Recently I read a social worker’s report indicating that a psychologist believed a parent and child were in a “reverse parenting” relationship. I have observed that situation occasionally in contested custody and child protection cases. What is it?
“Reverse parenting” or “parentification” is when the normal parent-child roles are reversed. The parent looks to the child for nurture, protection and affirmation, and the child, either consciously or unconsciously, sacrifices his or her needs to provide for the needs of the parent. This can occur within otherwise healthy families not involved in family or juvenile court proceedings.
There are two types of parentification:
• Emotional parentification: This type of parentification forces the child to meet the emotional needs of their parent and usually other siblings also. This kind of parentification is the most destructive. It robs the child of his/her childhood and sets him/her up to have a series of dysfunctions that will incapacitate him/her in life. In this role, the child is put into the practically impossible role of meeting the emotional and psychological needs of the parent. The child becomes the parent’s confidant. This can especially happen when a woman is not having her emotional needs met by her husband. She can gravitate towards trying to get these needs met from her son. It is as if the son becomes emotionally her surrogate husband. What child does not want to please their parent? An innocent child, is exploited by the parent and it creates a form of emotional and psychological abuse. This type of relationship can be the equivalent of emotional incest. Parentified children have to suppress their own needs. This comes at the expense of having normal development and causing a lack of a healthy emotional bond. These children will have difficulties having normal adult relationships in their future.
• Instrumental parentification: When a child takes up the role of physical or instrumental needs of the family. The child relieves the anxiety experienced normally by a parent that is not functioning correctly. The child may take care of the younger children, cook, etc. and by this essentially taking over many or all the physical responsibilities of the parent. This is not the same as a child learning responsibility through assigned chores and tasks. The difference is that the parent robs the child of his childhood by forcing him/her to be an adult caregiver with little or no opportunity to just be a kid. The child is made to feel as a surrogate parent over the siblings and parent.
The parentified child may experience unusual anger and feeling of loss of childhood because of emotional exploitation. The parentified adult child may experience difficulty in adult relationships, having deficits in not knowing how to attach and have healthy, undistorted relationships.
Some of you may have experienced role reversal with a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Suddenly or gradually you, as an adult child, were thrust into the role of caring for a parent who is unable to care for herself, forgetting to eat or take medication, refusal to bathe, or losing the ability to complete normal hygienic tasks. This is not “parentification” but rather a necessary function of the aging process and caring for one’s loved ones.
“Parentified” children do more than normal babysitting. They often cook meals and feed younger siblings, clean the house, and may even try to protect their parent from an abusive spouse or significant other. What motivates the child?
Fear of abandonment and a desire to keep the family together is a strong motivator, according to Dr. Allan Schwartz, a licensed clinical social worker. It may occur because the primary parent is a single parent because of death or divorce. These are the types of families who adultify their children, according to Dr. Schwartz:
• The parent uses the child as a confidante, sharing but burdening the child with the parent’s sexual or financial problems.
• The parent is incapable of attending to their responsibilities due to drug or alcohol addiction.
What can we as a community do? Be vigilant and be aware to prevent this from happening within your extended family circle or neighborhood. Children need to be assured that they will be cared for and not abandoned. There are many resources in your community if you were a parentified child. Contact your county public health agency.
— Wright County District Court Judge Steve Halsey is chambered in Buffalo. He also maintains a blog at www.minnesotafamilylawissues.blogspot.com.