breez logo
Childhood trauma

Breaking Down Parentification Trauma

Read time:

icon time

9 min

Breaking Down Parentification Trauma

Parentification is a way of raising kids in which kids sometimes put their own needs aside to care for their parents, siblings, or both. It is often called an “inversion of the natural child-parent roles.” 

Even though they seem “mature” or “responsible” on the outside, adults with parentification trauma may have a lot of emotional and mental scars that last well into adulthood.

What is the parentification trama?

Let’s start with a little bit of the theory associated with ideas of parentification and parentification trauma. 

Dr. Shirley Bach coined the concept of parentification in 1967. It is rooted in the idea that children can be forced to assume the role of a parent toward their own parents or other siblings. Afterward, Minuchin, Montalvo, and Guerney first introduced this concept in 1969 as a component of a disordered family system.

As per, children who are parentified often feel a deep sense of duty and responsibility towards their family. Often unspoken and unrecognized, these children assume roles that surpass their emotional and cognitive maturity, causing them to take charge of siblings and household chores. 

For the child, this experience can be both unrecognized and overwhelming, leading to significant stress and a disruption of their own developmental path.

Consequently, this may lead to parentification trauma, one of the forms of childhood trauma.

Ultimately, parentified child trauma can happen in a family where parents are emotionally distant (e.g., emotionally unavailable mother), enmeshed, and emotionally immature. This type of trauma can also happen when there is substance use, mental illness, or parental absence within the family system.

When this role continues into adulthood, it can have lasting effects on your mental health, unresolved emotional baggage, relationships, and ability to form an identity separate from the family unit.

Is parentification abuse?

Initially, it is important to note that deciding if parentification is abuse is a complicated and multifaceted matter. 

At its core, parentification means giving a child adult responsibilities, which can disrupt the natural balance between a parent and a child.  

Although parentification is rarely done on purpose, the emotional and mental stress it puts on a child can be similar to what happens in more obvious cases of neglect or emotional abuse

A big part of the difference is usually how much and how long the children were responsible for something they were not supposed to. That, and how well they can handle those duties without hurting their child’s growth and mental health. 

Understanding the thin line between family working together during emergencies and giving kids too many adult responsibilities all the time is important for nurturing healthy family relationships.

7 signs you might have been parentified as a child

It is not always easy to spot the signs of parentified child trauma. Sometimes, these behaviors are so deeply ingrained that they seem like a natural part of your personality. 

However, here are seven signs that you’ve likely been parentified in your childhood:

1. You were the ‘family therapist’

If family members often confided in you or turned to you as a mediator in conflicts, it may indicate having been parentified. Similarly, you may have had parents confide in you with content that was not age-appropriate. Being the emotional support or problem-solver at a young age is a role that parents, not their children, should fulfill. 

2. Responsibility became your middle name

Parentified children are often highly responsible from a very young age. You were taking care of household chores, managing the family budget, or caring for younger siblings—all tasks that a parentified child may have assumed. This heavy sense of duty might be a reason for a lost inner child and can translate into adult life as an overwhelming need to be responsible for others.

3. Your needs were secondary (or non-existent)

Parentified children often put the needs of their family before their own, sometimes to the point of personal neglect. This behavioral pattern may persist into adulthood, making it difficult to prioritize self-care or even identify your own needs.

4. Adulthood equals overprotection for you

Parents who’ve leaned on their children for support can foster a strong need for control and overprotection. You might find it challenging to give up on caretaking roles or feel intense anxiety when you’re not in a caregiving capacity.

5. Emotional inseparability

Difficulty in establishing healthy boundaries and the continual fear of disappointing others are common among those who’ve been parentified. This emotional enmeshment can lead to a lack of individual identity and self-esteem.

6. ‘Fun’ is a foreign concept for you

Because you had to take on parental responsibilities, you possibly missed out on experiencing carefree childhood moments. As a result, in your adult life, you might find it hard to engage in leisure activities or relax without feeling guilty or anxious.

7. Your adult relationship style is ‘fixer’

The experience of intimacy, both emotional and physical, can be fraught for those who were parentified. This also can be a symptom of a mother wound. The line between caregiving and romantic love can blur, leading to a tendency to overextend in relationships. Or to find oneself attracted to partners who require ‘fixing.’ 

In adult relationships, you may instinctively take on the role of the caregiver or the one who ‘fixes’ problems, mirroring the behavior learned in parentification.

8 types of parentification

1. Emotional parentification

This form of parentification happens when a child becomes a surrogate caregiver for their parent’s emotional needs. Children in these situations often feel responsible for keeping their parents happy. They can be their “listening ears” or deal with their parents’ frequent emotional swings. 

Generally, emotional parentification can cause a child to feel sensitive and hypervigilant to stress occurring within the family.

2. Instrumental parentification

Children who are instrumentally parentified have to do more than just meet their parents’ emotional needs. They also have to do logistical things like cook, clean, or even manage the family finances. These children often experience a role-reversal where they become the caregiver, developing high levels of competence and self-reliance. But, unfortunately, often at the cost of their own developmental and emotional needs.

Parentification Trauma in adults

3. Parentified peer parenting

In some cases, siblings or other children become the primary caretakers for each other. This pattern is called parentified peer parenting. The absence or incapacity of the adults in the home forces children to turn to each other for support. This results in a family structure where each child’s needs take a backseat from the others.

4. Intimate parentification

A common type of parentification is intimate parentification, in which a child is expected to meet the parent’s need for companionship, talk about adult issues, and even be a confidante in the parent’s romantic relationships. This kind of relationship crosses a lot of boundaries and can be too much for the child. Often making it hard for them to attach and get close in adult relationships. This also can be attachment trauma.

5. Narcissistic parentification

When a child expects to feed their parent’s ego, get praise from their parent, and improve their parent’s self-esteem, this is narcissistic parentification.  These children often bear the brunt of the parent’s emotional and sometimes physical needs. Often, they have little to no acknowledgment of their own desires or successes. The adult versions of these kids may often ask themselves, “Why do I feel so empty?”

6. Sexualized parentification

It is the most distressing type of parentification. This is a deeply damaging dynamic. Some children take on roles that resemble romantic or sexualized relationships. This may be seen in cases of incest and is known as sexualized parentification.

7. Parentified savior

The parentified savior feels compelled to take on the parental role not just because of neglect but because they are actively convinced they are “saving” their parent through their care.

This form of parentification is often found in families with a parent who is struggling with substance misuse or mental illness. It drives the child to be the parent’s anchor and source of their mental well-being.

8. Spousification

Spousification is a form of parentification where a child is expected to meet the emotional needs of a parent due to the absence of a spouse or a divorced parent’s emphasis on their child’s emotional support above being a caretaker for their child.

What are the causes of parentification trauma?

Parentification doesn’t arise in a vacuum. It typically stems from a lack of parental support or emotional resources, either due to mental illness, substance abuse, divorce, abandonment trauma, or another trauma within the family unit.

In all cases, the parent is unable to meet their child’s developmental needs fully. 

For example, let us look at some common types of parents that can cause parentification trauma.

Emotionally immature parents

Broadly speaking, emotionally immature parents struggle to regulate their own emotions and respond appropriately to their children’s emotional needs. This can range from a subtle lack of attunement to deep neglect or abuse. It can be in various ways, such as  

  • An inability to regulate and express emotions in healthy ways
  • Self-centeredness or inability to consider their child’s perspective
  • Poor boundary setting, leading to enmeshment trauma of kids 
  • They may treat their children more like peers, oversharing personal information or expecting emotional support, which should be the parent’s role
  • Inability to handle “adult duties,” including daily or financial responsibilities

All of the things parents do in case they are not emotionally mature parents can “inspire” their children to become people who care. There are many effects on children who grow up in these kinds of places.

It can range from not being able to form secure attachments to not getting the emotional nurturing they need.

signs you might have parentification trauma

Eggshell parents

When a child “walks on eggshells” around a parent, usually because they do not want to set off their volatile emotions or reactions. This is a clear sign that the child’s role is reversed. 

Eggshell parents create an environment where children feel responsible for the parent’s well-being, a weight that can be overwhelming and result in long-lasting anxiety and parentification trauma.

Emotionally unavailable parents

Children whose caregivers are emotionally unavailable due to factors such as mental illness, addiction, or extreme work demands often find themselves compensating for these deficits.

They may take on the tasks of parenting younger siblings or emotionally supporting their parents.

Often, the emotional unavailability of a parent is rooted in their own upbringing, a vicious cycle of trauma, and unintentionally transferred emotional neglect. 

Impact of parentification trauma on mental health

The effects of parentification reverberate through the years. In adulthood, those who were parentified children often struggle with a sense of guilt and might ask, “Why do I always feel guilty?”.

These feelings can be deeply ingrained, which can make it hard to set boundaries and be kind to yourself (especially if your emotional needs were not met during your childhood).

For many adult parentification trauma survivors, the parentified role might be a template for personal relationships as well.

Some of you may shy away from relationships, fearing the vulnerability and emotional exposure they entail. Some people choose to be alone. It may feel safer to avoid the complicated dance associated with being vulnerable with others.

As the person struggles with the idea that they need to keep everyone and everything together all the time (parentification trauma), it can also cause mental health issues like depression and anxiety disorders.

Here are some insights about parentification trauma from Nicole Arzt, LMFT Parentification trauma comes in many different forms, and coming to terms with your past experiences growing up can feel difficult and painful. Many adult parentified children struggle with feelings of guilt, anxiety, and burnout in response to their caregiving. You are not alone. That said, it is possible to reclaim your identity and establish healthy limits with others. Doing so requires gaining awareness of your own needs and embracing more self-care. Also, recognize when you might be slipping into unwanted behavioral patterns. 

Healing and recovery from parentification trauma

Healing from parentification involves recognizing its impact and taking steps to reclaim one’s personal growth and well-being. Here are strategies to consider for those who resonate with the signs and impacts outlined above:

  • Develop Self-Awareness: Self-awareness is key to recognizing the ways in which parentification has shaped your life. By understanding your behaviors and thought patterns, you can begin to make conscious choices that better align with your personal needs and goals.
  • Establish Healthy Boundaries: Learning to say ‘no’ and setting limits on what you’re willing to take on is crucial. Boundaries protect your time, energy, and mental health, and they’re an important step in reclaiming your identity outside of the parentified role.
  • Reconnect with your Inner Child: Engage in activities that bring back the joy of childhood or initiate a sense of joy you haven’t experienced in the past. Reconnect with hobbies, interests, and experiences that allow you to be carefree and experience life without the weight of responsibility.
  • Prioritize Self-Care: Make a commitment to prioritize self-care. This may involve seeking out support networks, engaging in regular exercise, maintaining a balanced diet, and pursuing hobbies that bring you joy.
  • Embrace Your Independence: Recognize and celebrate the independence you’ve attained. Whether through education, career, or personal growth, acknowledging your achievements can boost your self-esteem and affirm your ability to lead a fulfilling life on your terms.
Nicole Arzt, LMFT photo

Reviewed by Nicole Arzt, LMFT

Nicole Arzt is a licensed marriage and family therapist, speaker, and bestselling author. In her practice, she primarily treats co...