How Parentification Traumatizes

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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The bond between a child and a parent is specifically designed to cater to the comprehensive developmental needs of one’s offspring. In accordance with nature’s plan, the child’s successful attainment of developmental milestones such as the cultivation of trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity and intimacy (Eric Erikson) is predicated on receiving competent and loving parenting. This means that from infancy to late adolescence, the unconditionally dependent child will rely on their trusted caretakers for their survival and their growth.

However, children who are parentified (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973) have thrust upon them responsibilities and roles typically reserved for adults. These duties far exceed the routine chores and tasks that assist children in developing self-reliance and responsibility. These egregious conditions not only derail healthy maturation, they can also traumatize the vulnerable child.

On the more seemingly innocuous end of the parentification spectrum, a latchkey kid may have to fend for themselves and contend with boredom and loneliness while their parents are at work. In more extreme circumstances the parentified child is called upon, to their own detriment to satisfy the insatiable needs of mentally ill guardians. This might take the form of a parental alcoholic/addict or a character disordered caregiver.

Children born into families impacted by character pathology are relentlessly exploited, forced into fulfilling emotional and instrumental tasks that are not appropriate to their age or their role in the family.

Such was the case when Barbara sought me out for complex trauma therapy. It became obvious from our initial consultation that unprotected by her weak father, the machinations of her malignantly narcissistic mother robbed her of any sort of tenable childhood. Incessantly triangulated in her parents' divorce, Barbara’s life became a habitual cycle of drudgery. Required to do her mother’s college homework, in addition to her own academic assignments, and take care of her siblings left her no room to socialize, engage in play or explore her love of music and art.

Eager to escape her indentured servitude, Barbara left home as soon as she could to pursue a career in law. In academia and the workforce panic attacks and fears of intimacy pervaded her daily existence. Vacillating between harsh self-imposed demands and complete lethargy typified her internal world. Indeed, Barbara’s schema of life consisted of a complete escape from overwhelming obligations or absolute immersion in dutiful over-functioning. Fears of being engulfed by the insatiable expectations of others threw her into relational paralysis.

Processing in therapy how her natural dependency and loyalty toward her parents set her up to be exploited, neglected and abused has assisted Barbara with fully facing inconceivable betrayal. By grieving innumerable tangible and intangible losses she is coming to terms with years of relentless parental victimization. This has given Barbara the permission she needs to reclaim her inherent right to prioritize self-care and personal needs. Tragically, the path to achieving this basic privilege has been rife with debilitating pain.

Like Barbara, all children need to believe they matter to their caregivers. Hence, they will conform to the most oppressive expectations to procure the illusion of love. Hence, serving as a day-care provider for younger siblings, cleaning the house, grocery shopping, preparing family meals and even paying household bills will be normalized. As a result, the child will come to believe that the more they do for others the more value they will have. They grow up assuming that one’s worth is dependent on what they offer, not on who they intrinsically are.

For many, parentification veers into the child taking on an eroticized spousal role. This is referred to as emotional or covert incest. Groomed to be a confidant, the child is habitually swallowed up by the unresolved wounds and primal needs of their mentally unstable parent. The child abdicates their essential needs for boundaried love and care to compliantly enmesh with their caregivers. This perverse role distortion and sexualized bond are presented to the child as a badge of honor.

Victims of parentification, especially when it is inclusive of covert incest, incur relational trauma. Subjugation to the needs of others becomes a habituated relational pattern resulting in the coupling of intimacy with exploitation.

Longings for love clash with simultaneous fears of engulfment and abandonment. These tenacious fears trigger either impulsive retreat or harmful deference. Moreover, the glorification of pathological caretaking may serve as a defense against vulnerability and a locus of control. This diminishes one’s capacity to distinguish authentic generosity from a conditioned sense of obligation fueled by survival fears.

When becoming accustomed to parental incompetence and selfishness leads to a relational template steeped in quid pro quo, the anxiety of unmet dependency needs for mutuality and reciprocity is far-reaching. Unable to trust that others are capable or generous leads victims of parentification to go through their lives managing the distress that no one will ever have their backs or take care of them.

Given this worldview the parentified adult child will over-function and assume the role of a self-sacrificing martyr so as to attain some sort of recognition, some pittance of relational connection. Alternatively, they may insulate behind a wall of bitter resignation, convinced that love is always transactional and must be earned.

Recovery requires the adult survivor to dismantle a maladaptive relational imprint while piecing together an emotionally anchored cohesive narrative detailing how their parents robbed them of their childhood by misrepresenting servitude as one's moral duty.

The historical recounting of childhood memories exhumes buried resentments towards dependent siblings. It ignites anger and guilt over the ways in which parental mental illness and hardships became the responsibility of the child designated as the familial caretaker. Ultimately, it assists with breaking the cycle of codependency.

Codependency is a colloquial term that pertains to the indoctrination of enabling and over-functioning within relationships. This concept was popularized by self-help author Melody Beattie who expanded the understanding of codependency as a dependency disorder in which the absence of a formidable cohesive identity ignites the need to pathologically latch onto another.

Addiction recovery pioneer Pia Mellody embellished on this premise, describing codependent behaviors and character traits as rendering one unable to experience appropriate levels of self-esteem, set functional boundaries with others, and own one’s reality. Furthermore, codependents experience difficulty with taking care of dependency issues around needing and wanting, and difficulty expressing one’s reality and sense of self.

Having learned to control and manipulate to appease parental abuse and to procure a modicum of attention, the codependent child enacts these same behaviors in their adult relationships. Lacking distinct individuality, they are compelled to yield to the demands of others while also furtively maneuvering to control the behavior of those they are dependent on.

Ill-equipped to handle their own emotional discomfort the codependent distracts from their tenuous sense of identity and emptiness by compulsively and obsessively ‘fixing’ others. This deflects from their internal suffering. As a result, the parentified child who has adapted codependent strategies enters adulthood with the inability to differentiate authentic generosity from manipulation or obligation within themself, as well as in others.

Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed,

True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands — whether of individuals or entire peoples — need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.

To claim their authentic generosity victims of parentification must recognize that the injustice which Freire alludes existed within their family system. They must come to accept that being on the receiving end of false hand-outs and being rewarded and lauded for deferring to their parents' oppressive manipulation of inherent power, was an insidious betrayal that set them up to be ashamed of their innate need to emotionally depend on others.

In facing this agonizing truth the parentified child can curtail acting out deeply imprinted codependent patterns and begin the task of defining life-affirming boundaries, conditions and standards. Finally, they can salvage the capacity to revel in the joy of play and the safety of intimacy where balanced and healthy rules of engagement exist. It is here that the survivor of parentification can extend themself and receive not with trembling hands, but with hands that create and transform. Here the victim turned survivor is endowed with the ability to at last give and receive from volitional intent, not servitude.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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