Tensions in the home can result in a kid taking care of family members long before they’re ready. Called “Parentification,” this role reversal makes kids feel like they have to hold their own family together.
A parent-child relationship can be difficult to balance, especially if your bond is close, but it’s important to establish boundaries. It’s most common in children of divorce, single-parent families, and among oldest siblings in charge of little ones, but “parentification” can happen any time a child’s physical or emotional needs aren’t met.
According to the Encyclopedia of Adolescence, as many as 1.4 million U.S. children between the ages of eight and 18 are “
“Inept parents produce highly anxious children — whether it’s substance abuse, emotional immaturity, or a lack of time and resources, adults who can’t properly care for their dependents often push them away,” Steele says. “These children, who under pressure, may try to leave home as soon as possible… or turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to self-soothe.”
Childhood is important — no kid should have to grow up too fast because they’re responsible for their siblings, or even their own parents. Though sometimes hard to spot, here are five warning signs your kid may feel as responsible for you as you are for them.
1. You’re Oversharing
As a child matures and gets closer to adulthood, it’s normal for parents to be more comfortable sharing their feelings and struggles. But as relieving as this may be for a parent, it puts too much pressure on kids, who likely don’t want to fail or disappoint anyone.
Dr. Lisa M. Hooper, professor at the University of Louisville, reminds readers in her article “Defining and Understanding Parentification” that “children shouldn’t be serving the intimate needs of a parent, or placed in the role of secret-keeper,” adding that consistent oversharing can cause significant anxiety for kids. Instead, parents should confide in trusted friends, adult family members, or a therapist — your child has enough on their plate.
2. Your Child is the Peacemaker
Especially in blended families (post-divorce or with added step-parents), kids can find themselves in the position of mediator between adults who aren’t communicating with each other. In the case of separation, a child may be the only remaining connection between parents, but that doesn’t mean they should have to transfer messages or soothe after arguments.
Dr. Gregory Jurkovich, professor at UC Davis, developed a questionnaire to identify
Prioritize your child’s mental health by addressing your partner or ex-partner directly, allowing kids and teens to develop a relationship with both parents, separately.
3. They’re the Caretaker
Older kids can be very helpful, even
Professor Linda Burton warns this kind of “childhood
4. You’re Losing Their Respect
Sometimes a child acting out or talking back can mean something else is going on. It might be hard for them to communicate this, but feeling trapped or burdened at home can often result in distrust and disrespect for authority. Parentification is a serious stressor, affecting kids in ways they may not know how to express or deal with.
Dr. Jurkovic warns although some children adapt well to parentification and mature in a positive way, most child development specialists agree the process is usually destructive to a family relationship. It’s hard to keep up appropriate boundaries with your child as they get older, and there’s not as many parenting books out there for young adults.
5. They’re Not Appreciated
According to Dr. Hooper, in many families, parentification “goes unnoticed, unrecognized, and unrewarded.” She emphasizes the importance of knowing the difference between destructive and constructive parentification.
“Temporary caring for a parent while she or he recovers from surgery” may lead to competency and pride, while long-term parentification can put
She notes destructive parentification can be identified by the “extent to which the child receives recognition and reward for engaging in caregiving.” If their efforts to support a parent or sibling are taken for
According to Dr. Hooper, researchers and child psychiatrists are unclear about what the “exact” right dose of adolescent caregiving is. Assisting with sibling care and gaining a parent’s trust can increase a child’s confidence, but responsibility can quickly turn to excessive pressure.
The best thing you can do is listen to your child, and remember that they are dependent on you. If you’re worried your kid is
Dr. Lisa M. Hooper
Professor Robert Steele
Fatherly.com: Parentification Quiz
Lisa M. Hooper: Defining and Understanding Parentification
BC Adoption: The Parentified Child
Washington Post: Your Child Is Not Your Confidant
Huff Post: Children Parenting Parents
Encyclopedia of Adolescence: Parentification Statistics
Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child by Dr. Gregory Jurkovic