A theme that comes up frequently when working with teens, and with adults as well, is parentification. This is a big, fancy word for the roles of parent and child being reversed, not to a complete extent of literally living the other’s life, but by filling their role in a family system. This could happen in a physical way, such as caretaking for younger siblings to an extent that feels more like being a mom than a babysitter. It can also take an emotional role, such as being their emotional support, hearing about their relationships, and filling in the role of a partner or spouse instead of being the teenager of the family.
Parentification can happen when there is a shift in the family structure, such as a divorce, death, or separation which causes the parents to be overwhelmed and in need of support. It can also happen when a parent struggles with a mental disorder or substance abuse. The parent may become unavailable and the older kids in the family can feel like they need to make sure the house and younger kids are cared for so that life runs smoothly and everyone’s okay. This may be necessary for a short time after a major crisis, but it shouldn’t be the new normal for the family.
The obvious concern is that the teenager will get burnt out and overwhelmed dealing with responsibilities that don’t belong to them. This does happen, and sometimes the teen’s social life or academic performance suffers because of it. There is also a frequent feeling of anxiety over what will happen next or a feeling of having failed the parent because they can’t make the parent better or meet their expectations. The teens who become parentified are hardworking, caring, and desire to help out in whatever way possible to preserve the family system they used to enjoy, but unfortunately it can have detrimental effects.
To prevent parentification, having social support for a crisis or major change is very important. Having a teen get their siblings from school, do homework, make dinner, and get them to bed may be necessary on occasion and may be their new reality after a crisis, but it can’t be forever. Having neighbors, church members, or family friends step in for these tasks can lighten the load so that the teen can have their normal life and process the changes themselves. Also, having this social circle allows the parent outlets that are more developmentally able to support them.
If you feel like you have been parentified as a child or are still being put in this difficult situation, don’t hesitate to reach out for help from a professional. The long-term impact can be varied, but most frequently it leads to adults who work too much, have poor boundaries, are potentially codependent, and struggle to find their place in their family. Mentally they may still carry some of that pressure, anxiety, fear, or frustration over their childhood and it can be freeing to find safety and validation in counseling over these issues. These individuals sometimes struggle to reach out for help, because they’ve had to take care of themselves since they were young, but it can change their life and relationships if they do.