Parentification and Its
Relationship With Attachment

Parentification and Its
Relationship With Attachment

What’s a parent’s number one job? To care for their children. But the term “caring” doesn’t simply mean catering to children’s basic needs. Caring also involves giving children the space to grow and develop. When parents meet all of these needs, a natural balance forms, with parents giving and children receiving. However, parentification disturbs this balance. 

Parentification happens when the caregiver and child swap roles, with the child taking responsibility for various parental duties. For instance, a parentified child might take on tasks like taking care of their sibling or managing their parent’s emotional state. 

Unfortunately, parentification can be traumatic for a child; parentified trauma can create notable differences in a child’s attachment style and hence their relationships in adulthood. Parentification can also cause developmental delays and emotional stress

Due to parentification’s potentially negative influence, overcoming it may sound unsettling. But understanding how parentification and attachment impact each other can help you take steps to reduce the effect of parentification on your life. 

To answer any of your questions about what parentification is and how it relates to attachment, this article discusses:

  • What parentification is 
  • Signs and symptoms of parentification
  • How parentification relates to attachment theory
  • Effects of parentification on children
  • Treatment and support for parentification

Definition of Parentification

The phenomenon of parentification occurs between a caregiver and child when the caregiver relies on their child for emotional or practical support. This dependence forces the parentified child to take on adult responsibilities. 

As parentified children take on a giving rather than receiving role, they don’t receive the emotional and physical support they require to grow and develop healthily. This can influence their view of themselves and relationships with others. 

Experts identify two main types of parentification: emotional parentification and instrumental parentification. Let’s explore each in turn.

Emotional Parentification

Emotional parentification occurs when the child fulfills the parent’s emotional or psychological needs. Emotionally parentified children may act as the parent’s confidant and comforter, providing consistent emotional support. Alternatively, the parentified child may serve as a mediator for their parents during conflict. 

This subtype of parentification most typically occurs when a parent is mentally unwell or has attachment issues. In these circumstances, the child meets the parent’s previously unmet emotional needs. However, by doing so, the child doesn’t receive emotional support from the parent, leaving their emotional needs unmet. 

Emotional parentification is typically the hardest form of parentification to recognize, as the parent’s reliance tends to occur before the child is developmentally able to recognize that this pattern is unhealthy. Due to this, emotional parentification typically continues for longer, causing longer-lasting harm. 

Instrumental Parentification

Instrumental parentification occurs when children perform daily living tasks that typically fall within the parent’s remit. Tasks an instrumentally parentified child may perform for their parent include:

  • Preparing meals
  • Cleaning their family home
  • Managing their family’s finances
  • Earning money for their family
  • Caring for (or even raising) their sibling

It’s important to note that expecting a child to help with chores isn’t the same as instrumental parentification. No one task or household job indicates instrumental parentification. It only qualifies as parentification if there is a consistent pattern of the child giving and the parent receiving. 

Instrumental parentification most often occurs in family systems where one or both parents require daily care, such as when they have a physical injury or have to overly work due to financial struggles.  

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Signs and Symptoms of Parentification

In both forms of parentification, the parentified child may feel responsible for their family members and like they had to grow up quickly. Parentified children also often show more somatic symptoms like headaches and stomach aches than non-parentified children. 

Other than these signs, parentified child symptoms differ for each subtype–let’s explore each.

Signs of Emotional Parentification

Emotionally parentified child signs may include:

  • An expectation of the child to comfort their family members when they experience difficult emotions.
  • Having to help solve problems between family members.
  • Acting as the mediator between parents.
  • Being expected to provide for their family financially.
  • Feeling responsible for their parent’s well-being.
  • Getting drawn into their parent’s conflicts.
  • Feeling guilty if they cannot fulfill their parent’s emotional needs.
  • Experiencing anxiety, depression, or other emotional issues due to the stress of caring for their parent’s emotional needs.

Signs of Instrumental Parentification

Children experiencing instrumental parentification might:

  • Feel physically exhausted, stressed, or burnt out due to the demands of taking on adult responsibilities.
  • Struggle with forming relationships outside of the family due to the time and energy spent caring for household responsibilities.
  • Feel the need to take care of siblings or other family members.
  • Sacrifice their needs, such as social or academic pursuits, to handle household responsibilities.

Some children experience emotional and instrumental parentification. In these instances, they may show signs of both subtypes.

Causes of Parentification

Specific family structures and dynamics place children at greater risk of parentification. These risk factors include:

High-stress environments: Families living in high-stress environments are most prone to parentification. This stress could result from mental or physical illness (in a parent or sibling), conflict between parents, parental separation, or financial problems.

Intergenerational trauma: Evidence suggests that maternal history of sexual abuse, immigrant status, and adult attachment issues can cause parentification in families.

Substance abuse issues: Parents with alcohol or drug abuse issues typically rely more on their children for emotional and instrumental support.

Single-parent households: Children, particularly the eldest sibling, may have to take on the absent parent’s responsibilities to ensure household chores are complete and siblings are cared for while the single parent works. 

Intrusive parenting styles: Overly controlling parenting styles that involve over-involvement in a child’s life can result in parentification. Intrusive parents may not respect their child’s boundaries, relying on them for support and assistance that exceed their developmental capabilities.

Parentification can also manifest from cultural or societal factors.

Examples of Parentification

Parentification isn’t the same for everyone; it can differ in severity and the way it presents between families. Nevertheless, there are some common examples of emotional and instrumental parentification–we share these below.

Examples of Emotional Parentification

When a parent has a severe mental or physical illness, the child feels they must hide their problems or emotions, so they’re not a burden on their parent. 

The parents did not achieve the grades they wanted in school, so the child feels pressured to be “perfect” and achieve excellent grades. 

When living in a single-parent household, the single parent may expect their child to listen to their concerns about their finances, friendships, and job. 

During parental arguments, the child becomes the mediator.

Examples of Instrumental Parentification

The eldest sibling in a single-parent household takes on the responsibility of the absent parent, helping to care for their younger siblings. 

A chronically ill or disabled parent depends on the child to administer their medication or help with personal care.

Within a family with low socioeconomic status, the child must work outside the home to contribute to the family’s income and help pay the bills. 

The child is responsible for cooking meals, cleaning the house, and caring for younger siblings when their parents work long hours due to financial difficulties

The child cooks for the family and puts the baby to bed after a parent with substance abuse issues is incapable of doing.

Attachment Theory and Parentification

Attachment theory is a psychological idea that originated from the work of British psychologist John Bowlby. This concept explains the importance of the early primary caregiver-child in shaping the child’s development, both socially and emotionally. 

According to the theory, infants have a natural inner motivation to seek comfort from their primary caregiver. When the caregiver meets the child’s needs for warmth, comfort, and safety, this creates feelings of safety for the child. But when the caregiver is emotionally unavailable, the child feels generally unsafe in the world, leading to insecure attachment.

So, how does attachment theory fit into parentified families? In a parentified family, the child will still seek comfort. However, the child may not be met with adequate emotional support, similar to cases of insecure attachment. This similarity suggests a possible link between parentification and attachment. 

If you don’t know your attachment style and want to receive a free report, you can take the free Attachment Styles quiz on our website.

Effects of Parentification on Children

Parentification can affect a child in more ways than one. Not only does parentification typically influence a child’s development, but it can also detrimentally effect their school life, mental health, and relationships. 

Parentification and Development

Parentification can impact a child’s emotional and cognitive development as they may be expected to take on responsibilities beyond their developmental capabilities. As a result of these expectations, a parentified child may experience high anxiety, stress, and overwhelm. Moreover, they may receive little (if any) support with these difficult emotions, which can further interfere with the development of healthy emotional regulation skills. 

Parentification can also influence a child’s social development, as they may have less time and energy to devote to socializing with peers and developing healthy relationships. This can lead to feelings of isolation and difficulties with social skills.

Parentification and School Life

Evidence suggests that parentification may disrupt a child’s school life, potentially resulting in lower academic outcomes as they have less time and energy to focus on their studies.

Furthermore, parentified adolescents may overwork themselves trying not to drop the ball with their responsibilities, which could lead to physical and mental illness. Research shows that physical and mental illness increases absenteeism at school, which can further harm a child’s academic growth.

Parentification and Mental Health

Research links parentification with various mental health difficulties. Parentified children are more at risk of developing depression, eating disorders, and personality disorders. Children who experience parentification also typically display higher anxiety levels than their non-parentified peers.

Additionally, parentified children may not learn how to develop healthy coping strategies, instead adopting unhealthy methods to relieve the emotional toll of their responsibilities. As a result, parentified children are at a higher risk of engaging in unhealthy behaviors like substance use and risky sexual behaviors.

Parentification and Relationships

Evidence suggests that both forms of parentification can cause significant attachment difficulties in childhood, with the issues often extending into adulthood. 

Emotional parentification generally leads to greater disruptions in caregiver-child attachment than instrumental parentification. When instrumental parentification occurs independently, the child can still develop a secure attachment if the parentifying adult provides some emotional consistency and support and recognizes the child’s efforts. 

In contrast, emotional parentification often severely disrupts the development of secure attachment, particularly when the parent doesn’t reciprocate the child’s emotional support. 

Children may also feel obligated to keep their family life secret, especially in situations involving parental substance abuse or mental illness. The shame, stigma, and isolation associated with this may leave a child suffering in silence, feeling unable to confide in anyone. Unfortunately, this can have serious consequences for their later relationships.

Long-Term Effects of Parentification on Children

Parentification can have various long-lasting effects. Emotional parentification trauma can have a longer-lasting detrimental impact as the parent’s expectations exceed the child’s developmental age, degree of understanding, and level of maturity. 

Adults who were emotionally parentified as children often experience:

  • Intense feelings around rejection and disappointment in later relationships.
  • Anxiety about abandonment and loss.
  • Similar patterns of providing care and receiving nothing back in romantic relationships.

Instrumentally and emotionally parentified children may also miss key developmental milestones, such as those associated with developing their identity. This pattern typically occurs because the parentified child must suppress their needs and desires to meet others’ needs. As a consequence, adults with an underdeveloped identity may struggle with self-esteem and mental health issues and when making decisions. 

Attachment also plays a crucial role in identity development, as well as temperament, self-esteem, and interpersonal relationships. Insecure attachment can hinder all these processes, regardless of what causes it. Therefore, parentification that causes insecure attachment will likely have long-lasting effects on someone’s ability to form relationships.

Does Parentification Always Have Adverse Effects?

Evidence suggests that parentification may not always have a detrimental effect on the child. For example, if the child supports their family during a temporary illness, this can help teach important life skills. Similarly, if the family recognize the child’s caregiving efforts, this reduces the long-term harm. 

The line between whether parentification helps or hinders a child tends to be dependent on the burden it places on the child and the duration of reliance. When the burden becomes too heavy, or the parentification goes on for a long time, this can hinder a child’s development.

How to Heal From Parentification: Treatment and Support Options for Parentification

Knowing how to heal from parentification isn’t always easy. However, there are many support and treatment options available to help overcome parentification’s long-lasting detrimental effects. By accessing these, we can reduce the impact of parentification on our adult lives. 

The main treatment methods include:

  • Therapy
  • Self-care
  • Support groups

Therapy for Parentification

Therapy can help us address the difficulties that arise from parentification from all angles–emotionally, psychologically, and behaviorally. 

With a qualified therapist, you can work through any residual feelings, such as resentment, anger, and guilt, and develop healthy coping strategies to manage anxiety and stress. Furthermore, during therapy, you can learn how to develop healthy boundaries, establish a stronger self-identity, and improve your communication skills. 

Some of the most effective forms of therapy for addressing parentification are:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Family therapy
  • Psychodynamic therapy 
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DMT)

Self-Care for Parentification

Self-care is an essential step in healing from parentification, as this phenomena involves our childhood needs going unmet. We can imagine self-care like a cat licking its wounds; just like the cat we’re relying on ourselves for comfort and soothing. 

Self-care is a demonstration of self-love that reminds us we are worthy of love, care, and attention, which can help us begin to recover from past traumatic events. Additionally, incorporating self-care activities like: mindfulness, exercise, and hobbies into your daily routine can help you build a sense of identity–an element of yourself that may not have had room to blossom before.

Mental Health Support Groups for Parentification

Support groups can provide a space to connect with people who had similar childhood experiences. These groups typically involve receiving validation from others, which can reduce the feelings of isolation and loneliness commonly associated with parentification. 

Furthermore, support groups can teach people about the effects of parentification, as well as strategies to manage its long-lasting effects. This can help us gain a deeper understanding of our experiences and recognize how to form healthy coping strategies.

Final Words on Parentification and Attachment

The connection between parentification and attachment is complex, and it varies depending on the form of parentification that you experience. 

However, we do know this: Parentified trauma can make it hard for children to build healthy bonds in adulthood because of the way it impacts their attachment style. This effect is especially apparent in emotionally parentified children, as their parent’s typically demand more than the child is emotionally, cognitively, and developmentally able to provide. 

In addition to relationship difficulties, parentified children may struggle with developmental delays, problems in their school life, and mental health concerns. Moreover, in some scenarios, parentification can have long-lasting effects. 

Have you experienced child parentification? Understanding the relationship between your attachment style and parentification–as well as the treatment options that are out there–can reduce the influence of parentification on your adult life.

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