The Parentified Child: How to Become a Well-Adjusted Adult When You Missed Out on Being a Carefree Kid

Updated on June 9, 2020
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Ms. Meyers was parentified as a kid when her mom used her as a therapist. As an adult, she grieved the childhood that was stolen from her.

When an adult realizes that they were parentified and missed out on a carefree childhood, they may become sad or angry.
When an adult realizes that they were parentified and missed out on a carefree childhood, they may become sad or angry. | Source

Were You a Parentified Child?

  • When you were a youngster, did your mom or dad turn to you for comfort and advice when they were struggling with problems at work, in their marriage, or with finances?
  • Did you share a special bond with one of your parents, acting as their confidant, caretaker, and emotional support system?
  • Did you forgo hanging out with friends, joining teams and clubs, and just being a regular kid because you were busy attending to that parent?
  • Do you now feel resentful because you missed out on a happy, carefree childhood?

If responding yes to these questions, you were parentified. As a result, you may struggle in adulthood with depression, isolation, and anger. Don't give up hope, though, because recognizing the root of your problem gives you an opportunity to grieve your lost childhood and move on from the pain. You can now set out to experience the boundless joy that you missed as a kid.

What Does Parentified Mean?

Parentification occurs when a child is forced to switch roles with their mom or dad, taking on the job of caretaker in the relationship. They may do this in an emotional way: listening to the parent's problems, giving them comfort, and offering advice. They may also do it in a physical way: cleaning the house, taking care of siblings, making meals, and even paying bills. Youngsters often become parentified when their mom or dad is an alcoholic, a drug user, disabled, divorced, or mentally ill.

Parentified at the Age of 12

My parents' marriage started to unravel when I was 12. At that time, my mother suspected my father was having an affair with a co-worker. She and I would take hour-long walks every afternoon when she'd confide in me her worries, criticize my dad, and talk divorce. I was flattered that she was trusting me, a kid, with these grownup matters. Little did I know that this would would have a long-term negative impact on my life.

It wasn't until I became a mother myself that I realized how horribly wrong it had been of my mother to burden me with these adult issues. By using me as her in-house therapist, she turned me against my father and made me wary of men in general. I grew cynical of marriage and less hopeful about meeting a man whom I could love and trust. I finally understood that my mother had used me and robbed me of my childhood. I also learned that what she did wasn't uncommon and actually had a name: parentification.

It Can Result in Long-Term Problems

Dads and moms who parentify often don't realize that they're doing something detrimental to their child. My mother was going through a midlife crisis when she turned to me for comfort and support. She was unfulfilled at her job and lonely at home because my dad was working long hours and traveling for business. When she discovered that people at my dad's office were gossiping about him having an affair with a much younger subordinate, she was understandably upset and humiliated. It tapped into her deepest insecurities, causing her to think and act irrationally.

Instead of seeing a therapist or talking to a friend, she turned to me in her time of need. This proved to be a critical mistake, forever damaging the relationship between my father and me. Having focused on my mother instead of myself, I grew up to be a woman who had no idea who she was. I didn't know what I liked to do, had no idea of what my dreams were, and had no understanding about the concept of self-care. As a result, I struggled with depression, isolation, and anger like many parentified children do as adults.

Bethany Webster deals specifically with mother-daughter relationships in "When Shame Feels Mothering: the Tragedy of Parentified Daughters." She writes, "A daughter is being exploited when her mother gives her adult roles, such as surrogate spouse, best friend or therapist...When a daughter is asked to be an emotional prop for her mother, she is unable to rely on her mother enough to get her own developmental needs met." As a result, the daughter can grow up to be an emotionally stunted adult with little self-confidence.

n this video, therapist, Kati Morton, advises adults who were parentified to grieve their lost childhood and then do the fun activities that they missed as kids

The Parentified Child and Depression

It's not unusual for a parentified child to become a depressed grownup. I struggled with extreme sadness most of my adult life, taking anti-depressants to numb the pain and going to therapy to get at the root of my heartache. My life transformed when an astute doctor gave me an aha moment, explaining that I had been parentified as a youngster and was suffering because of it. Until that time, I had never heard of parentification. Having a name for what I experienced as a kid made me feel much better.

During the six years I acted as my mother's emotional caretaker, a tremendous burden was put on my shoulders even though I didn't realize it at the time. I dealt with adult issues that I didn't understand—marital infidelity, a midlife crisis, jealousy, insecurity, and rage. I worried my parents would divorce. I worried that we'd need to sell our home and move away from the neighborhood I loved. I worried about our financial outlook and how we'd cope without our dad. I worried how my younger siblings would be affected. I worried about my mother's emotional stability and how I could make her feel better.

My decades-long battle with depression finally ended when I mourned the loss of the happy, carefree childhood I never knew. Kati Morton, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says the grieving process is key to healing. She says it includes acknowledging that what happened to us was not okay coupled with the motivation to move forward.

I started to nurture the little girl inside of me who didn't get the love and attention she craved. I began to enjoy some of the fun and frivolous activities I wanted to do as a kid but was never given the chance. I went to a circus, roller-skated in the park, visited Disneyland, and even had a sleepover with some friends.

The Parentified Child and Isolation

A parentified child can also grow up to be a lonely and isolated adult. During my teen years, I desperately needed a parent to give me advice and listen to my concerns about friends, dating, school, teachers, homework, my hair, and my makeup. My mother, though, couldn't see beyond her own problems to help me.

My father, knowing that I was now my mother's confidant, largely avoided me even though we lived under the same roof. I spent too many hours alone in my room, feeling sad and scared. Instead of having the normal adventures of a teen—going to football games, hanging out with friends, and joining clubs and teams—I stayed close at home, feeling responsible for my mother's well-being.

For these reasons, some therapists even consider parentification a form of child neglect. Because the youngster misses out on basic childhood experiences, their development is seriously impeded. This was certainly true in my case as I didn't have the opportunity to enjoy the fun and frivolous activities that shape a teen's life. My role as my mother's confidant and emotional caretaker set me apart from my peers so I had few friends and little social life.

The Parentified Child and Anger

According to Maggie Olivares, a social worker who's dealt with many parentified kids, anger is another byproduct that comes from missing out on a carefree childhood. When they're adults, they look back on all the years when they had too much responsibility and too little fun and are resentful. They struggle to maintain a relationship with the mom or dad who parentified them and may even choose to end it.

To this day, I have tremendous anger toward my mother for using me as her marital therapist. It turned out that my father was never having an affair and it was all in my mom's head, triggered by her deep insecurity. When my dad and she grew closer again after years of being distant, she unceremoniously dumped me. I was no longer needed as her confidant and ally. My relationship with my father had been annihilated years before that so I was left with nobody.

Fortunately, I've forgiven my mother and moved on with my life, but I still find it difficult to trust people. In the back of my mind, I'm worried about being used again. I often see friendships as depleting rather than energizing. While my mother has apologized for talking badly to me about my dad, she certainly hasn't owned up to how she turned me into a parentified child and caused disastrous effects in my life.

In this video, therapist, Kati Morton, describes how an adult heals and moves on from being a parentified child.

Final Thoughts

If you were parentified like I was, missing out on a carefree childhood, it's easy to spend your adult life feeling sad and resentful. In Bad Childhood, Good Life, the author encourages us to understand how our past affects our present but discourages us from making it our identity. Just because we were parentified as kids doesn't mean we need to wear the badge of perpetual victim. We can put our early years in perspective and move forward, knowing we're now in charge of our destinies. We can feel empowered and hopeful, building a happy and meaningful adult life even though we missed out on a lot during childhood. We deserve it.

Were you a parentified child?

If so, how did you heal?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

  • My mother emotionally parentified me and my sisters from a young age (far earlier than 12). I have done a lot of healing but find it very hard to be around my mother still. Do you have any advice?

    Having been parentified by your mother, you understandably have resentment towards her. It sounds like she's never acknowledged the damage she did or apologized for her behavior. If it's pointless to discuss the matter with her, then you're left with a superficial relationship based on obligation and not much else.

    I'm not sure why you feel guilty. Guilt is a response to having done something wrong so it belongs to your mother, not you. Feeling guilty for the situation could indicate that you're still stuck in that role reversal pattern of parentification. You're still being the grownup one in the relationship, responsible for connecting with your mom and caring about her emotions.

    Most likely, you're not experiencing guilt but a deep and profound sadness for not having the kind of mother you wanted. When with your mom, you may feel angry about the way she treated you while growing up, robbing you of a carefree child. For these reasons, it's unpleasant to be with her. Limiting your time with her makes good sense. You need to have a healthy balance in your life and happy reciprocal relationships with other people.

    With my mother, I've developed a routine whereby I check in with her but don't get sucked up in all her drama. I call once a week, talk about 15 minutes, and then say I need to go. I listen to what she has to say but no longer take on that parent role, giving advice and worrying about her. I no longer get overwhelmed with anxiety, listening to all her problems like I did as a kid.

  • Do you have any advice, tips, books, or groups for helping overcome when the child becomes the parent? Specifically, I’m having trouble with romantic relationships and seeking emotionally unavailable men.

    It's not surprising that a parentified child would grow up and seek emotionally unavailable partners. That's your way to avoid attachment and prevent getting hurt. An emotionally available man—a good guy who met your needs and treated you well—would be unfamiliar and, thus, uncomfortable and even scary. An emotionally unavailable guy can't hurt you because he's closed off and distant, and the two of you aren't connected in any meaningful way. The superficiality of the relationship makes you feel safe but unsatisfied.

    As I wrote in my article, "Bad Childhood, Good Life" is the book I recommend for those of us who were parentified as children and are struggling with its aftermath. It's written by the radio personality and marriage and family therapist, Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Although I disagree with Dr. Laura on many issues, I respect her take on parentification. She calls it a form of child abuse-- a role reversal that forces youngsters to take on the burden of their parent's emotional and/or physical well-being instead of just being carefree kids. When these parentified youngsters grow up, Dr. Laura explains, they often recreate situations from their childhoods in an attempt to now fix them. You may be trying to flip an emotionally unavailable guy as an adult like you wanted to flip an emotionally unavailable parent as a child.

    What I like about "Bad Childhood, Good Life" is that it motivates us to make our lives happy in the here-and-now and not remain stuck in the past. We can't go back to our childhoods and fix things, but we can enjoy the present. We are now in control of our lives and the choices we make, so the blame-game with our parents has to stop. Reading the book made me see the destructive patterns in my life and finally put an end to them.

    One of these patterns was picking needy friends over and over again and then complaining about them. It turns out I was choosing women who reminded me of my mother. I became their therapist, giving them advice, comforting them, and focusing my attention on them. I became their parent just like I had with my mother. When I identified that pattern, I finally understood why I always felt so drained and depleted in female friendships and why I often avoided them. From that point on, I became determined to develop reciprocal relationships that were fun, carefree, and brought joy and lightness into my life.

    Many of us who were parentified as children attended to our mom and dad's emotional needs while they ignored our inner world. If that was your situation, I strongly recommend "The Emotionally Absent Mother: How to Heal the Invisible Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect" by Jasmin Lee Cori. If you're the daughter of an emotionally absent mother, this book will speak loudly to your experiences, and you'll no longer feel so alone. You'll come to understand yourself like you never have.

    To fully embrace life to the fullest, you need to move away from the emotionally unavailable men and develop something deeper and more mature. Once you figure out yourself, you'll have much more to offer. You'll be open to finding someone who wants a reciprocal relationship. Best to you!

  • I still live with my mother who parentified me, and still does. I am not sure what to do! Do you have any advice?

    I don't know your age, but you should be working on a plan to move away from your mother when you're able. As a parentified child, you need to develop your own identity far removed from the one your mother gave you as her confidant and caretaker. Some therapists even consider parentification a form of abuse because mom, dad, or both steal the youngster's childhood and re-purpose it for their benefit.

    You need time away from your mother and the responsibility you feel for her. You need to discover who you are and what you want from life. You need to develop strong, meaningful peer relationships. You've probably put those on the back-burner as you've looked after your mom. You may even find it hard to relate to people your own ago. Don't put this off for too long because it only gets harder and you'll feel more socially isolated.

    In the meantime, start to distance yourself from your mother and the parent role you've played. She will be extremely resistant to this change, may even get angry, and try to coax you back into the old, familiar routine that serves her. But stay strong, consistent, and don't waver like I so often did.

    I've been in a tug-of-war with my mom for decades because she wants me in the role of her therapist. Unfortunately, I've often been ambivalent about it, and my actions have been uneven. Sometimes I didn't want to play that role, but other times I did because it made me feel important and needed. When I didn't play it, I was of no use to my mother, and she'd ignore me, making me feel unloved and alone.

    Standing up to your mom now will be difficult but good practice for the rest of your life. Even when you're no longer living with her, she'll try to get you to return to the old role. You need to develop skills to stop that in its tracks. When my mom wants advice about her newest guy and the problems they're having, I'll say: “I'm sorry. I'm not qualified to comment on that. You'll need to talk to a therapist.” Not only is that good advice, but it also lets her know that we can't return to our therapist-patient pattern. I'm always up for a parent-child relationship, but I'm certainly not holding my breath!

  • Do you think discussing this issue with my mother who parentified me is a good idea?

    While communication is usually a good way to bring about healing and understanding, this is not always the case between mothers and daughters. Some moms (like my own) cannot take criticism of any kind (major or minor) about their parenting and will become defensive, angry, and may even go on the attack. Before you decide to bring this matter up with your mom, ask yourself: Does it have the potential to strengthen our relationship or just make it worse? Will it help me on my journey toward serenity or could it cause a setback?

    I had a discussion with my mother about parentification when we were listening to a call-in radio show together. The caller described how her mom had been in an unhappy marriage and had constantly badmouthed her dad when she was a girl. As a result, it forever damaged their father-daughter bond and burdened her with grownup issues. She had felt robbed of a carefree childhood.

    After hearing this call (which mirrored my situation growing up), my mother apologized to me. Her acknowledgment of what she had done, though, left me surprisingly empty. Her trivial “I'm sorry” didn't feel nearly enough for all the years of hurt she had caused me. It actually caused me to be depressed for quite some time.

    Therefore, if you do discuss this with your mom, I advise you to keep your expectations low. If you go into it detached from any outcome, I think it has the potential to help, especially if your mom is open and provides insight into her behavior. Dr. Robin Smith says “Adulthood is to finish the unfinished business of childhood.”

  • Realizing I was emotionally parentified as a child, can you comment on the effect this would have on addictions as an adult? Specifically food and alcohol?

    Realizing you were parentified as a child can help you uncover the psychological and emotional origins of your addictions to food and alcohol. With that newfound understanding, you have a better chance of putting those substances in their place and no longer relying on them to sooth your anguish. You see that diets, exercise, and willpower are not enough when inner pain from childhood is causing you so much distress.

    Once I understood the negative impact parentification had on me, I was finally able to lose weight after decades of trying and failing. Today, I'm no longer consumed with thoughts of food like I once was. I'm now free to enjoy my life without that daily struggle.

    Realizing that I had been parentified at age 12 allowed me to feel compassion for the overwhelmed little girl I once was. That was the age when I started to overeat, using food to relieve my anxiety over my parents' troubled marriage. The day my mother began using me as her personal therapist was the day my carefree childhood stopped.

    Those of us who were parentified as youngsters need to find ways to nurture ourselves as adults. For me, this has taken the form of exercising, meditating, spending time in nature, writing in my journal, being playful, and, most significantly, embracing my feelings. While these activities don't provide quick fixes like food and alcohol, they've brought me a long-lasting tranquility that I so desperately needed. I like myself now and no longer engage in activities that are harmful to my well-being.

    You were given too much to carry when you were a kid. Over-eating and over-consuming alcohol are symptoms of that. Your parentification, though, shouldn't be a life sentence. As you move forward, I hope you'll find this quote useful: “Your diet is not only what you eat. It's what you watch, what you listen to, what you read, the people you hang around. Be mindful of the things you put into your body emotionally, spiritually, and physically.” Take care!

© 2018 McKenna Meyers


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      2 years ago

      You're always so supportive, Dora. Thanks. I think it's very easy for parents to fall into this trap when they don't realize how harmful it is. Hope this helps.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      2 years ago from The Caribbean

      Happy for you that you handled the problem effectively. Hope parents who do this wrong to their children will learn from your experience. Thank you.


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