Parentified during childhood. What does the term “Parentified” mean? Being parentified means being forced or put into the position of a parent by your caregiver even though you are a child. The child is usually expected to act as a parent to their own caregiver. Being parentified can occur when a caregiver raises their child’s position in the family to that of another parent. The child may be expected to behave in ways that a parent would or to provide emotional support to their parent, and this can alter the entire dynamic within the family. Instead of the parent taking care of the child, the child takes care of the parent and / or their other siblings if they have any. The child is not able to simply be a child and now has adult responsibilities of caretaking. This form of parentification negatively impacts the child’s development and perception because the child is no longer allowed to behave in ways appropriate for their age or actual level of development. Successful parentified children skip developmental milestones. As an adult, these missing emotional skills become evident.
Development and Parentification
Being parentified during childhood can be a form of trauma for some. This is because a parentified child might have to give up the things that they need to healthily develop, both mentally and emotionally, in order to fulfill this role and support their caregiver or family. In order to accomplish this, the child may have to grow up faster and be exposed to situations that they are not ready for. A young child physically and emotionally taking care of their parent would be different compared to an adult taking care of their parent. The adult likely has established a higher level of emotional development, stability, resources, and coping skills to be able to take care of their parent. On the other hand, the young child will not be as developmentally prepared to take care of an adult. There could also be a difference in level of parentification. For example, a teenager might be in charge of packing lunch for their younger siblings. While the teenager is responsible for their siblings in this area, they are older and are likely to be able to handle those tasks. The teenager might describe their childhood as traumatic if they are always the one who needs to take care of their siblings and assume the role of the parent, thus being unable to experience being a child themselves. The impact it has on the individual is often what differentiates trauma from a general experience.
Everyone experiences trauma differently, including how severely it impacts individuals. What one person considers traumatic might not be experienced as traumatic by someone else. However, someone who was parentified during childhood could grow up with trauma resulting from needing to take over as provider in their family or assume the role of a parent. Because their development was impacted, they might not have matured in a typical way compared to their peers. Whereas their peers might have been able to gradually mature, in some ways the parentified child might have been too mature for their age. To contrast that, in other aspects the parentified child might be more immature compared to their peers. This is because they were unable to grow according to a typical or standard developmental timeline. If this parentification started early in an individual’s life, the impact of it will often be worse than if it had started later in their childhood.
As a child ages, there are multiple stages of development that they will need to go through. With these stages may be certain obstacles and concepts that the child needs to overcome and learn. For example, a child may need to learn concepts such as how to share attention, how to communicate their needs, how to regulate their own emotions, how to build confidence in their own abilities, and how to increase their openness to safely try new things. Guidance from parents, opportunities to engage with peers, freedom to learn on their own, and space to explore their identity can be important for developing, learning, and progressing through stages of development. Someone parentified during childhood may not have that guidance, be able to interact with peers, nor be able to focus on themselves when needed. They might not have the time to consider who they are, nor surround themselves with people and experiences they can learn from. Not having that could hinder the child’s development and become a disadvantage as the child grows up.
An Example of Parentification in Action
Imagine a child who has one healthy parent and another parent with an illness, such as cancer. Whereas the parent who is ill might have been able to take care of their child and other obligations prior, they might not be able to complete the same duties that they used to be able to. The parent may not be able to fulfill their responsibilities in the same capacity as before. The roles and responsibilities within the family would then need to adjust in order to accommodate for this. A child in this family may sometimes have to participate in taking care of their ill parent or taking care of the household to make up for what the parent can no longer do. The child may need to make meals for themselves, their parents, or their younger siblings if they have any. This could especially be the case if the other parent has to work more hours to make up for a loss of income and cannot stay at home. The child might take up more chores in order to maintain the household because both parents currently cannot. This child and their siblings might have to monitor their parent, or support their parent throughout their illness and the treatment process. The child may become an individual that both parents confide in about their experience. Sometimes parentification is unavoidable and makes sense due to the situation that the family is going through, however being parentified during childhood can still impact the child.
Issues Arising From Parentification
In the situation described above, the child could have felt that it was their responsibility to be there for their sick parent and to support the family where they could. In doing so, they could miss out on spending time with friends, finding their own interests, indulging in hobbies, and figuring out who they are as an individual. They might even end up having to neglect their academics or withdraw from extracurricular activities in order to make time for their new responsibilities. The child may have so much pressure on them due to being in this parentified position and may begin to impose that pressure on themselves. Another response that the child might have is resentment over having to give up what they wanted in order to take on these responsibilities.
Over time, as the parentified child, they may experience guilt, anxiety, depression, and extreme worry, to identify a few of the effects. The child might worry excessively about their ill parent, their family, and what they feel they need to do. Along with the resentment over missing out on experiences, the child could feel guilt for having that anger and frustration towards their family. That guilt could potentially contribute to developing depression. In terms of what might happen long term, an individual who was parentified during childhood might have an increased risk of developing a mental health or substance use disorder. In addition to that, parentification could impact how the individual navigates relationships and problems as an adult. An individual may become codependent, have trust issues, have unhealthy relationships, or feel responsible for other people’s emotions.
This example was very specific, however it is not the only example of parentification. There are many situations and circumstances that could cause a child to become parentified within their family, especially when the roles and responsibilities of each family member undergo changes. The concern is when those new roles overrun the child’s life and how deeply the child is affected by that. Other examples may include:
A child taking over household responsibilities after the death of a parent
A child being the person their parent goes to for emotional support and comfort
A child taking care of their family because their parent has a substance abuse issue
A child working and paying bills in order to support the family financially
A child being expected to counsel their parents or step in during their parents' arguments and disagreements
If any of what was covered throughout this tip is resonating with you or is something you feel you have experienced, you might be wondering what to do now. Because the effects of parentification can follow an individual into adulthood and make it harder to live life compared to those who were not parentified, it can be daunting to start the process of undoing this. If upon reading this and reflecting on your own experience, you find yourself relating to the issues parentified children go through as adults, it is possible to get help. Talk therapy can be beneficial for beginning to address your childhood and the effect it might be having on you currently. It can be difficult to come to terms with the knowledge that you went through this and that there is a name for it. Being parentified during childhood may have impacted your beliefs, the way you view yourself, the way you perceive others, and the way you move through the world. However, you do not have to go through this alone. Through counseling, a therapist can work with you to discuss acknowledging your emotions about this, processing trauma, and healing from your experience in a safe, open, and welcoming environment. If you would like to start addressing these issues and begin your therapeutic journey, you can schedule a session with one of our therapists
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Parentified during childhood:
Being "parentified" during childhood refers to a situation in which a child is forced to take on adult responsibilities and roles within their family, such as caretaking for their parents or siblings. This can happen for a variety of reasons, such as a parent's mental health issues, substance abuse, or absence due to work or other obligations.
Children who are parentified may have difficulty developing a sense of self and may have difficulty forming healthy relationships as adults. They may also struggle with boundaries, as they may have been taught that their needs and wants are not important. They may also struggle with feelings of guilt and responsibility for the well-being of their family.
Being parentified during childhood can have long-term negative effects on mental health, including low self-esteem, difficulty trusting others, and a tendency to put the needs of others before their own. It's important for individuals who were parentified during childhood to seek therapy to process their experiences, learn to set healthy boundaries, and build self-esteem.
Therapy can also help individuals understand that they are not responsible for the problems of their parents or siblings, and that they deserve to have their own needs met. It can also help individuals learn how to form healthy relationships and become more self-aware. It's important to find a therapist who is experienced in working with individuals who have been parentified during childhood.
Therapy for parentified children:
Parentification is a phenomenon in which a child is given adult responsibilities and roles within their family, such as caring for siblings or serving as a confidant for a parent. Therapy for parentified children typically focuses on helping the child understand and process their experiences, as well as building healthy boundaries and communication skills. Treatment may include individual therapy, family therapy, and/or support groups. It may also involve addressing any related mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. The aim is to help the child learn how to take care of themselves and their own needs while also learning to communicate their needs and boundaries to their family members.