Ms. Meyers was parentified as a kid when her mom used her as a therapist. As an adult, she grieved the childhood that was taken from her.
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, there's a good chance that you were parentified. As a result, you may struggle now 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, deal with your pain, and prevent prolonged suffering. You now have the green light 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 12
Samantha, now in her early forties, was parentified when she was 12. At that time, her mom suspected her dad of having an affair with a coworker and the marriage started to unravel. Samantha and her mom would take hour-long walks every afternoon during which her mom would confide in her daughter: sharing her worries about the affair, criticizing her husband, and talking about divorce. Samantha was flattered that her mother was trusting her, a kid, with these adult matters. Little did she suspect that these interactions would have a long-term negative impact on her life.
It wasn't until Samantha became a parent herself that she realized how wrong her mother had been to burden her with these grownup issues. By using her daughter as a personal therapist, Samantha's mom did irreparable harm. Most significantly, she turned her daughter against her dad and made her wary of all men.
After years of listening to her mother complain about her father, Samantha grew cynical of marriage. She was jaded about ever meeting a guy whom she could truly love and trust. While attending therapy as an adult, she came to appreciate how inappropriate the relationship with her mother had been. She realized how she'd been used and how her childhood had been stolen. She also discovered what her mom had done wasn't uncommon and it had a name: parentification.
Dads and moms who parentify often don't realize that they're doing something detrimental to their child. Samantha's mother was going through a midlife crisis when she turned to her daughter for comfort and support. She was unfulfilled at her job and lonely in her marriage. When she discovered that people at her husband's office were gossiping about him having an affair with a much younger subordinate, she was upset and humiliated. It tapped into her deepest insecurities, causing her to think and act irrationally.
Instead of seeing a therapist or talking to an adult friend, she turned to Samantha in her time of need. This proved to be a critical mistake. Samantha grew up focused on her distressed parent instead of herself. As a result, she became a woman who had no idea who she was. She didn't know what she liked to do, had no idea what her dreams were, and had no concept of self-care. Her lack of identity led to struggles with depression, isolation, and anger.
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.
In 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
It's not unusual for a parentified child to become a depressed grownup. Samantha battled extreme sadness most of her adult life, taking antidepressants to numb the pain and going to therapy to get at the root of her heartache. Her life transformed when an astute therapist gave her an aha moment, explaining that she had been parentified as a youngster and was suffering because of it. Until that time, she had never heard of parentification. Having a name for what she experienced as a kid made her feel much better.
During the six years as her mother's emotional caretaker, Samantha had a tremendous burden put on her little shoulders even though she didn't realize it at the time. She dealt with adult issues that she didn't understand: marital infidelity, a midlife crisis, jealousy, insecurity, and rage. She worried that her parents would divorce. She worried that they would sell their home, and she'd be forced to move away from the neighborhood she loved. She worried about her family's financial future. She worried about her younger siblings. Most significantly, she worried about her mother's emotional stability and became preoccupied with trying to make her feel better.
Samantha's decades-long battle with depression finally ended when she mourned the loss of her happy, carefree childhood. Kati Morton, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says this grieving process is key to healing. She says those who were parentified need to recognize what happened to them and that it wasn't okay. They need to acknowledge the pain it caused them but not let it develop into long term suffering.
Read More From Wehavekids
With her therapist's encouragement, Samantha started to nurture the little girl inside of her who didn't get the love and attention she had craved as a child. She began to enjoy some of the fun and frivolous activities she had wanted to do as a kid but was never given the chance. She went to a circus, roller-skated in the park, visited Disneyland, and even had a sleepover with some friends.
A parentified child can also grow up to be a lonely and isolated adult. During her teen years, Samantha had desperately needed a parent to give her advice and listen to her concerns about friends, dating, school, teachers, homework, hair, and makeup. Her mother, though, couldn't see beyond her own problems to help her.
Samantha's father, knowing that she was now her mother's confidant, largely avoided her even though they lived under the same roof. She spent many hours alone in her room, feeling sad and scared. Instead of experiencing the normal adventures of a teen—going to football games, hanging out with friends, and joining clubs and teams—she stayed close to home, feeling responsible for her mother's emotional well-being.
It's unsurprising that some therapists consider parentification to be a form of child neglect. Because the youngster misses out on basic childhood activities, their development can be seriously impeded. This was certainly true in Samantha's case as she didn't have the opportunity to enjoy the fun and frivolous activities that shape a teen's life. Her role as her mother's confidant and emotional caretaker set her apart from her peers so she had few friends and little social life.
According to Maggie Olivares, a social worker who's worked 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, Samantha resents her mother for using her as a therapist. It turned out that her father was never having an affair and it was all in her mom's head, triggered by her deep insecurity. When her parents grew closer again after years of being distant, Samantha's mom no longer needed her. Samantha's relationship with her father had been annihilated years earlier so she was left with nobody.
Fortunately, Samantha forgave her mother, moved on with her life, got married, and started a family. Today, though, she struggles to trust people because she fears being used. She sees having friendships as depleting rather than energizing. While her mother has apologized for speaking negatively about her dad, she has never owned up to parentifying her daughter.
In this video, therapist Kati Morton describes how an adult can heal and move on from being a parentified child.
If you were parentified and missed out on a carefree childhood as a result, it's easy to spend your adult life feeling sad and resentful. In Bad Childhood, Good Life, the author encourages readers to understand how their personal histories affect their current lives as a means to move forward. However, she warns them against clinging to victimhood and making it their identities.
The pain from being parentified should not become prolonged suffering. Those who were impacted are now in charge of their own destinies. They can feel empowered and hopeful, building happy and purposeful existences even though they missed out on a lot during childhood.
Were you a parentified child?
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
Question: 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.
Answer: 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!
Question: 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?
Answer: 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.
Question: I still live with my mother who parentified me, and still does. I am not sure what to do! Do you have any advice?
Answer: 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!
Question: While growing up, my father used me as his best friend and thought we were the same person. As a result, I can never just act and express myself how I want. I feel like I need other people's consent before I show any emotion. Can you tell me what I can do to be able to be in charge of my own life and emotions, and not to feel like I can't show emotions in order that other people won't then go and use me?
Answer: You're in a good place, knowing that you stuff emotions because of parentification. During your childhood, you played a role for the benefit of your dad. In being his best friend, you took care of his needs but ignored your own. Your thoughts, feelings, and opinions became secondary to his. Yet, like most kids in such a situation, you kept it up because it garnered his love, attention, and approval. You didn't know of its negative impact until you became an adult.
Through the years, though, you lost sight of yourself. Therefore, it's understandable that it's hard to express your emotions today. You worry that people will disapprove of you, disagree with you, and use you. Clamming up feels safer.
The writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, said: “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.” Once you get in touch with who you are, you'll be more confident and less concerned about the reactions of others. You'll feel capable of handling situations as they come instead of worrying about them in advance.
Getting in touch with our feelings and becoming comfortable expressing them takes practice. I have a journal that's dedicated exclusively for jotting down my emotions. I also pause throughout the day and ask myself: How are you feeling? Doing this has helped me tremendously in taking better care of myself (something that those of us who were parentified often struggle to do). Working with a therapist is also beneficial for those who need help connecting with their inner world after years of being disconnected from it.
One of my favorite quotes on being true to yourself is from Dr. Seuss: “Be who you are and say what you feel because those that mind don't matter and those that matter don't mind.” The people who love us won't be scared off when we reveal our feelings. They'll love us even more and appreciate our vulnerability. Those that don't care about us might use our feelings against us. Yet, when we're confident in ourselves, we know that we'll get through it.
Question: How can I blame my mum for parentifying me when she had schizophrenia?
Answer: There's absolutely no point in blaming your schizophrenic mother for parentifying you. As you well know, schizophrenia is a severe mental illness and many of those struggling with it can't take care of themselves let alone their children. It's unfortunate that another adult, who saw the burden you were under, didn't step in to rescue you. You probably feel anger and resentment over that, which is quite understandable. I'm so sorry you missed out on a happy, carefree childhood, and I hope you can bring fun into your life now.
The purpose of my article is not for those of us who were parentified children to place blame. Rather, I hope to shine a light on the issue and its long-term negative effects. I suffered from anxiety and depression for many years, attending therapy and taking anti-depressants but never getting to the core of my sadness. It wasn't until I started reading about parentification that I finally understood why I felt so isolated.
Like many of us who were parentified, I became an adult who was emotionally-stunted and numb. Because we didn't experience many of the things other kids do—goofing off with friends, being on sports teams, going to summer camp, having sleepovers, and going to school dances—we may struggle to connect with our peers. I duplicated the relationship I had with my mother throughout my adult life, always finding friends, neighbors, and co-workers who wanted me to be their counselor and confidant. I listened to them and attended to their needs but neglected my own.
My emotional development got stalled at the point when my mother began parentifying me during my early teens. When I realized this, I got motivated to cultivate reciprocal relationships instead of those that were one-sided. I finally began to experience friendships as fun, supportive, and energizing, not just draining.
Growing up with a schizophrenic mother, you missed out on a lot of parental love, support, and guidance. I hope you are open, trusting, and vulnerable now and reach out for comfort and camaraderie from others. I hope you take good care of yourself and not just care-take others. I hope you enjoy some of the fun and lighthearted experiences you missed as a kid and not feel so burdened. If you're struggling, please see a therapist to help you.
Question: My husband's ex-wife is doing it to their ten-year-old daughter? Talking really badly and lying about my husband. How to handle this?
Answer: I'm so sorry this is happening to your stepdaughter. Sadly, these cases of kids being stuck between divorced moms and dads, subjected to their adult issues, are far too common. It can make kids feel depressed and over-burdened and can cause them to be cynical about their future romantic lives and marriages. The moms and dads who are parentifying their children don't appreciate the long-term damage they're inflicting.
If he hasn't already, your husband should talk to his ex-wife about this in a non-accusatory way. Otherwise, she'll just get defensive and shut him down. He can say that they both need to be committed to their daughter's well-being so she can focus on being a kid. He can suggest they make a pact not to bad-mouth each other to their daughter. He can even (very lightly) suggest she see a counselor, so she has a professional to discuss these matters with, not a child.
If he's already done this or it's not possible because she's too difficult, he might want to consult a lawyer and see what can be done from a legal standpoint. I suggest you start documenting the days, times, and what was said, so you have specifics to show. Perhaps, a change in custody is warranted.
Hopefully, your husband spends a lot of time with his daughter, and she sees what a good guy he truly is. Nothing is more powerful than that. You should continue acting as his loving and supportive wife because I'm sure this is very painful for him.
Question: Do you think discussing this issue with my mother who parentified me is a good idea?
Answer: 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.”
Question: 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?
Answer: 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!
Question: My mother has been parentifying me since I was a kid. She still does. I used to think we had a special bond, but now I can't help resenting her. She has always lowered my self-esteem and made me feel at fault if I didn't want to take care of her. She has always vented about her own insecurities and never listened to mine. Today I'm depressed and lonely with no social life and resentment against her. What do I do?
Answer: If the suggestions in the article aren't helping, I recommend you start therapy. You've already identified the issue—being parentified—so you can find a professional who has experience with that, jump right in, and not be delayed by superfluous issues. The therapist can give you advice on how to maneuver the relationship with your mother, whether it's through minimizing contact or by developing strategies to finally end the role-reversal. You've dealt with this your entire life and know nothing else so it's little wonder you're struggling and could use professional guidance.
Some psychologists see parentification as a form of child abuse and, because of my own decades-long struggle with it, I've come to share that belief. It's a tremendously difficult thing to overcome. I've found peace, though, through acceptance. I accepted that my mother enjoyed the parentified relationship we had, but I no longer did. I accepted that I'll never have a warm, loving, and supportive mother. I accepted that minimizing contact with my mom was the only way that I could be a good wife, attentive parent, and an emotionally well-adjusted human being.
I also accepted that there was a part of me that didn't want to give up the role as my mother's wise counselor and trusted advisor. I had played that part for so long and felt a loss of identity and purpose when I surrendered it. My mom didn't know how to have a relationship beyond that dynamic. She didn't know how to be maternal with me or grandmotherly with my kids. Therefore, it was inevitable that we'd be at odds and need to separate.
A good therapist can help you cultivate reciprocal relationships. You, however, need to put in the hard work of changing the way you interact with the world, becoming more vulnerable and learning to trust. Once you begin making changes, finding your voice, and seizing control of your life, you'll feel less lonely and depressed.
The spiritual teacher, Iyanla Vanzant, said something that I found useful to me as a parentified child: “There is no greater battle in life than the battle between the parts of you that want to be healed and the parts of you that are comfortable and content remaining broken.”
As parentified children, we know how to be sad and isolated because we've done it our entire lives. That's why we could use a helping hand to become something different. Take care!
Question: I want my mother to acknowledge that she parentified me and apologize. How do I go about this?
Answer: Don't fall into the trap of thinking that an apology from your mother has magical powers and will miraculously make you feel better. Let me assure you from my own experience, it won't. In fact, when my mother finally recognized that she had parentified me and said sorry, it made me feel worse.
When I was in my 30's, my mother and I were on a car trip, listening to a psychologist's radio show. A caller phoned in and discussed being parentified by her mother. After listening to the call, my mother turned to me and apologized for using me as her therapist during my teen years when she and my dad were having marital problems.
Since she never admits to any wrongdoing and never apologizes, it was nothing short of a miracle. Yet, it left me feeling dissatisfied as if my experiences as a parentified child were being trivialized by her. Because she didn't acknowledge the long-term impact of the parentification and the depth of hurt it caused me, her words seemed empty. I had longed for that moment and was left thinking: Is that all there is?
Moreover, an apology from a parent means nothing unless they've changed their behavior. If I were to allow it, there's no doubt in my mind that my mom would still be parentifying me today. After all, she created that dynamic between us for her benefit. She groomed me to be the child who would listen to her problems, provide support, and give counsel. As long as I played that role, I was rewarded with her time, attention, and praise. When, as an adult, I made a conscious decision to stop doing it, I was no longer of use to her and got replaced with my brother.
Don't think for one minute that you need an apology from your mother as some sort of validation that you were parentified. Don't turn over that power to your mom. You know what happened to you and that's all that matters.
If she were to say “I'm sorry,” it wouldn't change a thing. You'd still have to move forward with your life and nurture yourself in ways that your mom never did. Bishop T.D. Jakes says: “Be what you are missing to yourself.” You didn't get the mothering you needed as a child so be kind, loving, and patient with yourself now.
Question: Can you go into more detail about how the parentified child loses both parents?
Answer: The parentified child can be triangulated into the relationship between husband and wife, losing both parents in the process. In the majority of cases, it's the mother who parentifies either her daughter or son, making that child her confidant, her ally, and her emotional support system. She typically does this during a trying time in her life: a rough patch in her marriage, menopause, the loss of her parent, or a frustrating stage in her career.
When a mother parentifies her child, the dynamic in her marriage changes. Her husband feels less important and less needed. His wife leans on the child for comfort, support, and guidance and not him. Left out of the picture, he begins to pull back from both of them.
This is precisely what happened to me when I was a preteen. My mother became convinced that my dad was having an affair and used me as her personal therapist: detailing her worries and insecurities, criticizing my father, and asking for my advice. This dynamic continued for six long years until I went to college.
In that time, the relationship between my dad and me dissolved. It was obvious to him that I had become my mother's ally and was being fed a regular diet of derogatory things about him. I lost a paternal figure because my father simply gave up trying to be a dad to me. I lost a maternal figure because my mom abandoned that role and let me mother her.
When parentified youngsters grow up and understand what was done to them, it's too late. They're left without a mom, a dad or, most tragically, both. That's why it's easy for them to feel alone and resentful, longing for the carefree childhood that they missed.
Question: What do you know about "instrumental parentification"? I was my parent's employee at their business from 10 to 24 years old of age. I feel eternal anger at them and lack of energy to do my own life.
Answer: While my personal situation involved emotional parentification (having been my mom’s personal therapist), I do know about instrumental parentification from listening to others who experienced it. We’ve all heard stories about child stars from TV and movies who grew up to struggle with serious drug and alcohol problems. Some seem to drop out and have no purpose. At first glance, we may assume it’s because they’re unhappy with no longer being rich and famous. In truth, though, many of them were victims of instrumental parentification like you were and are battling the ramifications of that.
These celebrity kids felt tremendous pressure at a young age to play an adult role and take care of their families financially. You may have felt the same burden as they did. Moreover, you and they had to sacrifice a carefree childhood: hanging out with friends, goofing off after school, and joining clubs and sports teams with your peers. As a result, you missed out on the normal and natural social life that kids need to develop into happy, productive adults. This leads to a resentment of your parents that’s well justified but doesn’t serve you well.
Your lack of energy may be caused by depression. You may need to grieve the happy-go-lucky childhood that you missed and appreciate that you can’t get it back. By practicing acceptance, you can let go of the anguish and move forward. You may also need to forgive your parents so you stop dwelling on the past. One of my favorite quotes about forgiveness has become a mantra of mine, bringing me peace and comfort: “Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different.”
Working with a therapist could be just what you need to jump-start your life. You should also give yourself the joyful moments that you missed out on as a kid. It helped me to develop an inner voice that’s maternal and nurturing because I never heard that as a child. Throughout the day, I say things such as: “You’ve worked hard enough. It’s time to have fun now and go rollerskating.” The notion of self-care was never part of my life while growing up, but it’s key to my happiness today. I wish you well.
Question: How do you cope with an abusive parent who has parentified their child and still does in her later age? I've made it apparent many times, but every time it's brought up and talked about, she brushes it away and turns the conversation towards herself and her needs. She refuses to get therapy and calls it something for crazy people. What should I do?
Answer: You can't change anyone but yourself. If you went to therapy, you could learn to accept your mother as she is, realize she's never going to change, and discover effective ways to minimize contact. It sounds like you've been in this dysfunctional relationship for so long that you don't know how to extract yourself, but a professional can help. However, you've got to be motivated to do the work, take a hard look at yourself, and be willing to see things in a fresh way. What you're doing now is making you miserable so why not try something new?
Talking with your mother about this is a waste of breath. In fact, she probably loves the attention, the drama, and the attention on her. When she's abusive or starts to parentify you, leave the situation or end the phone call. Do this each and every time without fail. Eventually, if she truly wants to spend time with you, she'll stop the behavior. If she doesn't, you'll know that your presence doesn't mean much to her.
Our only power comes from changing ourselves. Yet, change is scary. The spiritual writer, Iyanla Vanzant, sums it up perfectly with these words: “There is no greater battle in life than the battle between the parts of you that want to be helped and the parts of you that are comfortable and content remaining broken.”
Question: What do you call an adult that is still being parentified by her mother and being used as a confidant and therapist while she's badmouthing the stepdad?
Answer: I'm not one for labeling people. I'd much rather focus on the unhealthy behavior, figure out why it's continuing, and work to end it. Any adult child who's still allowing themselves to be parentified when they're aware that it's happening, must ask: “What's in it for me? How am I benefiting from this? Do I really want it to end?”
When faced with these tough questions, a person may feel defensive at first. Their immediate reaction may be: Of course, I want it to stop. I hate being parentified. I want my parent to nurture, guide, and support me, not the other way around.
However, as someone who was parentified for years, I now know that I allowed it to go on long after realizing how unhealthy it was. I let it continue as a teen because I was flattered that my mother, a grownup, was seeking advice from me, a kid. It made me feel important, needed, and mature.
As a young adult, I let it continue because it was all I ever knew. It felt familiar and safe. I also understood that my mother had created this parentified relationship between us because she wanted it. I knew deep-down that if I ended it, our relationship would be over to a huge extent. At that time in my life, I didn't want to risk losing that bond.
The parentification can only continue if you permit it. If you choose to stop it, your mom will probably distance herself from you. She'll probably find someone else to use as her therapist. You must be prepared for these outcomes.
Question: I was parentified and realize now I did the same to my son from age 10 until 25 when he left. How do I fix things with him? How do I prevent doing it with the 4 younger children (10 - 4)?
Answer: Call your son and explain what you've learned about parentification. Tell him that you now realize that you were parentified as a child and did the same to him. Ask for his forgiveness. Most importantly, don't fall back into that safe and familiar role reversal ever again. From now on, be a mother to him and provide the unconditional love and support that every child craves from a parent.
Over twenty years ago, my mother and I were listening to a radio call-in show when the host, a psychologist, took a call about parentification. It sounded all-too-familiar to my mom, and she immediately turned to me and apologized for using me as her marriage therapist when I was a teen. While I was impressed that she recognized what she had done and expressed remorse, her behavior never changed.
She continued to use me as her therapist (telling me about the problems with her boyfriends since my dad was now dead). With a husband and kids of my own, I had no other choice but to distance myself from her. I needed to focus on my family and not be overwhelmed with her never-ending drama.
In telling you this, I'm making the point that an apology means very little unless it's backed up by actions. Changing how you see your role as a parent will be extremely difficult because it's deeply ingrained. Albert Einstein famously said: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Taking parenting classes. talking with a therapist, and building a support system of friends would be extremely beneficial to helping you see mothering in a whole new light.
Your ultimate goal is to become a “transitional character” and put an end to this dysfunction that has been passed from one generation to the next. I don't know if you can repair the relationship with your adult son, but you can certainly avoid repeating the same mistake with your younger kids. You may want to read my article entitled: “How to End Family Dysfunction by Being a Transitional Character.”
© 2018 McKenna Meyers