What Is Parentification?

a naked baby doll dropped in the grass
Image by Mike G / CC BY

It’s funny. When I talk to other adults who were abused as children, many of us have encountered a similar phenomenon.

People who find out about our past telling us, “I never would have guessed. You seem so put together. So mature. Like a person with your shit together.”

When someone would say something like that to me, I used to stop and wonder Really? What do you expect someone who was abused as a child will be like?

Because there really don’t seem to be any universal characteristics to the adult survivors of childhood abuse. A person isn’t completely defined by their trauma. It’s simply one part of their history, something that happened to them. Perhaps it’s something major, but it’s still only one part of who they are a person. And abuse itself covers a wide range of behaviors — abused children weren’t all subjected to the same exact stressors.

So it was initially curious to me that people would assume that they could spot formerly abused children as adults. That we’d look and act a certain way.

But by now, I’m pretty used to hearing stuff like that. So in the moment, I’ll just laugh and say something like, “Thanks, I guess.”

But it’s started to dawn on me that maybe a better response is, “Well, for some people, being really put together is a direct byproduct of being abused.”

When a Child Is Forced to Become Their Parent’s Parent

There’s a type of child abuse that isn’t often talked about but can be incredibly psychologically damaging called parentification.

Essentially parentification is a role reversal where a child is required to act as their parent’s own parent. This can be for a variety of reasons. Some people have parents who are too addicted to substances or mentally ill to care for themselves.

Parentification can also happen when parents inappropriately force their child to act as a confidant about issues that are damaging for them to be burdened with — for example, a parent complaining to their child about an unsatisfactory sex life with their other parent.

Not all cases of parentification become destructive. Some parentified children thrive as adults. However, many others suffer from anxiety and depression, feel resentment for their parents, and struggle in adult relationships, consistently choosing partners that are dependent on them that they have to act as caregivers to. They may also seek out friendships that are unhealthy and lack an ability to draw healthy boundaries with others, finding themselves repeatedly in a caretaking role.

Parentification becomes particularly damaging in situations where other forms of abuse and/or neglect are present. But even on its own, research has found that parentification can have profound emotional effects into adulthood as the role reversal involved disrupts the formation of secure attachment patterns.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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3 Comments

  1. I never knew this was even a thing but it makes so much sense now! I always just said oh I was like a third parent (absent useless father) but this really does make sense thank you so much for writing this.

  2. Totally agree! I had the issue of being sexually abused and some people claim that my life is so organized that they never would have guessed. Guess they expected me to be strung out on drugs and have a million baby daddies… nope! Not everyone ends up the same way from their trauma. My life is more together than I give myself credit for and I enjoy that.

  3. Thank you for this…the timing is impeccable. My own Parentification has affected my relationships for years. Only now am I becoming aware of the full extent but as they say, knowledge is power! đŸ˜‰

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