What is Parentification?

As part of the 2014 Ultimate Blog Challenge (UBC 2014) I have chosen to run with a theme for each week.  For the second week of the challenge I have chosen to talk about different aspects of my work as a drug and alcohol counsellor.   It is work about which I am passionate and driven to increase people’s capacity to access appropriate services when they are in need.  Bapp a single father and his five children were introduced two days ago and in the follow up post I wrote about some of the ways in which we were able to support Bapp and his children.

Bapp’s eldest daughter – aged 8 – showed signs of parentification so I thought I’d unpack what it means when a child is put in a position where they assume responsibilities beyond their years.

What Is Parentification?

Parentification is a role-reversal between child and parent.  It is a form of child abuse and typically is evident in many families where drug use or mental health issues are prevalent.

In families where all is well parents care for their children by meeting emotional, psychological and physical needs and they do this in many ways.  In the homes of drug-affected parents adequate care is of less importance to the adults than ‘the chase’ of where the next (drug) hit is coming from, how it will be paid for and the anticipation of the high.  Their focus is not on the family.

Parentified children often give up playing, making friends, school work, and/or sleep to better meet the needs of the family. The eldest child is most prone to becoming the surrogate parent which they can see as a huge honor to have such responsibility given to them.

Two types of Parentification

  1. Emotional:  Parents may talk to their children like they would their spouse where the child becomes the surrogate spouse (a child of the opposite sex to the parent) – also known as  ’emotional incest”.  The child is exposed to issues beyond their capability to either grasp or cognitively process.  In the course of these disclosures by their parents the child may experience vicarious trauma which often manifests as challenging behaviours away from the home.
  2. Physical:  As the name suggests this is about meeting the physical needs of the family.  Preparing lunches, helping with homework, getting younger ones into bed at night time and up in the morning for school; bathing, meal preparation (high risk of burns and electrical accidents) and feeding.  The child may hide alcohol, drugs and drug paraphernalia from  the parent in the hope of stopping the drinking/drugging; or they may hide the car keys to prevent their parent from driving.

The consequences for the child can take many paths in later years:

  1. Anger: Realising that they have sacrificed their childhood for their siblings and parents, the anger of grief and loss can take its toll in their relationships.
  2. Difficult Relationships:  Not being able to be a child in early years, in later years they may appear to revert to immature behaviours in adulthood, exploring those roles of which they were robbed.
  3. Perfectionism:  As a child they may have blamed themselves for the state of the family dysfunction, believing that if they had done a better job or tried harder things could have been better.  They become enmeshed in the perfectionist’s trap of untenable expectations of self and others:  nothing is ever good enough.
  4. Control issues:  Their security and sense of wellbeing is tied up in their ability to control theory physical and emotional environment.  They can feel insecure when they are not in the know about every aspect of their lives or environment.

As a community drug and alcohol worker my experience of parentified children has been in the homes of those affected by drug/alcohol use and mental health.  I am aware that there are other circumstances in which children are asked to step into responsibilities beyond their age-appropriate capabilities.  Parentification is another form of child abuse and as a mandatory reporter it is something that requires urgent attention as soon as it becomes apparent in any home I am working in.

Have you ever experienced children in similar circumstances to those described int his post?


One thought on “What is Parentification?

  1. I have seen it in families where one parent works ‘away’. It is often picked up too late. I think the oldest girl or only girl sometime put themselves into this role a lot more readily even in normal families.


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