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Parentification: When Parents and Children Switch Roles

When Melanie was 17 years old, she was a straight-A student. She received a National Merit Scholarship, and her SAT scores had college recruiters from all over the nation knocking on her door. She wanted to go into mathematical research and travel the world. She had a full-ride scholarship to the Ivy League school of her dreams.

Melanie also worked 25 hours a week to supplement her mom’s work with a temp agency so they could cover expenses. Her dad had left their family over a decade before.

In fact, Melanie tended to be attracted to grown-up men around her dad’s age. Guys her own age seemed immature. Dating older guys made double dating with her mom much easier. “Someone had to look out for her,” Melanie joked.

They liked to compare dates, and Melanie was her mom’s sounding board, there to listen to whatever dating drama her mom was facing and to offer advice that her mom never followed.

Melanie didn’t want to leave her mom alone and ended up going to school locally to work as a middle school teacher.

That is one example of what parentification looks like.

Parentified Children Often Seem Highly Responsible

Parentification is a type of role reversal, boundary distortion, and inverted hierarchy between parents and other family members in which adolescents assume developmentally inappropriate levels of responsibility in the family, according to a mental health therapist and researcher in a Family Journal article.

It’s not unusual for a teen to clean the bathroom, hold down a job, or occasionally watch out for younger siblings. When these tasks teach a teen new skills or to shoulder responsibility or give them encouragement, a teen can grow because their parents are the ones who bear final responsibility for the well-being of the family. When the teen is responsible for the parent’s well-being or the well-being of younger children, however, that’s role reversal.

What’s the difference between parentification and teaching responsibility?

There are two types of parentification: instrumental and emotional.

With instrumental parentification, the teen takes on responsibilities that usually fall within a parental role, such as paying bills, cooking meals, and taking care of young children. This can happen in situations where one or both parents can’t fulfill all of those needs, like in Melanie’s case where her dad disappeared, and her mom struggled to make ends meet.

Divorce, loss of a parent, disability, and other life situations can lead to teens taking on more adult responsibilities. When family members provide emotional support to each other during those times, the positives of adding such responsibilities could outweigh the negative effects.

Emotional parentification, when the teen fulfills emotional and/or psychological needs for the parent, can be a lot harder on a teen, as highlighted in Columba University research on the developmental implications of parentification. The parentified child could be expected to serve as a confidante or to provide crisis intervention if a parent is experiencing psychological distress.

How can you tell if there is parentification or you just have a responsible teen?

If you’re trying to determine if parentification is happening in your home, it helps to take a close look at your teen.

“The biggest challenge is that sometimes you have to dig to find parentification because it can be hidden in really positive working behaviors,” said Alex Hamilton, clinical director of Embark Behavioral Health’s Lake House Academy. “A lot of parentification can be masked in perfectionism and overcompensation, so a lot of what they’re doing is perceived as positive.”

“The big point that I stress is that we need to acknowledge that there are gains and losses to parentification. It’s really important for us to notice that, yeah, this may look great,” Hamilton continued, “but teens are missing out on nurturing developmental moments that help them have positive relationships in adulthood. A nurturing moment can be as simple as providing a favorite snack and bringing it to your teen all the way to providing hygiene guidance and products. Anything that consistently provides emotional and physical safety can be seen as nurturing.”

Hamilton added, “There are some teens who are really going to have those moments where it feels like neglect or too much pressure, and that can result in symptoms of depression or self-destructive actions. There might also be other teens who overcompensate for parentification, which can result in perfectionist tendencies.”

Teens can overcompensate by forming relationships where they don’t have to expose themselves emotionally.

Teens that face pressure from parentification are more likely to show strain through:

How Can You Avoid Parentification?

To keep parentification from creeping in, Hamilton recommended parents understand and adhere to what is developmentally appropriate for their child. Parents must remain in the role of caregivers. To that end, she said, they should establish and follow boundaries based in physical and emotional safety.

“Physical safety leans heavily on meeting basic needs like food, shelter, and health as well as practicing safe touch, such as a handshake, pat on the back, or hug with a trusted person,” Hamilton said. “Emotional safety can be defined as the ability to feel unconditional acceptance from the parent, paired with the ability to share feelings appropriately and freely ask questions.”

Hamilton said physical and emotional safety guides household boundaries. Examples of such boundaries are keeping a clean and safe house and using respectful and appropriate language and positive communication, which includes being aware of the tone you’re using as well as avoiding profanity, putting others down, blaming, and oversharing.

It’s important to keep in mind that boundaries are for the entire family.

“If the boundary is to have respectful language, that should be abided by everyone,” Hamilton said. “If that doesn’t happen, then repair work such as apologizing needs to be done.”

How Do You Restore Balance to Your Parent-Child Relationship When You’ve Let Parentification Creep In?

When it comes to addressing parentification, Hamilton has recommended that parents of teens attending Lake House Academy for the school year seek out their own therapy, including a parenting support group. Such groups can provide needed empathy and help parents strategize about how to address challenges they’re facing.

“It’s really an opportunity for the parent to work on their individual self, and work on that with other parents who are experiencing the same thing,” Hamilton said.

“Being part of a parent support group and having that connection of ‘I had a really hard home visit too, let’s talk about it as parents … ‘ Having that peer support is really helpful in those moments where parents can empathize with one another.”

Therapy also gives parents the opportunity to grieve their own childhoods and fit back into the role of the parent.

“I think it’s the therapist’s duty to create moments of co-regulation, or moments to facilitate role reversal,” Hamilton said.

She explained that co-regulation is consistently providing commitment to, acceptance of, and security for your child. It involves putting empathy into action and understanding what the child needs. “It’s the experience of healthy intimacy between the caregiver and child,” Hamilton said.

In a parentification situation, the therapist can help create moments and assignments where the parent is taking on the role of the parent so it becomes rewired in their brain, and it becomes natural.

“Those moments can look as simple as having the parent cook the meal and just having the child there. Or at bedtime, you can rub your child’s back,” Hamilton said. “A 14-year-old may not want you to sit and rub their back or brush their hair, but it can be really nurturing. Having some of those assignments can also help developmentally, and eventually, they become organic and helpful — and it doesn’t feel awkward. Creating and cultivating these homework assignments in therapy is where it starts.”

Re-Creating Balance With Your Own Children

If things aren’t quite right in your family with parent-child roles and what your children experience, there are ways to fix it. Besides working with your own therapist, work together in family therapy too. Your teen may also benefit from counseling.

If there are mental health or behavioral issues surrounding parentification or child development, there are resources to help you find answers. Consider speaking with a mental health professional so your whole family can heal.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.