Brett Sweitzer is no stranger to parentification, as throughout his earliest, and what should have been his happiest times, he had to step up and take on his parent’s adult problems. Unfortunately, this is something that happens so often, it even has a name: parentification.
“When my mother shared her emotional pain with me, I felt like I was falling down a hole,” says Sweitzer, who is now a father himself, as well as a licensed therapist who has an entire site dedicated to child counseling. “In adulthood, I found myself avoiding close relationships, especially romantic ones. I was afraid to share my real feelings and authentic self with others.”
Through counseling, Sweitzer discovered that because of the burdens his parents placed on him time and time again, by putting their adult problems on his tiny shoulders to carry, he had always been accustomed to putting everyone’s problems before his own.
It’s unnatural for parents to lean on their kids for emotional support, to the point of becoming dependent on their children to help carry their emotional burdens.
Parentification is the result of a parent who places adult responsibilities on their child, both emotionally and otherwise. Some parents may come to their kids about their relationship troubles, and their sex lives, to talk about their finances, and in other more extreme cases, parents can neglect or even emotionally abuse their kids.
Many of these children have to take care of their parents, by cooking, cleaning, and managing the family’s finances. In all cases, these tasks are far beyond what the child is developmentally ready to take on.
There is a very obvious lack of boundaries in this family dynamic. Going a step further, children who grow up parentified are made to put their needs on the back burner for the needs of their parents. This is backward because children should be able to depend on their parents for emotional support during their developmental years, not the other way around.
Far too often, adults use their kids much like an emotional support animals. However, there are two forms of parentification: emotional and instrumental.
Emotional parentification is when adult leans on their kids for emotional support. Instrumental parentification is when the child had to physically manage the household and take care of their adult parent, siblings, etc.
Unfortunately, parentification in the early years of childhood can have major adverse effects. It can lead to anxiety, depression, PTSD, caretaker syndrome, and many personality disorders (most of which cannot be medicated.)
If you are someone who experienced parentification, know that you are not alone. There is healing that includes accepting the destructive behaviors that caused this unhealthy dynamic, reestablishing healthy parental roles/responsibilities, setting healthy boundaries, and talking it out through therapy.