Sometimes, as children, we take care of our caretakers with the unwitting hope that they’ll ultimately be able to take care of us. But, in reality, it rarely ever happens. Parentified Children (PCs) never realize they’re holding the home together or keeping the parent (and family) functioning – because it’s just what’s ‘normal’ in their lives; it’s what they’re used to.
This dynamic often gets replicated in future relationships in which parentified children (now adult) again begin to (ostensibly) caretake in their relationships.* But the PC’s inherent quest is, foremost, for the new significant other to finally become the capable, strong and reciprocally caring (parental) figure that they never had as a child. But the partner will invariably ‘fail’ – or flee, or become reticent in the relationship – because it’s impossible to compensate for what the PC lost in those early years. Not to mention that it’s not necessarily a satisfying role for the other, i.e., as the forever grateful partner.* So although it looks as if PCs are caretaking, they’re really looking for love and caring, believing that the other will finally be grateful for “all they do”. They want to ‘”Give and give” – until they finally get something back. There’s an inherent demand in the giving. But these security needs (of one or both partners) end up taking precedence, and sexuality will invariably tend to suffer. More on that in other posts…
PC’s often see themselves as the ‘Giver’. One man described it more knowledgeably than others when he said “I make sure that my partner has everything, so that they’ll never leave me”. What he doesn’t realize is that this kind of giving is manipulative, and the partner will generally tire of it. They tire of it because PCs can actually be pretty demanding (though they rarely see it), not necessarily for things but for acknowledgement, ‘credit’, sex, closeness, admiration, etc. It seems like they’re giving, but it doesn’t feel that way for the partner.
At the same time, the Giver/PC becomes resentful of ‘having to ‘anticipate the other’s needs constantly’ – even though it’s not what the partner (or friends) ever asked for.
Often, both partners in these cases feel like they’re each having to do too much – and it is the subject of continual arguments.(1)
Almost all PCs feel alone, unloved and that they don’t belong – with various frequencies and intensities – depending upon current states of their relations with others.
The myriad ways in which children become parentified:
-You take care of a parent (or both) due to some form of disability: illness, addiction, depression, anxiety, severe psychiatric disorders, etc..
-You take care of one or more siblings when the parent(s) are disabled or simply unwilling, typically because you’re the oldest or the ‘anointed’ one (i.e., the one who somehow ‘should’ do it. Generally, this is the child is who is temperamentally stronger, more assertive, or even simply the more obedient one.
-And in both of the above cases, you’re responsible for caring for yourself, no matter how young you are.
-It can also occur when the child senses the unhappiness and worry one parent feels in the relationship with their spouse or partner, or as the beleaguered parent, and believes the ‘injured parent’ must be protected.
Sometimes this role feels like a reward; they now believe (and are told) that they’re the only one who is loving or comfort-giving. Or that they’re the best confidante the parent could ever have. They give up the potential joys of relating to peers, but they often avoid the hurdles of rejection, isolation, and feelings of inferiority so prevalent among kids. But around a ‘grateful’ parent, there’s the constant reward of approval and acceptance.
-Or it occurs in the loss by death or separation of one of the parents, such that the remaining parent must be watched over constantly because the child senses the parent’s melancholy, suicidal tendencies, or crippling anxieties; and the child can’t bear to lose another parent.
The Plight of the PC is Manifold (You may have experienced only one or many of the following. Parentification comes in many forms and degrees.)
-No matter how diligently they worked to compensate for what the parent couldn’t/wouldn’t do, there’s always a sense of guilt that they didn’t ‘work hard enough’ or that they failed the parent in some way – because that parent rarely ever becomes a truly responsible adult (or at least never in time for the PC to have reaped the benefits).
-Because of the time consumed in the care of the parent and often one or more siblings, PCs never get the experience of being children, of being carefree, of playing with friends, or celebrating holidays or awakening in the morning only having to think about eating breakfast and going to school.
-They miss the critical experience of learning how to socialize and to interact with peers, and almost all PC’s feel isolated and awkward, rarely believing they fit in – right into adulthood.
-And because, as well,there’s so much shame in having kids come over, opportunities for meaningful (and even casual) interactions are lost.
-As PCs, they’re introduced too early and too personally to upsetting aspects of the world of turmoil in which the parent is engaged: a parent feeling or being dysfunctional, having to try to cover up for a parent’s substance problems or their being unable to work, or the effects of the parent’s illicit practices and the people who intrude into the child’s life. Examples are:
Being used or abused by dealers, sexual predators, or other people who make their way in and out of the home, used as mules to transport drugs, sent out in the night to find the parent in a bar, brought by one parent to be used as bait to get the other parent to come back home (being used as a pawn), or becoming a conduit for communication, i.e., verbalizing to the ‘offending’ parent what the ‘injured’ parent feels. It goes on and on.
-They’re often made to keep secrets about the caretaker’s drug or alcohol use, sexual abuse or other aspect of poor functioning.
-They lose the ability to be appropriately hurt or angry, because they’ve got to constantly swallow such feelings in order to do their ‘job’
-They don’t have the opportunity to explore what they want to be in life, in the realm of a career or self-identity – because they’ve learned it would be too selfish to think about or even have time to develop such interests.
-As well as being in need, the ‘injured’ parent is often cold, remote, or too depressed to give love and affection on any predictable basis. And they’re extremely demanding.
-PCs are almost invariably conflict avoidant. It was too precarious to assert themselves with or say ‘no’ to the needy parent because the result would be anger, sullenness, blame, or sad, depressed behavior.
What’s interesting is that adults who as kids tried to make their anxious, depressed or problematic parents happier/healthier often believe they weren’t parentified since it hadn’t been a ‘designated’ role, i.e., they weren’t formally told they must do that. But there are so many nuanced (and not so nuanced) cues that the caretaking or “Pride-Making” role must be taken.. And anyone who feels compelled to enhance the life of the caretaker is parentified. People will say, “I didn’t have to take care of Dad, I just wanted to”; but again, if the parent had been a well-functioning adult, the child would never have had to think about or feel the need to do so.
Anyone who was constantly made to believe, either obviously or subtly, that they must never disappoint their parents or not be the child they’re expected to be – in terms of reflecting well on their parents, making them proud or happy in life, or relieving their burdens – IS a parentified child.
Through therapy, several people with whom I’ve worked have come to find ways to later discuss and work through these issues with a parent who, in many ways, was changed by the emotional growth of this person. But they’re alway the kind of person who can come to recognize the mistakes they made rather than continue defending them. Other patients have grown and changed enormously themselves, but aren’t as lucky to have parents who are willing to acknowledge the battlegrounds through which their kids had to navigate.
Examples of Parentified Children follow in the next post.
*Most children become parentified in at least some ways, so the degree to which people carry these beliefs/behaviors into their adult lives vary considerably.