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Parentification's Devastating Consequences on Childhood

Trauma is intergenerational. Parentification often gets passed down from one generation to the next. The earlier it begins and the longer it lasts, the more detrimental it is to the child.
Young girl sad because of parentification
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Unraveling the Hidden Cost of Parentification

Every parentified child is a child who has lost a part of their childhood. For some, it is only part of their childhood. For others, it is the entirety of it.

The article "Why Everyone Should Prepare for the Eldest Daughter Revolution" by Yael Wolfe, gave a touching and personal account of parentification. Her story highlighted her inner struggle with the high expectations placed on her.

Her story resonated so many other women, who each shared their own versions in the comments. Women of all ages expressed the same feelings of overwhelm. They shared and reflected on their stories, with an immense feeling of isolation of having carried that burden silently for years.

That's the issue with parentification.

It is a silent burden that is rarely talked about. In some cultures, it can even be the norm. However, the more we dive into the impact of parentification, the more we discover the hidden cost of it.

What is Parentification?

Is parentification abuse?

Why does it happen?

What are the consequences of it?

How do we treat it?

What is Parentification?

In a healthy child-parent relationship, parents are the caretakers and children receive support and love. Parents should provide a safe environment for children to blossom and grow up. Childhood is about self-discovery, learning, and growing.

Parentification is a role reversal of the parent and child.

The child becomes the caretaker; the parent receives their support (either directly or indirectly). The parents demand either practical or emotional support from the children.

If parentified, that developmental process is sped up, skipping essential steps. Children no longer have the freedom to grow and learn at their own pace. They are forced to take on responsibilities that are well beyond their age, abilities, and resources.

As a result, parentified children mature and grow up quicker than their peers. This does not come cheaply, as they pay with their childhood and self-identity. The consequences of parentification are long-lasting and severe.

Kids who take on adult responsibilities often go without recognition or appreciation. Instead, it becomes the expectation for the child.

Failure to meet that expectation is treated like a personal failing. Some parents even guilt and manipulate them, as a way of ensuring the child continues to fill that role.

Many parents may not even be aware they are parentifying their child. "That's the way we do things." If that is what the parents experienced as a child themselves, it is even more challenging to change the behavior.

Trauma is intergenerational.

Often we repeat the trauma our parents passed down to us. It came from their parents before that, going back generation after generation.

It's difficult to recognize the line between parentification and teaching responsibility. This line is further blurred when research notes there are some benefits of parentification.

What are the benefits?

Although there are some benefits, the consequences that go with parentification far out-weight them.

The benefits include:

  • "mature" children
  • more independent
  • self-sufficient
  • confident in task-performance

So I can't give my children chores now?

Anytime the discussion of parentification comes up, some parents become defensive and dismissive.

No one wants to hear that they are doing something wrong. It's easier to dismiss the entire conversation than to reflect and change the norm.  

Let's clear up the difference between chores and parentification.


  • age-appropriate
  • falls within their ability
  • teaches the child some responsibility
  • build confidence and self-efficacy
  • the child can balance easily their chores, schoolwork, and playtime
  • if the child fails to do their chores, they are the one mostly impacted by it


  • not age appropriate
  • benefits the parents more than the child doing the work
  • It forces the child to quickly develop skills to meet a too-high expectation
  • child feels overwhelmed
  • the child does not have time for playing
  • if the child fails to do the job, the family is mostly impacted by it

Two Types of Parentification

The two types of parentification are Instrumental and Emotional.

Instrumental Parentification

This is when the child takes on more practical responsibilities in the household. It can include:

  • caring for siblings or another relative (sick, disabled, or old)
  • taking over household duties, such as cleaning, cooking, or grocery shopping
  • working to help pay bills
  • taking on the caretaker role for a parent with a physical disability or mental health issues
  • being the constant translator in families where the parent does not speak the language of their resident country.

Emotional Parentification

Emotional parentification is when the child provides emotional support to the parent. It can include:

  • being the "therapist" for a parent and listening to all their problems
  • offering advice to parent
  • mediating fights between family members
  • serving as a parent's confidante
  • providing emotional comfort and support to parent
  • parent demands too much physical or emotional support, like the type they would usually get from a spouse (also known as "spousification")

What Causes Parentification?

Most of the time, parentification is not done intentionally or maliciously. It often occurs when one or both parents cannot provide as much support as they should.

Neglect or abuse can also cause parentification. The child needs to care for themselves and all their needs because the parent(s) won't.

Often, parentification occurs during times of significant life changes.

The earlier it begins and the longer it lasts, the more detrimental it is to the child.

Some causes of parentification:

  • Divorce
  • Death of a Parent
  • Immature Parents
  • Parents' Poor Attachment Style
  • Financial Stress
  • Parental Substance Abuse
  • Physical or Mental Health Issues in Family Member(s)
  • Immigrant Parents Trying to Integrate into Society
It is most often the eldest child that becomes parentified, but girls are more at risk of it than their brothers.

Adaptive Parentification and Destructive Parentification

We can further divide Parentification into two subgroups: Adaptive and Destructive.

Adaptive Parentification

This is when the child takes on adult responsibilities for short periods of time out of necessity. For example, if the eldest sibling has to supervise their younger siblings for one weekend since their parents are sick. Children understand that this is a temporary situation and not an expectation.

Adaptive Parentification has more benefits associated with it.

Destructive Parentification

This is more pervasive. It occurs when the parentification is ongoing and long-term. The parentification responsibilities become the expectations for the child, rather than an exception.

Destructive Parentification has more severe and long-term consequences associated with it.

What Are the Short-Term Consequences?

Each child will experience different consequences from their parentification. There are several factors that impact the severity and longevity of those consequences:

  • age parentification first began (the earlier, the more harmful)
  • the severity of the parentification (number of responsibilities)
  • the duration of it
  • the temperament of the child
  • having positive adult role models present to protect against it

Some of the short-term consequences that appear during the child's childhood and adolescence are:

Avoidance of Age-appropriate Activities

Being forced to mature early can lead to a lack of interest in age-appropriate play. Parentified children act older and are often described as "mature." They lose the ability to play and are burdened with adult responsibilities and stressors.

Struggling with Emotional Identification

When you constantly put the needs of others before yourself, you lose the ability to identify your emotions. Your emotional needs become secondary to everything else.

Repressing emotions can lead to emotional dysregulation. It can cause enormous difficulties in establishing and maintaining boundaries.

Depression & Suicidal Thoughts

Ignoring your own emotional needs and wants is a quick path to depression. The weight of shouldering that much responsibility is an endless stressor.

They rarely receive enough validation from their parents. When they aim to meet the too-high expectations, they feel like a personal failing when they can't meet them.

The child may feel so overwhelmed by their responsibilities that suicide can seem like the only 'out.'


Depression and anxiety go hand-in-hand. They often appear together in a guilt-ridden loop of negativity. Being responsible for the physical and emotional equilibrium of the household is a lot of stress for anyone, especially a child.

Parentification often comes with guilt and self-blame. Parents sometimes use this guilt as a manipulation tactic, making the child take on more and more.

If the child cannot keep up with the high expectations, their anxiety can result in self-blame. This results in low self-esteem.

Disruptive Behavior

A parentified child often gets overlooked. Once they are seen as the "mature ones." It is expected that they take care of themselves and others. Their needs and requests for support are pushed aside because, "They know better.

Disruptive behavior can occur within the household, outside it, or both. As the child experiences immense pressure and neglect, they lash out.

This acting out can be their way of releasing pent-up frustration and resentment. It may be the only way they get their parents' undivided attention.

If the parentification is based on them taking care of their siblings, they may feel resentment towards them. They recognize the imbalance of parental support and unfair treatment.  


Parentification is linked to high levels of guilt. Parentified children feel guilt when they cannot handle adult responsibilities.

It can feel like a personal failure. Parents can feed into this guilt by using manipulation to control the child. This guilt further contributes to anxiety and depression symptoms.

Physical Symptoms

Somatic symptoms are common in parentified children. These are physical ailments that appear without an apparent cause. It can look like frequent headaches, stomachaches, or other similar issues.

Emotional repression and long-term stress cause the body to react this way. The somatic symptoms are the body's way of alerting you, "There is something wrong. Something has to change."

Physical complaints may also be the child's unconscious way of getting out of the responsibilities. It can be a preemptive excuse as to why they cannot meet the unattainable expectations.

Poor Academic Performance

Anyone who prioritizes another person above themself will notice the toll it takes on their own life. Since these children are more focused on caring for others, they don't have the time, energy, or emotional capacity to excel in school. This results in poor grades, missing classes, and falling asleep in class.

Poor Friendships & Social Isolation

Worse yet, parentified children are generally more isolated. They have more difficulty with making and maintaining friendships with peers.

Overwhelmed by their responsibilities, they lack time and energy to dedicate to friendships. They lack interest in typical age-appropriate activities and engage less in play.

Their emotional dysregulation and disruptive behavior cause them to be isolated from their peers.

Substance Use

Plagued by depression, anxiety, and guilt, many turn to substance use to dull these negative emotions. Substance use is an unhealthy coping skill that numbs emotional distress. It gives temporary relief, which then turns into a toxic cycle of dependency.

Long-Term Effects of Parentification

The consequences of parentification go beyond childhood and adolescence. Often, the parentified child continues to be the one responsible for those tasks, even in adulthood.

The parentified child struggles to separate themselves from the family. They feel as though they are an essential piece of the family. They feel like they need to continue their role to maintain the household. Everything will fall apart without me.  

Substance Use Disorder

Substance use disorder is both short-term and long-term consequences, as it can appear both in adolescence and adulthood. Unable to recognize and identify their emotions, substance use becomes an unhealthy way of coping. With their history of ignoring their own needs, substance use gives temporary relief.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are another unhealthy coping mechanism. Both under-eating and overeating are ways of self-soothing. For a parentified child, their life may feel out of their control. Controlling their food consumption could be one way of regaining that feeling of control.

Relationship Difficulties

The parent-child relationship is the first example of a relationship that the child witnesses. It sets the foundation for what to expect in other relationships. For parentification, the roles of the parent and child are reversed.

The relationship becomes one-sided, with unreasonably high expectations of the child. Parentified children often continue this pattern of relationships, where they become 'people pleasers.' They prioritize the wants and needs of others above their own. They have difficulties saying 'no.' Some people may take advantage of this and use them.

Severe parentification affects the attachment of the child to the parent. It is neglect and emotional abuse. Without a secure attachment, the child is likely to have an anxious, disorganized, or avoidant attachment style. This pattern will continue with all future relationships. Healthy and balanced relationships are unlikely.

If the child realizes the impact of their upbringing, this can lead to resentment and bitterness. They may lash out at their parents or cut ties with them completely.

Fear of Abandonment

If the child is guilted and manipulated into doing the tasks, they may fear abandonment. They tie their value to the responsibilities they can handle.

Having their idea of worth so tightly tied to their responsibilities, they may take on more. They fear being ignored and abandoned, so they do more and more. They feel like they need to 'earn' their parents' approval. If they are taking care of the tasks, they know rejection will follow.

Often, parentified children receive less attention and support because they are seen as mature. The child might only receive attention (positive and negative) in relation to the responsibilities. Parents criticize or guilt their children if they are unable to meet high expectations. The only positive attention they may get is if they go beyond the already high expectations.

Mental Health Issues

A major long-term impact of parentification is overall psychological distress. They may feel dissatisfied with life, since they are prioritizing the needs of others, to their own detriment.

There are higher rates of depression and anxiety in the long term for those parentified.

Emotional Regulation Issues

A lifetime spent ignoring their emotional needs means they struggle to recognize their emotions. If they can't recognize their emotions, this leads to emotional dysregulation. This means they have difficulty controlling and dealing with their emotions.  

Chronic Physical Illness or Somatic Symptoms

Chronic stress = chronic illness.

Anyone who deals with high levels of prolonged stress is more likely to suffer from chronic illness. The emotional toll on the body shows up physically with chronic health issues or somatic symptoms.

Inability to Trust Others

Once parentified, relationships are no longer viewed as symbiotic and neutral. Instead, the parentified child internally questions "What does this person want from me?" They are used to continuously giving and others taking from them.

Unable to Place Healthy Boundaries

Childhood is when we learn to establish boundaries. On the playground with our peers, we learn to say when we don't like something or we want something to stop.

However, parentified children are used to their boundaries getting steamrolled. Their emotional wants and needs are secondary. Saying 'no' can be impossible. They never learn how to establish and maintain boundaries.

As a result, they often end up in relationships (both romantic and platonic) where they are manipulated and exploited. This type of relationship feels familiar because it is what they grew up with.

Difficulty Functioning Independently

The child's identity is wrapped up in taking care of others because they have been forced to act as a caregiver. All they have known is looking after other people, above their own needs. They don't know how to exist outside of that role.  Their sense of value and self-worth can be heavily tied to how much they can provide for their family.  

How to heal from parentification

The healing process from parentification is long and complex. It is an accumulation of trauma over a long period. The consequences have long-lasting effects on self-identity, emotional regulation, and coping skills.

1. Educate Yourself about Parentification
2. Therapy (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or trauma therapy like EMDR)
3. Prioritize self-care with holistic healing
3. Recognize your own coping skills: healthy and unhealthy
4. Establish and Maintain Boundaries with Family
5. Understand if the relationship dynamic is happening elsewhere
6. Reclaim your Childhood (Inner Child Therapy and by using play)
7. Join support groups


Parentification is a complex and often unrecognized issue that can have long-lasting consequences. While there may be some benefits of parentification, the consequences far outweigh them. The burden of adult responsibilities can cause significant stress for the child. Understanding parentification and its consequences can help break the intergenerational cycle of trauma. With proper support and therapy, parentified children can begin to heal the wounds from their childhood.