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Parentification is the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as parent to their own parent. In extreme cases, 'by role reversal (parentification) the child, like a "living antidepressant", fills the alienating parent's emotional void'.[1]

Parentification may be viewed on two distinct axes: instrumental parentification and emotional parentification. Instrumental parentification means completing physical tasks for the family, such as looking after a sick relative, paying bills, or helping a younger sibling do well in school. Emotional parentification occurs when a child or adolescent must take on the role of confidant/mediator for (or between) parents and/or family members.[2]


'As early as 1948, Melitta Schmideberg observed that emotionally deprived parents may unconsciously regard their children as parental figures'.[3] "Spousification" and "parental child" (Minuchin) offered new routes to explore the same phenomenon, while the theme of 'intergenerational continuity of boundary violations'[4] in parentification was also identified. Eric Berne touched on how it could be 'deletorious for parents and children to have a symmetrical in families where the oldest child replaces an absent parent';[5] and Virginia Satir wrote of 'the role- function discrepancy...where the son gets into a head-of-the-family role, commonly that of the father'.[6] Object relations theory explored how 'what Winnicott calls the False Self is invented to manage a prematurely important object',[7] and John Bowlby looked at "compulsive caregiving" among the 'over-conscientious and guilt ridden as well as anxiously attached', as a result of 'a parent, usually mother, exerting pressure on them to act as an attachment figure for her, thus inverting the normal relationship'[8] - requiring the child to act as the care-giving parent while she took on the child-role.

All such aspects of disturbed and inverted parenting patterns have been drawn under the umbrella of the wider phenomenon of parentification - with the result (critics suggest) that on occasion 'ironically the concept of parentification has...been as over-burdened as the child it often describes'.[9]

Choice of childEdit

For obvious reasons, elder children are generally chosen for the familial "parental" role. Satir 'found so often that first children seem to get into this bind more frequently...neither "fish nor fowl" as far as their family positions are concerned ';[10] but gender considerations may mean that it is the oldest boy or girl who is selected, according to circumstances. Where there is a disabled child in the family to be cared for, 'older siblings, especially girls, are at the greatest risk of parentification'.[11] Where a father-figure is missing, in a way that has been described as 'typical of the conflictual role of child parentification', the eldest son is 'forced to assume the responsibilities that his father abandoned...while never being granted the autonomy which normally accompanies these adult responsibilities'.[12]

Alternatively a widower may put a daughter into the social and emotional role of his dead wife - "spousification"; or it may be a mother that obliges the daughter to play the caring role, even though 'for the daughter to become her mother's caretaker is clearly role reversal and parentification of the child. It is a betrayal of the child's trust in her mother to love her and take care of her'.[13]


'A great drawback of parentification is the loss of one's own childhood'[14] Instead, 'destructively parentified children assume excessive responsibility for other family members and often for the family as a whole. Their caretaking efforts are neither acknowledged nor supported'[15]

By taking on the parental care-giving role, the child 'leaves his real role behind, and this becomes a very lonely and unsure place to be'[16] In extreme instances, there may occur a 'diminishing or loss of a central self-identity associated with parentification...a narcissistic wound on mind, body, psyche, and soul...experienced as an alienation from embodiment '.[17]

'Parentified children may struggle with lingering resentment, explosive anger and difficulty in forming trusting relationships with peers' - traits that may end up 'following them into adulthood. Forming close, trusting romantic and spousal relationships may be difficult for adults who were parentified as children'.[18]

Possible AdvantagesEdit

Not all results of parentification are negative. Some studies have hypothesized that parentification may result in greater psychological resilience later in life, individuation or having a clear sense of self, and having secure attachment styles during adulthood. These characteristics may be because the person had to adapt to changes and take on responsibilities.[19]

Case studiesEdit

  • 'Mr T had learned from his mother that she could not bear to be confronted by any distress of his. He had therefore developed ways in which he could keep his mother from breaking down, even keep her alive, by taking care that he never expressed to her any feelings that she might not be able to cope with. He mothered her '.[20]
  • Jung in his late autobiography reports that 'my mother usually assumed that I was mentally far beyond my age, and she would talk to me as to a grown-up. It was plain that she was telling me everything that she could not say to my father, for she early made me her confidant'.[21] Laurens van der Post commented that, as a child, Jung was 'never young as we were...that old, old atmosphere about him'.[22] He considered that 'this activation of the pattern of the "old man" within himself...was all a consequence of the extent to which his father and mother failed each other'.[23]

Literary examplesEdit

In The Tale of Genji, for 'Kaoru's mother...her son's visits were her chief pleasure. Sometimes he almost seemed more like a father than a son - a fact which he was aware of and thought rather sad'.[24]

See alsoEdit

References Edit

  1. R. A. Gardner et al., The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome (2006) p. 200
  2. G. J. Jurkovic, in L. L'Abate ed., Family Psychopathology (New York 1998) pp. 237-255
  3. Jurkovic, p. 240
  4. Jurkovic, p. 240
  5. Eric Berne, Sex in Human Loving (Penguin 1970) p. 249-53
  6. Virginia Satir, Peoplemaking (1983) p. 167
  7. Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored (1994) p. 31
  8. John Bowlby, The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds (London 1979) p. 137-8
  9. Karpel, in Jurkovic, p. 238
  10. Satir, p. 167
  11. Bryna Siegal, What about Me (2002) p. 131
  12. Harold Bloom, Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie (2007) p. 142
  13. Naida D. Hyde, in Diana Brandt, Wild Mother Dancing (1993) p. 54
  14. Siegal, p. 114
  15. Jurkovic, p. 237
  16. Satir, p. 167
  17. Paula M. Reeves, in Nancy D. Chase, Burdened Children (1999) p. 171
  18. "Parentification & Parentified Children"
  19. Hooper, L. M., Marotta, S. A., & Lanthier, R. P. (2008). Predictors of growth and distress following childhood parentification: A retrospective exploratory study. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 17(5), 693-705. doi:10.1007/s10826-007-9184-8
  20. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 174
  21. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (London 1983) p. 69
  22. Laurens van der Post, Jung and the Story of Our Times (Penguin 1978) p. 77
  23. van der Post, p. 77
  24. Murasaki Shikiki, The Tale of Genji (London 1992) p. 790

Further readingEdit

  • L. M. Hooper, "Parentification" in R. J. R. Levesque ed., Encyclopedia of Adolescence (NY 2011)

External links Edit

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