Every child has the right to a carefree, loving, nurturing and encouraging childhood but some children are denied this from the very moment they are born.

Some parents with Personality Disorders attempt to delegate part of the responsibility for meeting either the parent’s own emotional and physical needs, or the emotional and physical needs of other family members, to one of their children
From Out of the Fog

Parentification: When The Roles Are Reversed

The definition of a parent is someone who is by design responsible for their child’s emotional and physical well-being, a protector who will do everything in their power to safeguard them from evil and harm. Unfortunately there are parents that are unable or unwilling to take on that responsibility. This can lead to role reversal. Parentification occurs when the child’s needs are forgotten or sacrificed, so the parents can indulge their time and resources to themselves. When a parent talks to a child as though they are an equal, not only in emotional terms but also about adult topics, the child becomes parentified.

“From the age of 5 I understood that my mother had no money, and was marrying in order to have food on the table. Still the fact that we moved from a house to a very tiny flat with five people in it, didn’t make sense even to my 5 year old brain. From this early age it was ingrained in my brain that money was the be all and end all of life, and also that my mother’s romantic choices were financially based”.

There are many ways and reasons for this to happen, not only by emotionally unavailable parents. In a household with a physically handicapped parent, the oldest child will often take on a lot of responsibilities in order to keep the household running. In these circumstances, this is mostly like a passive act rather than being a deliberate and selfish one. Parents that suffer from mental health issues may also parentify their children. Along with those afflicted by drug or alcohol addiction, who choose to offload their responsibilities in order to maintain their habits.

When you consider all these various circumstance, there are so many children who never get to be children, and the propensity is thus inborn for them to be the caretaker and fixer of the family. A truly heartbreaking message for any child, as this will likely lead to them never putting their own desires or needs first, even when reaching adulthood. “Being the parentified child is a lonely experience because they have no parent to turn to for help and guidance. These kids carry the full burden of the family trauma” (from MentalHelp.net). The child is taught responsibility over someone else’s well-being from such an early age, that as an adult they often suffer from heightened emotional susceptibility.

When a Child Becomes a Spouse

It often appears to outsiders that the parentified child is especially thoughtful and considerate, but not that the child is being abused. This has the knock on effect in later life, in that they appeared to be happy and therefore the assumption is that they are making up how bad their childhood was. The effects can be far reaching though. “The effects and consequences of parentification are profound. Parentified children must continually struggle to meet needs they are not able to fulfill, and consequently, they develop deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. The pressure of having to constantly meet unrealistic demands instills a sense of hopelessness in the child that they will ever be able to handle the challenges life presents to them” (from Light’s Blog).

Parentification can take quite extreme forms. It can  happen that a child who is of the opposite sex to the parent can become a surrogate spouse, and has an entirely different experience than his or her siblings. A very clear and indicative list of Emotional Incest Syndrome can be found here.

“I remember my brother was treated more like a husband than a son to my mother. He actively took the role of a father in trying to control his siblings, making sure that our chores were done. He was given a daily ‘to do’ list, and would telephone every afternoon to check what shopping my mother needed. The weird part about that was that he was not the oldest son but ‘her favorite’, and he was not even a teenager when this was began”

Infantalization: Eternal Youth Is Not a Price

At the opposite end of the scale we have infantalization, which means the child is not allowed to have the advances of their peers, even though they could have been parentalised at a very early age. The child is not allowed to grow emotionally or make choices. All decisions are made by the parent so the child will not reach autonomy, and of course the parent can then manipulate them into believing they are worthless and will never amount to anything. This can be done by having very high and unrealistic expectations of the child to which they cannot possibly perform.

Everything about this behavior is to keep the child orbiting around the parent ensuring they does not have a life of her own. A parent will often find excuses why a child’s friends or significant others are not suitable for them, purely to stop outside influences. After all they may be able to compare their lifestyle to that of friends and realize there is something very, very wrong with it. So any chance the parent gets, they will try and alienate the child from her peers stopping at little to destroy any budding relationship or even break up marriages in later years.

“My mother deliberately broke up my first relationship by giving me the silent treatment for 1 month. In the end I could not take being ignored by my mother. Every day no matter how hard I tried she would not give in and talk to me. So I broke off the relationship and that evening she gave me a present! It totally confused me in many ways, but I guess her message was a real eye opener, although it took years to dawn on me that I was not allowed to make my own decisions, if I did there was hell to pay.”

Learning to Live

The effect of infantalization is in essence that the child never learns to live their life. They are not taught to make decision, and often also lack other essential life skills such as managing money or practicing self-care. The child will be verbally criticized and their self-esteem is typically non-existent. The parent encourages their child to believe that the world is a very scary, dangerous place that they will not be able to cope with on their own.

“Experimenting with make-up would bring awful comments, the clothes I bought were never suitable, I would be accused of dressing like a whore simply because they were not in a style she would buy! This message has had a life long effect in that I do not wear make-up and dress very casually. I do not take pride in my appearance and never have”

Combining Both Strategies for Ultimate Confusion

“Clearly in my own life I was so totally confused as I was expected to act like a parent to my younger siblings, but I was never treated like a capable adult. I know I am a capable woman and yet I often used to feel bewildered by everything that was expected of me, especially in bringing up my own children. Thank goodness I have learned that by feeding those anxieties they were kept alive, now I know them to be what they were lies that were fed to me to keep me close to my mother. Those beliefs were hers and not mine, I was very simply brainwashed into believing them.”

More often than not an Emotional Abuser will use both strategies, making their victim take parental responsibility while at the same time not ever treating them like an adult. Parentification and infantalization are simply strategies to make the victim feel both responsible for the (emotional) well-being of the abuser and make sure they believe themselves incapable of independence. Combining the strategies ensures that the victim becomes and stays entangled with their abuser.

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