“We cannot tell what may happen to us in the strange medley of life. But we can decide what happens in us – how we can take it, what we do with it – and that is what really counts in the end. How to take the raw stuff of life and make it a thing of worth and beauty – that is the test of living.” Joseph Fort Newton
This week in the childhood trauma education series, I will tackle parentification. I discovered so much while researching this topic that explains a lot for me. Have you heard about this term? It is an invisible trauma.
What is Parentification?
Parentification is a role reversal between a parent and a child where the child take on more responsibilities than appropriate for their developmental stage. The child is assigned the role of an adult and “becomes adult too soon”. The phenomenon is very common in the world but often not talked about. The risk factors leading to a child being parentified are maternal sexual abuse, adult attachment issues, parental addiction, parental alcoholism, divorce, intrusive parenting style, poverty, sometimes being a child in an immigrant family immersed in a new culture, etc.
There are two types of parentification. The child can either be parentified emotionally or instrumentally or both.
Instrumental parentification: the child takes on functional responsibilities like shopping, cooking, cleaning, doing the dishes, paying the bills, etc. (logistics for running the household). When this happens only for a short period of time (e.g. a parent is sick), it can boost the child’s self esteem to have responsibilities, especially if their contribution is recognised by the parent.
Emotional parentification: the child becomes an emotional/psychological support and does crisis intervention for the parent. The parent might see the child as their confidante/best friend/friend and share worries and personal details of their lives with the child who is not equipped to handle such information. Of both types of parentification, this one has the most devastating effects in the life of the child. The child has to put away their needs and fulfil the emotional needs of the immature parents, this often happens when these parents did not have their emotional needs met in childhood and then feel safe using their child to this end.
In a family with several children, the eldest child or the most compassionate and vulnerable one is often chosen to be parentified. The longer the parentification period the greater the consequences for the child well into adulthood. The child often has to sacrifice their needs in order to take care of the needs of parents or siblings, missing out on the different childhood experiences that allows them to build their personality, feel safe and loved. The child even perceives their role as a means to develop closeness with their parent because for the child any connection with the parent is better than none.
My experience with parentification
I was raised by several people growing up, both inside and outside of my family. During my first few years spent with my great-grandmother, I had chores (get firewood, get drinking water from the community tap and carry it home, sometimes sell peanuts in the market) but they did not make me feel parentified because I had a lot of play time and my great-grandmother, despite her age, was a great caregiver. The situation changed when I was sent to live with a new caregiver in the city, during that time play was not allowed. My daily routine consisted of chores and homework and I was not allowed to speak when the adults were talking unless I was spoken to. My chores increased significantly when the wife of my caregiver suddenly passed away. I started cooking, cleaning and taking care of my younger sister, I also became quiet. I was focused on my tasks, protecting my sister, covering school work and avoiding beatings. The last caregiver I had before reuniting with my mother was an alcoholic who owned a bar in the compound we lived in in Kumba, Cameroon. She promised Mom she would take good care of us and once Mom was gone, she turned me into a mini house manager at 13. For the next three years, I cooked, cleaned, sold in the bar, managed her money, worked hard for school, and took care of my sister and other children this woman had in her care.
I envied my friends and felt shame for being in my situation. As a teenager living in a new country, Switzerland, I was the peacekeeper in my family, the cultural translator and the keeper of secrets. She is so “wise for her age”, she is an “old soul”, “she works really hard in school” were things commonly said about me and which is often said about the parentified child in general. I entered adulthood very tired as if I had lived a whole life already. I was/am still very duty-driven and often forget to have fun.
“The ax forgets, the tree remembers.”
Consequences of Parentification on the adult
Parentification in childhood has lasting effects on mental, physical and emotional health.
1. Identity development
The father of attachment theory John Bowlby says that “what cannot be communicated to the mother cannot be communicated to the self”. Indeed, the parentified child learns to put their needs last as a survival mechanism and lacks the psycho-social development that will make them a well-balanced adult. They tend to believe that their identity is tied to giving. They don’t know who they are because no one helped them construct their identity and they did not explore a whole range of emotions in their developmental years. They often don’t know what they like because they don’t know their needs or cannot identify how they feel.
2. Self-care and self-expression
The adult has a hard time taking care of themselves or having fun. They often don’t know what they like in terms of hobbies and feel guilt when they take time for themselves. They chase approval from others so they give too much, conform socially while denying their true nature. They don’t show how they think or feel for fear of being rejected by others and tend to adapt their expression of self to what they believe the others expect. They say no when they mean yes and yes when they mean no. They believe it is shameful to have needs and show them so they often make other people think they don’t need anything.
3. Low Self-esteem
The parentified child can become a high-achiever as a coping mechanism, thus defining their worth by something external to them- their many achievements. They look very responsible and functional from the outside but often suffer from low self esteem, anxiety or depression (they have the emotions of a child). They might suffer from imposter syndrome having internalised the negative voices of their caregivers. They tend to look outside of themselves for explanations and solutions to their problems because they did not learn to trust who they are. They might choose careers that they don’t really like because it is stable, secure and responsible, playing into what they already know. They often erect walls to protect themselves against vulnerability because of past hurt.
4. Emotional Regulation
People who experienced early parentification are at an increased risk for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance misuse and having problems in relationships. The parentified child learns not to express their needs given the reaction of the caregiver and then they learn not to feel their needs. The adult child’s emotional maturity is frozen at the time of they were parentified. To protect the image of the family to the outside world, the parentified child keeps the secret of what is happening in the home and is thus isolated. All this leads to the child totally disconnecting from self and even creating a false functional self that looks normal to the world. The adult often feels lost and has the impression that other people have their lives figured out and are happy except for them. So they get in this cycle where they think they will achieve happiness once they get that college degree, do that MBA to get that promotion, move away from their family chaos, etc.
5. Compulsive caregiving in relationships
The adult has a tendency for compulsive caregiving that they project in their adult relationships (romance, friendship, work). They have a heightened sense of responsibility and attempt to solve everyone’s problems. This can create anxiety especially at work if the adult cannot stand to hear about a problem without offering a solution. They might can take on too many responsibilities leading to burn out. The adult is more likely to end up in an abusive relationship (codependency) as they struggle with self-esteem and an ability to put self first. They also tend to develop intensely close relationships (need to be saved) or are distant. They can also enter one-sided friendships or relationships in which they give a lot and receive very little. They often feel the people close to them “don’t do enough” for them. They might feel resentful that others are not willing to do as much for them. But, they don’t trust other people can take care of their needs so they don’t give loved ones the space and opportunity to do so. They might also become tired and resentful of responsibility because they are running on empty as the book says. It is very difficult to stop projecting the parent role in relationships because that is what they know. Who are they if they are not looking after someone?
6. Delay in Trauma Awareness
This trauma is difficult to recognise because the parentified child and later adult is often very independent, hardworking, a high achiever, wise and very mature for their age. These qualities praised by society often make it difficult for the survivor to accept their trauma. They might think “I have a job I like, a family that loves me, why am I not happy?” or people might say “many people have achieved far less than you and they are happy”. It is hard for some people to re-examine their childhood without feeling like they are betraying their parents. Trauma specialists say that children who suffer from trauma spend their lifetime making amends for the perpetrator. It took me the longest time to admit to myself that I could have used more support growing up.
7. Shame and Guilt
The adult doesn’t know it is normal to have needs, that their needs matter as much as those of others. They are ashamed to have needs and are terrified for people to perceive them as needy. They take in other people’s emotions and easily feel guilty, beating themselves up for anything and everything. They also have shame around crying and being vulnerable.
“Change, like healing, takes time.” Veronica Roth
So what can we do?
Being conscious of parentification and the potential consequences is the very first step. To stop creating the chaos they so hated in childhood in their adult relations, they need to accept/realise they were traumatised in childhood. It is very difficult to escape the consequences as time goes by without healing. It is important to use language to describe the trauma, put words on what happened. It helps to go from blaming the child they were to feeling compassion for them.
2. Physical Health:
Stress worsens the effects of trauma, we cannot totally eliminate stress in our lives so we must manage it. Sleeping well, eating right and exercising is very important when it comes to stress reduction (for me this is definitely work in progress).
Therapy can help uncover the effects of parentification in one’s life and it can also be a safe space to practice being vulnerable. It is important to find a therapist who has dealt with their own trauma, done their own work and tried different approaches to heal. A therapist can bring their patient only as far as they have gone themselves. The patient has to get a sense the therapist is getting them and that they are not a generic client. I understood a lot about my own past and it is affecting my present life while researching this topic and writing this blogpost. If therapy is not possible the following steps can be helpful.
4. Practice self-care and self-love and play:
I will keep recommending mindfulness meditation. Give yourself permission to be free, to relax and take care of yourself, it is not selfish to do that. Practise taking care of yourself and showing yourself self-compassion a little bit everyday. Sing out loud, read out loud, dance for no reason, listen to music you love, connect with nature, etc.Take up a hobby, try new things, make mistakes (it doesn’t mean becoming reckless), practice being free and create opportunities that allow you not to be responsible.
5. Build meaningful relationships:
Most adult children are high empaths and can connect really well with others: build relationships with people you trust and get out of isolation. Let go of feeling responsible for everyone’s problems/feelings and caregiving tendencies. Practise showing up as your true self in relationships and letting go of control.
6. Identifying the inner child and doing reparenting work
Realise that the sanctuary you built around yourself was to protect your wounded inner child. Accept and comfort your isolated and hurt inner child who has been in hiding for so long but who shows up in your adult relationships. Honestly, I am only beginning the inner child work, I have been scared to look at her for so long. I will need to nurture little Miriam and show her the love and support she never had. While being motivated to move forward, it is important to grieve the carefree childhood we never had and accept that what we went through was not ok.
7. Learn to set boundaries
Boundaries were not learned in childhood and it might be anxiety-inducing to start setting them. It is important though to set healthy boundaries to avoid feeling overwhelmed and it is ok if you face resistance from loved ones at first. Also respecting other people’s boundaries is important.
Journal and observe your thoughts to discover triggers, stressors and patterns you can start addressing. Make and keep little promises to yourself (e.g. I will pause and take 5 deep breaths twice today) and making and keeping little promises to yourself everyday. Journaling can help you connect to our feelings.
9. Ask for help and accept it
Reach out to your loved ones when you need help and accept the help. This point is a real struggle for me.
“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” Buddha
We know best what we need to heal. It is important to work through the trauma, feel our feelings, reparent ourselves, surround ourselves with safe people, set necessary boundaries and take extra care of ourselves (sleep, meditation, breathwork, exercising, etc). Remember it is ok to have needs. It was not all bad, being parentified helped me become very structured, organised, empathetic and independent but it also made me feel too responsible, duty-driven, ashamed of myself, etc. I am trying to take care of myself and learning to let go and cultivate little moments of joy (little kids are great teachers for this). For some it might even feel like betraying or disrespecting parents to look at your upbringing but doing so objectively ca lead to self-discovery and gaining self-perspective. Once we do the work, our point of reference becomes ourselves and this liberates us. Parentification is a trauma that gets passed on through generations, as a mom I am grateful for the resources I am discovering. My wish is to hold space for my children to grow into themselves while continuing my own healing journey. It was challenging to write this blogpost but I am really happy I did.
Just like anyone else, we also have the right to take up space.