Photo by Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia/Getty


The parentified child

When parents cast a child into the role of mediator, friend and carer, the wounds are profound. But recovery is possible

by Nivida Chandra + BIO

Photo by Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia/Getty

I came to research the emotional neglect of children by accident. More than a decade ago, I wrote my Master’s thesis on the relationship between the personal and professional lives of psychotherapists. How did they manage to keep the distress they heard in their clinics from affecting their own emotional balance? And how did they stop their personal challenges from impacting their clinical work? In our conversations, I asked what brought them to be clinicians. The consistency of their answers surprised me. Virtually all said that being there for others, emotionally, came naturally; they were good at it because they were practised in tending to others’ needs since childhood, starting with their own parents. With deeper conversations, I learned of the difficult family circumstances that they each came from.

Their childhood stories were dominated by watching one parent beat the other, or a parent with undiagnosed depression, or other shades of pervasive discord between their parents. Their ‘job’ was to protect and support their parents however possible. It made sense then that, as adults, they channelled this exceptional skill towards helping even more people.

One participant, Sadhika (45 at the time of our interviews), had parents who fought every day about everything. Her mother was like a wildfire who burned anything in her path. She was loud, persistent in her demands from everyone around her, and ‘decimated’ anyone who disagreed with her. Her father became a ‘piece of furniture’ in the house, unable to protect the children. Sadhika told me it was inconceivable for her to ask him to protect her and her siblings, because he seemed to ‘be in the same boat’ as the children. So it fell to her to manage her mother, protect her younger siblings, attend to the household chores, and hold the centre. Missteps were not an option – from managing interpersonal relationships to fixing a dripping tap.

Sadhika had endured ‘parentification’, which can occur in any home, anywhere in the world, when parents rely on their child to tend to them indefinitely without sufficient reciprocity. The parentified child who supports the parent often incurs a cost to her own psychic stability and development. The phenomenon has little to do with parental love, and much more to do with the personal and structural circumstances that stop parents from tending to the immense anxiety and burden that a child might be experiencing on their behalf. The parent is often unable to see that their child is taking responsibility for maintaining the peace in the family, for protecting one parent from the other, for being their friend and therapist, for mediating between the parents and the outside world, for parenting the siblings, and sometimes for the medical, social and economic stability of the household.

The idea of the ‘parental child’ first appears in the literature in the late 1960s, when a group of psychologists in the United States studied family structure in the inner city. Given the high rates of single motherhood, incarceration, poverty and drugs, they found, it often fell to a child to act as the family’s glue.

The term ‘parentification’ was introduced in 1967 by the family systems theorist Salvador Minuchin, who said the phenomenon occurred when parents de facto delegated parenting roles to children. The concept of parentification was expanded and honed by the psychologist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, who offered that deep problems could emerge in the child when a family exhibited an imbalanced ledger of give and take between parents and children. Since then, psychologists have charted parentification across cultures and taken an inventory of the fallout, from the consequences to adult life on the one hand to hard-earned resilience on the other.

If you think about it, your adult circle of acquaintances, colleagues and friends probably include some who fit the bill. You might recognise the once-parentified child in the over-responsible coworker, the always-available friend – the one who always seems to be weighed down by something, yet manages to tend to everything despite never asking for help in return. Despite her conscientiousness, this person’s inner world may be impoverished and, if you asked her, she might say she’s running on fumes, or that she wished she had a friend like her.

How can parentified adults make sense of their childhood when there is no obvious excuse for the sense of burden?

These narratives of parentification, revealed during my interviews, opened a window to my own psyche too. I also came from a good home, a loving family, with no apparent reason for the unhappiness that I felt nor the unhealthy relationships I found myself in. Having resolved familial interpersonal conflict my entire childhood, was I, too, parentified?

After I decided to pursue my doctoral studies in this field, I remember my doctoral committee questioning the applicability of this ‘Western’ concept to Indian family systems; they cautioned me to remain wary of imposing pathological concepts on the ‘normal’ systems found here. I felt – due to my accidental discovery and personal experiences – that perhaps normal family systems were being confused with acceptable parental practices. I decided to stay my course, and chose to study these ‘normal’ urban Indian families with two available parents, sufficient financial stability, no obvious or diagnosed parental illness, or any other condition that would cause the child to play the adult sooner than her friends.

The reason was that, when parentification is found in families that have suffered difficulties ranging from parental death or divorce to poverty or even war, the children have an available narrative of struggle that helps them make sense of their challenges. They understand why more was demanded of them as children, and this is also obvious to others. But how can parentified adults make sense of their childhood when there is no obvious excuse for the sense of burden? I found myself questioning why families believed that, just by virtue of being families, they provided the best, safest environments for their children to grow up in, no matter what?

I had no trouble finding several people willing to share their stories to help me answer these questions. These were people who identified themselves as having taken on excessive and age-inappropriate adult responsibilities as children. I spoke at length with each, averaging 8-10 hours of back-and-forth interviews in which I tried to understand every aspect of their lives thus far, what they thought had gone awry, what should have happened instead, and how all this was affecting them today.

Priya (26 at the time of the interviews) came from a large city in south India. Her parents had married for love. Their marriage had promised her mother an education and freedom that her family of origin could not have afforded her. Yet, after their marriage, her husband – Priya’s father – insisted that she be a stay-at-home mother. Additionally, both parents were from different castes and married against their families’ wishes. Inter-caste marriages are still considered sacrilegious in many parts of India. For this, both families exiled them, causing a lot of stress to the couple and their children, leading to fights, unhappiness and an isolation from a system of loved ones. Over time, Priya’s father started drinking, and would hit her mother. Priya would come home from school to see her mother with bruised, puffy eyes and scratches. She would be angry at her father but, in a few days, she would be the only one holding on to that fear and anger. Her parents would continue as if nothing had happened, and the cycle would repeat. Priya alone seemed intent on stopping it from happening again.

Like Sadhika and Priya, the other participants (Anahata and Mira) remembered their mothers as perpetually dissatisfied, unhappy, angry or depressed. Concerns ranged from in-laws who bullied them and husbands who abandoned them to the looming sense that their potential for a fulfilling and happy life, both personal and professional, was unachievable. They remembered their fathers as either quiet or angry, constrained by their own pressures of being men in a heavily patriarchal society. It’s very likely they too were deeply unhappy with their lives, but they seldom spoke about what they were going through, leaving the mothers free to induct the children into their camp, as it were.

I uncovered that, despite the seeming normalcy, in these homes there was substance use, undiagnosed mental illness, and discord created by extended family members. For instance, the mothers were often taunted by their in-laws or rebuked for belonging to this caste or that section of society, or for bringing up their children poorly. Whatever the reasons for discord or the nature of violence (verbal or physical), it seemed to have been deemed acceptable, thus closing avenues for intervention or reparation. Most importantly, it blocked an understanding of the effect on the child. In the child’s mind, however, normal or not, she learnt that it was on her to apply bandages and soothing balms everywhere she could. She took on whatever role was needed of her to support, protect or nourish her parents.

She developed a finely tuned emotional radar that was always scanning for who needed what and when

From a young age, the child learns her place as the one entrusted to ‘do the psychological work’ of the others in her family. Mira would bear her mother’s emotional outbursts, soothe her tears, entreat her to open locked doors and eat her meals, not walk out of the house, hear how her father and grandparents were awful, and how Mira needed to be better for the sake of her mother’s happiness. Sadhika’s task was to witness and bear her mother’s despair and ‘smooth ruffled feathers’ with everyone from the vegetable vendor to her aunts and uncles. Anahata and Priya would encourage their mothers to create change in the house, get a job, even get a divorce.

Much like your favourite therapist does for you, these children developed a way of intuiting how to support their parents and others. This was necessary for their own psychological survival. Not caring for their parents was not an option. The consequences could range from the parents withholding love from the children to outright violence between the parents themselves, which the child would come to learn was her fault for not preventing, say. These children do not have the opportunity to understand that the problems they are trying to solve are not their own, or why the problems continue despite their best efforts. They learn only that they need to pay more attention, intuit better.

To do this better, Priya said she felt she had developed a finely tuned emotional radar that was always scanning for who needed what and when. Sadhika had an especially cogent analogy to describe what was going on: ‘Imagine a really cranky, brilliant, irritable surgeon and he has this really efficient nurse. When he puts his hand out, the correct surgical instrument magically appears. That was my role.’

What does it do to the internal world of the child to constantly be on the alert for the next potential problem? What does it mean for a child to actively handle emotional and interpersonal problems that mature adults cannot seem to solve? No child is equipped. Sadhika, Priya, Anahata, Mira and I – we all spent hours in our early adolescence crying to ourselves. No one knew, and sometimes I wonder if anyone ever knew to ask.

These children need help, yet their families claim the status of normal. The child is perhaps the only one who imagines a different kind of normalcy. She develops a picture of normal – based on whatever she sees on TV or in the homes of others – that she keeps trying to mould her family into by intervening, offering solutions, resolving conflicts. If anyone paid attention to her or took her advice, there would be no cause for so much hurt. There may, in fact, be no cause for parentification.

As a consequence of always tending to others, very little space is left for the child to know or express her own needs. The only legitimate needs seem to be those of others. Expressing her own needs is met with frustration, anger or other parental emotions that link her needs with fear and shame. This leads to the development of what the paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in 1960 called a ‘false self’. In its unhealthiest form, this self-denying persona allows the parentified child to cut off from expressing and fulfilling her own needs, and gain value from foregrounding the needs of others. Therefore, it makes sense that parentified adults struggle with setting healthy, balanced boundaries and find themselves in abusive or exploitative relationships, whether with friends, coworkers or romantic partners.

Relying on the excellent care they can extend to others and being deeply unsure of their own worth, parentified adults form relationships based on how valuable they can be to others. This allows them familiar feelings of being good and worthy, from which they can operate in the world around them. This can look like people-pleasing or being the agony aunt or overextending one’s own resources to help others. On the other hand, they struggle to receive support in return. They wonder – how much can I ask for? Will I be considered needy or dramatic? They struggle to claim space in the lives of others, uncertain if the person will stay should they have an ask of their own.

The worst fallout comes in romantic relationships. Studies show that being disconnected from one’s needs leaves parentified adults vulnerable to unhealthy, addictive or destructive intimate relationships. Psychologists have found they suffer from various psychopathologies, including masochistic and borderline personality disorders in adults.

Her husband asked: ‘Why you?’ And she’d answered with what felt like clarity: ‘There is no one else’

Many of those I spoke with found themselves in abusive relationships with narcissists because, as Sadhika said: ‘It’s such a perfect fit.’ She herself is married to someone she feels can be clinically diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. Priya also found herself in a relationship with someone who belittled her constantly and gaslit her, always choosing others over her.

What surprises me is how long it can take parentified adults to recognise their own abuse. To them, subconsciously, relationships that were unhealthy – even violent and abusive – were not meant to be broken away from but repaired. This is what they had learned their entire lives and, without intending to, they repeated these patterns. Parentified adults are compliant. They are happy to give the other person all their space. In doing so, they are often manipulated and shamed, adding to their childhood neglect and emotional impoverishment. Unfortunately, these patterns are so familiar to the adult that, instead of raising alarms, the familiarity sustains them.

On the other hand, these caregiving experiences can be channelled into fulfilling professions. Parentified adults are dependable, sensitive, solution-focused and caring. Sadhika is now a parenting coach. Priya is a therapist. Anahata litigates for people on death row. Mira specialises in early childhood education in India’s low-resource neighbourhoods. The list of impressive career decisions continues. Almost everyone works to uplift or support others.

Yet, even at work, parentified adults could be exploited. Some of them shared how they felt singularly responsible on the job. Mira was taking on more work than the others, struggled with delegating, and strived for perfection. Her husband asked: ‘Why you?’ And she’d answered with what felt like clarity at that time: ‘There is no one else.’ In a way, this one sentence summarises parentification better than an entire textbook.

Perfectionism can, of course, be characteristic of many kinds of people and pasts, but research has found that parentified adults show a particular proclivity here. The anxiety to always be there for others generates a harsh inner voice, keeping them bathed in anxiety and guilt. Others can and do take advantage of this dedication. One participant’s coworkers would always tell her of their emotional troubles, and use these troubles as a reason to pass on their work to her. Unable to say no – as many parentified adults are – she would take on all their work, no matter how busy or tired she was.

Between their self-denying persona, unhealthy relationships, caring unendingly for others and an overall sense of pervasive burden, it is unsurprising that, with time, parentified adults can come face to face with an inner exhaustion and fierce anger. This often expresses itself in bursts of rage or tears and a quickness to frustration that seem surprising to everyone, including the parentified adult, who is otherwise always so calm and collected. Unless interrogated, these clues to understanding the impact of childhood can be lost, and the patterns will simply continue uninterrupted.

Given these propensities, one of the biggest risks that parentified adults carry is the possibility of parentifying their own children and furthering the cycle of neglect. This can occur across several generations, with each accruing unresolved burdens for the next. In fact, insightful parentified adults seek therapy in an attempt to break this cycle of intergenerational trauma when they find themselves turning to their own children for excessive emotional support.

Whichever combination of circumstances bring parentified adults to therapy, as they unfold the past, they begin to draw lines between the immense fear, helplessness and loneliness they lived with as a child, their need and ability to care for others, and their exhaustion, continued sense of burden and anxiety as adults. This emotional exhaustion is a bit perverse. It is very much part of one’s identity as the perfect caregiver and has the power to keep us clinging to unhealthy patterns and doing even more.

To undo parentification, you need to understand what happened, how it’s impacting you, and allow yourself to experience the validity of your narrative. When done with kindness and support, this amounts to reparenting yourself. This can open doors to rebalancing equations of give and take in important relationships. You can begin to care from a space of choice and love, not obligation and fear of abandonment. With effort, you might start to feel as though you are coming into yourself for the first time.

Since parentification does not necessarily imply a bad childhood, nor is it an all-or-nothing phenomenon, a helpful first step is to identify and circumscribe your parentification. If you, in childhood, cared for your parent over extended periods of time and are still suffering the consequences, I encourage you to seek therapeutic, restorative support.

Like other issues in psychology, parentification unfolds on a spectrum. In my research, I found 12 variables at play: age of onset (the earlier, the more damaging); reasons for onset (clearer reasons can offer a sense of purpose); clarity of expectations from the child (were you told what exactly was needed of you?); nature of expectations from the child; guidance and support provided to the child; duration of expected care; acknowledgment of care; age-appropriateness and child development norms your family subscribes to; lived experience (how you experienced all of this around you); genetics and personality propensities; gender, birth order and family structure; and, finally, the life you are living now (how we view our past is influenced by our present circumstances). As you work through your pain, you can use these variables to know what worked in your childhood, and leverage it – and what didn’t, and minimise it.

I have noticed that, as parentified adults continue to wade through years of painful memories and realise why they still hurt, feelings of anger and injustice become dominant, at least at first. A strong voice emerges from within that was silent all this time, longing to protect the child they once were.

Mira told me: ‘There was this feeling of, how could she do this to me?’ Similarly, in one particularly forceful moment, the otherwise calm Priya said: ‘When I look back, I’m like, why, why, why did that have to happen? Why couldn’t you have found some other way of dealing with your shit?’ It was not that she minded caring for her parents: it was that something was taken from her without her knowledge, beyond her childhood capacity to understand. By expressing these feelings of anger and injustice, space for other emotions emerges.

Above all, healing needs repeated validation for your narrative, one that supports your personal growth without villainising your parents. This can come in many forms: a therapist, a few friends, fulfilling work (even if born of parentification).

In her task of re-parenting herself, she would tell her younger self: ‘I’m sorry you had to go through this’

One significant factor is a healthy romantic relationship. I’ve noticed that a partner who can ‘bear’ you, can withstand your anger and provide a gentle reminder that they will still be there once that fight is over, or who gives the parentified adult consistent support, can begin to replace the fear of abandonment with an anchored feeling of being held and heard.

A validating therapist who understands parentification can help on this journey of reparation. They can help contain the anger while also creating the possibility of a new, progressive narrative for oneself. I’d like to caution that, despite what social media might suggest, it is near-impossible for all this validation to come from within. Difficult as it can seem, it is necessary to slowly build relationships with those who allow you to depend on them.

Parentified adults carry around years of hurt, and they need to locate and unsurface an ‘inner, younger self’ who willingly receives adult love and care. For Sadhika, her younger self was ‘outside the door, standing in a corner. It’s like you have a little puppy who’s been severely abused. Abused. And now you’ve brought the puppy into the house and the puppy knows it’s kind of safe… and the cowering in the corner has stopped.’ This is her task of re-parenting herself. She and others would tell their younger selves: ‘I’m sorry you had to go through this.’

You will eventually find yourself resetting your boundaries with your parents – the ultimate task. Many put differing degrees of distance between themselves and their parents. Some cut ties completely but this is rare, at least in India. Parentified adults are more likely to choose when they engage with their parents. Some even try to share with their parents how they feel they were hurt by them. Some parents are open to listening to this, but most do not take it well.

Priya’s parents, for instance, have been unusually receptive, though her mother’s guilt at receiving her daughter’s narrative called for Priya to tend to her once again. Priya was able to tell her mother how her continued reliance on her drained her energy. Her mother was surprised (isn’t that parentification itself!) but receptive to her daughter’s perspective.

On the other hand, when Anahata tried to talk to her parents about her experiences years ago, they did not take it quite as well. She told me: ‘We were having one of our confrontations. And [my father] was like: “Don’t you dare blame us. We have given you everything. Anything that money can buy, you’ve received, always. What’s your problem in life?”’ Given this type of response, it’s important to recognise that healing might not come from the source of the hurt – changing the parents’ perspective is not the goal here. The aim instead is to believe in your own narrative, validate your own hurt and heal through other avenues of support.

While setting boundaries, you might feel guilty or selfish at ‘abandoning’ others. They might want to pull you back into that same caregiving role. I encourage you to stay your course and show yourself some kindness should you fall back into old patterns. I hope you come to realise that they will be OK without you, and you will be too. Health is the ability to let others take responsibility for themselves. It is the ability to say no when one’s energy reserves feel empty. It’s also the ability to say yes to someone when you feel like giving care.

I have found health and reparation in my ability to write about this and to offer my thoughts to others. As I write, my body shakes and I cry, but it does not overwhelm me anymore. I can talk to my parents about it, and I have been lucky enough to have them listen to me. It took months of distance I imposed on them. I found clarity and confidence in my own story, read a lot, spoke to others, did my research. I slowly opened communication.

It’s taken me 10 years to stop parenting my parents and find a space that is somewhere between their daughter and manager. To their credit, they have started asking me to step away from making decisions for them. We even have place for humour now. It is a running joke in our family that every time I write about my fear-filled childhood, my parents will write a simultaneous article defending their actions. The fact that we can, as a family, accept all of this to be true, is health for me.

Author’s note: my research and therapeutic practice have so far been only with women. This is why I have used the pronoun ‘her’. Similarly, ‘mother’ here is used because the daughters were exposed most to their mothers’ narratives, since they were the primary caregivers. The fathers’ narratives were largely absent due to their own reticence (a cultural imperative) and sometimes because they were the perpetrators of abuse in the child’s eyes. I want to be clear, however, that no one parent is solely responsible for parentification. This view would deny us a true understanding of the complex factors that come together to engender parentification. It would also limit the possibilities of healing as well as expanding the discourse.

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