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Transforming Pain into Power: Thriving Beyond Parentification


Do you feel suffocated by your responsibilities to your parents or your loved ones? Do you deal with guilt or shame when you try to engage in self-care? Maybe you just feel the need to “take care” of your parent(s) even when that means neglecting your own needs and responsibilities.

Take a minute to think about your childhood. Were your parents there for you? Or, were you always there for them? What is a Parentified Child? When we think of a parent-child relationship, there are often certain archetypical characteristics that come to mind. Parent Caregiver Responsible Teacher Supportive Loving Observing Selfless Child Growth Developing Fun Learning Exploring “Sweet, baby, munchkin” (according to my best friend) It’s certainly normal for children to occasionally help their parents out. Age appropriate tasks and challenges can build their self-esteem and their sense of competence. Parentification occurs when“helping out” or “taking care” comes at the detriment of a child’s development and well-being. Think of your family unit as a well-oiled machine. If the machine breaks down because the child isn’t doing a good enough job of taking care of everyone else (which they won’t… because they are kids), then that child will likely develop issues both in childhood and later in life. In other words, if a family’s homeostasis is contingent on the child playing the role of the parent, and taking care of their parent (and therefore neglecting their own needs), the child (and later the adult) can suffer a number of deleterious effects.

Instrumental Parentification This is when the child takes on responsibilities for the household that a parent would normally be responsible for (e.g., shopping, paying bills, cooking meals, having to work, taking care of younger siblings). This type of parentification is usually found in families where one or both parents are sick, working too much, or are in other words impaired in some way. Instrumental parentification isn’t always bad since it can teach a child responsibility, and in certain circumstances, enhance their confidence and sense of mastery. However, these responsibilities have to becoupled with a parents support and acknowledgement for them to reap the benefits.

Emotional Parentification This is when a child fulfills their parent’s emotional or psychological needs, when they aren’t emotionally or developmentally mature enough to do so. This type of parentification is usually found in families where a parent is suffering from mental illness or struggling with their own attachment issues. Practically, this looks like: - The child has to figure out what the parent needs emotionally - Then they typically try to fill that void for them. - Being their confidante (and let’s be real – a confidant when you’re a 35 year-old-woman isn’t a 7-year-old. It’s another 30-something year-old, while you’re having a nice glass of Ripasso on the patio. Or… a therapist. Ha). - Be emotionally supportive or providing advice. - Being the person that maintains balance in the home. - Acting like a peacekeeper or mediator with members of the family. Often one of the parents has problems from their own childhood, and they expect support from their ownchild. The problem is, the child just isn’t there yet (emotionally or maturity wise) to take on such a burden. Kids usually end up sacrificing their own emotional and attentional needs because at the core, children want to please and be close to their parents. As a child you might have experienced: - Depression - Anxiety - Headaches - Self-harm - ADHD - Problems socializing with others - Difficulties in school - Problems figuring out your own identity - Feelings of guilt when you couldn’t meet your parents expectations (and an aside – you wouldn’t have been able to at that age, because you really didn’t have the skills to be able to do it) - A sense of obligation to the parent What puts you at risk? - If your mother has a history of sexual abuse - Low maternal socio-economic status - Physical and mental illness - Addiction - Divorce - Single parent households - Intrusive parenting styles - Adult attachment issues You might be asking, "How does that affect me?"

Do you feel like you: - Lost your childhood? - "Have to" be or were your parents confidant? - Took the role of peacekeeper in your family? - Have/had to be responsible for your parents at the detriment of yourself? - You never got a chance to play and not be bogged down by responsibilities? - Can’t form healthy relationships? - Have attachment issues? - Don’t know your own identity? As an adult you might: - Have taken on the role of caretaker in your adult relationships - Have trouble defining your own life goals - Have difficulty differentiating yourself from your family - Have trouble leaving the family home because you have taken on the caretaker role - Have trouble saying no to others at the expense of your own care - Have trouble accepting help from others - Feel overwhelmed by how others classify you are “always reliable” - Have learned to give but never to take - Not “know who you are” - Doubt your own capabilities - Experience anxiety about meeting expectations What you can do about it: Reflect on your childhood and your relationships with your parents Feeling guilty or resentful is often a good emotional indicator that something isn’t right. Try looking at your child self from the lens of an adult. Ask yourself, “Would I ever expect a child to do x, y, or z?” If you are aghast then you might have been parentified. Recognizing that this happened to you is a good starting point. Notice your patterns

Take a moment to reflect on your last few partners/relationships/friends (whatever the case may be). Notice anything similar about how you exist in these relationships? How did you feel in those relationships? Did feelings of resentment creep into all of them? Did you find yourself always coming outon the short end of the stick? Keep an eye on it. You can’t change something unless you start paying attention to what’s happening. Talk to a Therapist About Your Attachment The whole point of developing healthy attachment with caregivers is to that the child has a model for the formation and maintenance of future relationships. Their sense of security, well-being and how they connect with others depends on it. When we are babies, our connection with our parents start and can change the corticolimbic and orbitofrontal circuitry in the brain (which are associated with emotion regulation, and those yucky anxiety symptoms). Since our brains aren’t totally developed at birth (and like… are they ever? haha), the changes in the aforementioned parts of the brain are vulnerable to their environment. That environment (and consequently our early relationships) set the stage (i.e., the neuronal systems) for future attachment later in life. Taking to a therapist who specializes in attachment can help you understand your attachment style, andhow this has impacted you in your adult life. Work on Your Boundaries

This is one of the biggest hot topic issues in my practice. The formula for setting boundaries is relatively simple; however its implementation is often quite challenging. Learning how to set boundaries is actually a really important skill to have, whether you were parentified or not. Figure out What YOU Really Want Remember! YOU. ARE. IMPORTANT. TOO!!!

For real. Having your own dreams, goals, desires and aspirations isn’t something that you need to feel guilty about. Last time I checked, your parents aren’t driving your meat sack (and if they are… weird bro). You are. You’re also the person living inside your brain, feeling those feelings, and getting up every day. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself. Sources Used The Developmental Implications of Parentification: Effects on Childhood Attachment by Jennifer A. Engelhardt What Psychotherapists Can Begin to Learn from Neuroscience: Seven Principles of a Brain-Based Psychotherapy by NYDIA M. CAPPAS, RAQUEL ANDRES-HYMAN, AND LARRY DAVIDSON Long-Term Sequelae of Emotional Parentification: A Cross- Validation Study Using Sequences of Regressions by Katarzyna Schier, Max Herke, Ralf Nickel, Ulrich T. Egle, Jochen Hardt

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