When the Child Becomes the Parent: How Being Parentifed Damages a Kid and Causes Life-Long Problems
How I Became Parentified at the Age of 12
My parents' marriage started to fall apart when I was 12. My mother suspected my father was having an affair with a woman at work. She and I would take hour-long walks every afternoon when she'd confide in me her worries, criticize my father, and even talk divorce. I'd listen intently, flattered she was trusting me with these grownup matters and offering what advice I could. Even though I was just a kid with little experience in relationships, she'd compliment my wisdom, saying I would make an excellent psychologist some day.
As a kid, I didn't think too much about this dynamic between my mother and me that lasted until I went off to college. I was just happy to spend time with her and be her confidant. It wasn't until I became a mother myself that I realized how horribly wrong it was to burden me with these adult issues, turning me against my father and making me cynical about marriage. I began to understand how she used me and caused great harm to my psyche. I also learned that what she did wasn't that uncommon and actually has a name: parentification.
What Does It Mean to Be "Parentified?"
Parentification happens when a child switches roles with her mom, dad, or both, becoming the caretaker in the relationship. She may become this in an emotional way—listening to the parent's problems, giving them comfort, and offering advice. She 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 mom or dad is an alcoholic, a drug user, disabled, divorced, or mentally ill.
Parentification Causes Long-Term Problems Including Depression, Isolation, and Anger
Dads and moms who parentify a child often don't realize they're doing something incredibly harmful. My mother was going through a midlife crisis at the time she turned to me for comfort and support. She was unhappy in her job and feeling lonely because my dad was working long hours and traveling for business. When people at my dad's office began gossiping about an affair between him and a much younger subordinate, she was understandably embarrassed and upset. It tapped into her deepest insecurities as a woman and wife and caused her to think and act irrationally at times.
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 and leading to severe problems later in my life. Like many youngsters who are parentifed, I suffered long-term consequences: depression, isolation, and anger.
It's not unusual for parentified kids to become depressed grownups. 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 moment, 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 we'd have 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 grieved the loss of the happy, carefree childhood I never knew. I started to nurture the little girl inside of me who didn't get the love and attention she craved. I started to enjoy some of the fun and frivolous activities I wanted to do as a kid but was never given the chance: going to a circus, roller-skating in the park, visiting Disneyland, and even having a sleepover with some of my friends.
Another detrimental effect of parentification is isolation. 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.
Some therapists even consider parentification a form of child neglect. Because the youngster misses out on basic childhood experiences, her development is seriously impeded. This was certainly true in my case. I didn't get 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. Because we didn't have shared experiences in common, we didn't have much to say to one another. I had few friends and no social life.
Adults Who Were Parentified Need to Grieve the Childhood They Never Had
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 become adults, they look back on all those years when they had too much responsibility and not enough fun and are resentful and bitter. 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 that way. 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 her 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 dad had been annihilated years before that, and I was left with nothing.
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 parentified me and caused disastrous effects in my life.
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 , 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 have 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. Bad Childhood, Good Life
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© 2018 McKenna Meyers