Recognizing emotions after being parentified: Therapy in Philadelphia, Ocean City, Mechanicsville.
If you were parentified as a child, you might have been used to being parent-like during childhood and bearing major responsibilities atypical for your age. If you, for example, were very young but were fully responsible for looking after your younger siblings, meaning cooking, cleaning after them, changing their diapers, and bathing them, then you might have experienced parentification. As a child, your parents or caregivers confided in you and you were their main support. This included acting as a therapist, close friend, or even a parent to your own parents by consoling them or helping them deal with their emotions. When you reflect back on your childhood, how much space or time, despite your adult-like responsibilities, were you given to be a kid? Did it feel like you missed out on a large part of being a child? If you felt like you had to be so focused on everyone else in your life and rarely on yourself, that could be a sign that you did experience parentification and that it did impact you. Thinking about and reflecting on your life currently, you might notice that you tend to be the “parent” in your friend group even though you all are around the same age. You find it hard to control the urge to rescue your friends or family when they are struggling because you have always been the one to take care of them when they needed it in the past. You are used to it and doing so is both a comfort and a source of frustration. There are numerous examples and circumstances where parentification happens. Parentification can happen because of a parent’s mental illness, physical disability, or drug and alcohol addiction, to name a few potential examples. Other times, children might be parentified out of necessity because of the family’s circumstances. For example, they are part of a single parent household, finances are tight, they need to be an interpreter and translator for their parents, or have to take care of a chronically or terminally ill family member. Frequently, parentified children grew up in households where their parents had little choice in their circumstances and everyone had to pitch in. However, that does not excuse or erase your experience, nor how this has affected you, both short and long term. We can feel loyalty to our families and feel that something is wrong with us if we are unhappy with how we were treated or what we had to do. In circumstances where parents were neglectful or might have lacked the proper skills to parent a child, what happened was not your fault. You might have had to take up those tasks and assume the role as a way to survive and protect yourself. In doing so, you might have had to dismiss what you felt, which makes it harder to begin recognizing emotions after being parentified.
How Emotions and Parentification Interact
Regardless of why or how you became parentified, you are an adult now, so what do you do from here? First it is important to recognize your feelings. Recognizing emotions after being parentified can sometimes be overwhelming because there are so many emotions you might not realize you experience. For example you might be feeling anxiety when it comes to discussing your needs or wants, have anger that your siblings were treated differently than you were, experience sadness that you missed out on so many things, hold guilt for thinking that your parents should have done things differently and that you needed more from them, or feel shame that you are dealing with these issues now as an adult. This is just to name a few possible emotions as a result of being parentified in childhood. The feelings you are having are valid, and it could be beneficial to explore them, especially if you have not done so before. In order to begin healing from this, it can be helpful to start becoming familiar with your emotions so that you are able to identify those emotions as they come in and allow yourself to feel them.
Recognizing emotions after being parentified can be particularly challenging. As a child you might never have had the luxury to explore the full range of emotions and to safely do so with the support of your parents. Thus, as an adult, it can be hard to identify what you as a child ignored and/or were taught to numb out. You had to take care of your parents’ and siblings’ emotions and pay attention to what they were feeling. Reflecting on your childhood as an adult, you were in a role where you had to take on that responsibility and were rarely able to express or even think about your own emotions. Frequently, parentified children’s feelings were dismissed, so it should be of no surprise that you are now unable to or struggle to identify what you are feeling. You may have been called selfish by your family if you tried to bring up what you were feeling or that you did not want to have as many responsibilities as you did. Not paying attention to your feelings as a child is also a mechanism to protect yourself from uncomfortable feelings: loneliness, sadness, anger, frustration, abandonment, resentment, feeling unloved. Feeling or expressing any of those might have become associated with being considered selfish, and that made you more uncomfortable. In order to avoid that, as a child and teenager you frequently talked yourself out of those emotions, told yourself that you should not feel them, or actively tried to avoid them. You might also have dismissed even the natural desire to play indulge, and to follow one's own heart when you were a child because it felt like you were not allowed to.
A common avoidance strategy is to distract yourself from or to ignore the uncomfortable feelings. This is likely something that started in childhood and you notice you do now as an adult. For example, you might tell yourself to think about something else, you might scroll on social media, or you might watch videos online to avoid an uncomfortable emotion coming up. Using distraction is a common technique to avoid feeling emotions that we think are too difficult or do not want to feel at all. As a parentified child you needed to numb or mute your feelings otherwise you might have resented your responsibilities and your family, often leading to feelings of guilt and further denying your own needs. Instead, letting go of your childhood needs made it easier to cope with the reality of your situation. As a child this was a coping mechanism that you used to manage the responsibilities that you had and to protect yourself from feeling worse. However, you are not in that same position anymore, and now you can try to feel those emotions.
A First Step
A first step to feeling your full range of emotions is to increase your awareness of when you are experiencing a feeling. To do so, refer to the feelings wheel below. Utilizing this can make it easier to pinpoint the various emotions that you might be experiencing. You can begin with emotions that are easiest for you to identify when you feel them. You can also try going to the outer level of the wheel which has more descriptive feeling words if you want to be more specific.
Next pay attention to physical cues in your body. By increasing awareness of the way our bodies feel, we can use that to identify which sensations we experience when we feel a specific emotion. Below are common physical cues for different emotions that someone who was parentified might experience. In addition to that, are some typical behaviors individuals might take part in as a response to those emotions. You can keep this in mind as you begin to identify your emotions. However, as you begin to do this, remember that it is often difficult to begin recognizing emotions after being parentified, so having patience with yourself is important.
Anger in the body could feel like
Overheating, especially feeling heat or going red in the face
Behavioral Responses could be:
Yelling/Shouting at others
An urge to punch/hit/cause damage
Sadness in the body could feel like
Crying or being tearful
Heaviness in the chest
Behavioral Responses could be:
An urge to stay in bed
Isolating self or withdrawing from others
Over or under sleeping
Shame in the body might appear as
Behavioral Responses could be:
Excessive or misplaced thoughts where you blame yourself
Leaving, or an urge to immediately exit the situation causing shame
Hiding or making yourself seem smaller by hunching into yourself, keeping your head down, speaking less frequently
After reviewing the wheel of different emotions and the typical physical symptoms associated with emotions, you can check in with yourself throughout the day to identify where on the wheel you might be. In addition to this, exploring what behaviors you use, or urges you experience, when you feel these emotions can help you with identifying how these impact you. Considering what happened throughout each day and what your body is telling you, you can be able to identify how often you feel symptoms of those emotions. Looking at an emotion wheel might help you more accurately name what emotion you are experiencing, especially because there are options that help you get more specific. You might ask yourself: What is my mood at this current moment? What am I noticing myself doing or wanting to do? After that you might be able to work backwards and remember what happened prior to experiencing that feeling. You can try doing this in your head or use a journal to write down your findings. Over time, you should begin to increase your awareness of what physical symptoms in your body are related to which emotions. In addition to that, you will realize which situations bring up certain emotions. That self-reflection will be beneficial in your journey of recognizing emotions after being parentified.
Getting Used to Experiencing Emotions With a Therapist
It can be daunting to start to feel your childhood feelings, especially now that you are out of sync with your peer group. Feeling your emotions is an important part of healing and is also a brave step to take. Recognizing and giving room for all your feelings will not always be easy and it will be an adjustment. However, it could also provide clarity and be an opportunity for you to grow and heal from what you have gone through. If you resonate with the issues in this tip about being an adult who was parentified as is struggling to recognize emotions, it could be beneficial to consider therapy. If you would like more assistance recognizing your emotions after being parentified, or in healing from parentification, You can call therapists directly by finding their phone numbers on their profile, or you can bypass the wait time and schedule directly online. If you prefer talking to a therapist first, you may call (215) 922-LOVE (5683) ext 100 to be connected with our intake department. Lastly, you can call our Director, “Alex” Caroline Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW at (267) 324–9564 to discuss your particular situation. For your convenience, we have five physical therapy offices and can also provide counseling and therapy virtually.
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