?

Did the adults in your life expect emotional support from you? Did you mediate between family members?

If so, you may have Parentified Child Syndrome.

In this episode, I am breaking down the two types of child parentification, why it happens, symptoms you may have experienced, and steps to take to begin healing.

Prefer the audio? Listen here.

Instrumental + Emotional Parentification

There are two types of child parentification: instrumental and emotional.

Instrumental parentification is where you take on physical practices like caretaking, cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, making appointments, or paying bills.

Emotional parentification is where you are expected to provide emotional support to the adults in your life. You may have been a therapist, mediator, confidant, or best friend to a parental impactor, none of which are appropriate roles for children.

Kids are supposed to be carefree. Child parentification puts the weight of adult problems on child shoulders, and it’s often traumatic because kids are not equipped to handle these responsibilities.

What Causes Child Parentification?

There are many reasons child parentification occurs.

Perhaps an adult in the family was compromised because of substance abuse or physical or mental disabilities.

Maybe only one parent was present, and they didn’t have the right resources or support.

If our parental impactors were also parentified, they may have emulated what they experienced growing up because it was all they knew.

An ill sibling needing constant care may also cause another sibling to assume a parental role.

Regardless of the reason, child parentification can lead to a chronic state of stress, and it can be helpful to honor your experience, which we will get into below.

Symptoms of Child Parentification Syndrome + Lasting Impact In Adulthood

A parentified teenager may show the following symptoms:

Anxiety might manifest in the form of stomach aches or migraines, almost as a way to opt out of all the responsibilities they aren’t equipped to handle.

The impact of child parentification can last well into adulthood. For example, studies show your hippocampus shrinks when you experience a huge amount of stress in childhood.¹ (This part of the brain regulates memory, emotion, and stress management.)

As adults, parentified children also have difficulty with trust because growing up, they could not trust the people they were supposed to be able to trust the most: their parents.

Other lasting impacts of child parentification include hypervigilance, disordered boundaries, substance abuse disorders, and difficulty creating and finding healthy relationships.

Being taught to over-function at an early age can also lead to high-functioning codependency, but I have also seen it go the other way in my therapy practice, where parentified children feel so overwhelmed they have difficulty functioning independently.

Honoring Your Experiences

If any of this has resonated with you, it is important to honor your childhood experiences rather than minimize them.

I’ve heard many of my therapy clients say other people had it worse. And maybe they did, but that does not negate what you experienced.

I gently invite you to prioritize yourself by being honest about what you went through.

Empower yourself by looking at how your childhood experiences gave you superpowers as an adult.

One of my students recently shared that acting as her mother’s therapist at age 15 made her a good listener and intuitive problem solver. Her compassion for others then led her to become a therapist and intuitive coach.

In the guide, you will find a couple of questions to help you identify whether your superpowers are related to what you experienced in childhood.

(Note: I am not suggesting you bypass what happened to you in childhood. Simply it can be helpful to examine our past experiences because they inform who we become as adults.)

How to Begin Healing From Child Parentification

If you have experienced child parentification, I have a few ideas on how you can begin healing.

If you are an over-functioner, ask yourself: where are you saying yes when you could say no? Where are you doing things for others they can and should do themselves? Start creating bandwidth for healing by stepping back from things that are not your responsibility.

Physically prioritize yourself by moving, sleeping, hydrating, and eating well (to the best of your ability). I love jumping on my trampoline and lifting weights, but maybe yoga or meditation is your thing.

For more tips on healing child parentification, as well as different types of therapies to try, download the guide here.

I hope this episode provided value for you. Let me know over on Instagram (@terricole) or in the comments: did you experience parentification as a child? In what ways? Have you begun to heal?

I hope you have the most amazing week and as always, take care of you.

¹https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/mental-health/parentification/

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  1. As the oldest of 4 with a single dad that had his own struggles, I have so many examples.
    I have begun to heal, including reading your book, listening to your podcast, following on social media, but while I understand boundaries and similar concepts logically, I still struggle. I struggle with trusting people, being vulnerable, understanding my emotions, communicating my needs, setting limits, and setting too many limits/ rigid boundaries. I’ve always felt like I’ve had to rely on myself, while also caring for others, and each disappointment, betrayal, etc. seems to reinforce that.
    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I got both a BSW and MSW. I no longer with clients in direct service, but your note about a student that became a therapist was very relatable. I have always been the caretaker and trying not to be for once. It is difficult as a very empathetic person and I struggle to not take on the suffering of the world. However, so much of the understanding and progress I’ve made is because of your work. I tell people about you every chance I get and that your book was life changing. Thank you so much!

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