Sometimes parents inadvertently cross the line and start relying heavily on a teenage child as an emotional prop, ego booster, venting medium and/or confidante with potentially devastating repercussions for the child – Punita Malhotra
It’s not unusual for parents to call on children especially adolescents, in times of family crises to pitch in and share household chores and/or assume additional responsibilities. It’s also acceptable for parents to occasionally unburden themselves and share their troubles with adolescent children. But sometimes parents can inadvertently cross the line and start relying too heavily on a teenage child as an emotional prop, ego booster, venting medium and/or confidante with potentially devastating repercussions for the child.
Role reversal can backfire
Some children naturally mature early, while others are pushed into early adulthood by home circumstances. The well-known Hungarian-American psychiatrist Dr. Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy (1920-2007) describes this process as ‘parentification,’ in which adults unwittingly turn children into functional ‘elders’ by entrusting them with more than their share of age-inappropriate responsibilities.
Psychologists differentiate between ‘instrumental parentification’ that involves children running errands to sup port household activities and ‘emotional parentification’ where the child becomes the emotional caretaker. In the latter case, parents offload their problems onto a child, unconsciously giving the message that emotional unburdening helps her feel better. In such cases the burden of a parent’s unhappiness shifts to the child.
Some parents also tend to rope in children to mediate to solve their marital conflicts while some seek comfort in children during emotional breakdowns. Dr. Lisa M. Hooper, researcher and expert on parentification at the University of Northern Iowa, cautions that “children should not be serving the intimate needs of a parent, or placed in the role of secrets keeper.” According to Hooper, children are not equipped to handle heavily loaded adult emotional situations.
In the short term, ‘parentified’ children tend to develop stress-related illnesses, eating disorders, and mental health problems. The impact is more serious in the long run. In the book, Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child by Gregory J. Jurkovic, the author explains how children pushed into role reversal are likely to experience anger, trust and relationship issues. If pushed prematurely out of childhood, they may harbour feelings of isolation from siblings/peers and even develop deep-seated resentment towards parents. Aaron Anderson, director of The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver (USA), adds that an inverted relationship (where the parent does not take a lead position) causes emotional stunting in children. Observing a parent struggling with emotional maturity, prompts children to become dependent on others for their own stability, happiness and healing, he says.
Boundaries work best
Psychologists make the following suggestions for parents to avoid child parentification:
- Assign children age-appropriate responsibilities. Identify chores which are suitable for young children such as putting away their toys, cleaning their room, making their beds, feeding pets and watering plants. Older children can be entrusted with clearing the table, washing the dishes, doing the laundry or babysitting younger siblings. It is important to ensure that children are not loaded with more household chores than they can cope with. If you get an indication that the child is stretched or stressed, withdraw some tasks.
- Maintain family hierarchy. Define the roles and responsibilities of parent and children clearly. Subjects related to family finances, health and well-being are non-transferable, and do not fall within the domain of children. Similarly, maintaining safety, stability and security of children is strictly a parental duty.
- Set firm boundaries. Be careful not to share sensitive information with children. Avoid revealing details of unsettling issues such as economic and professional troubles and relationship complications, under the assumption that they are old enough to counsel or mediate. In moments of emotional insecurity, depend on the social support of peers and family elders, rather than children.
- Be the problem-solver. Children lean on parents for every answer, and parents need to assure them of their full support. This does not mean that a parent must project the image of a superdad or supermom all the time. Admitting moments of weakness is perfectly acceptable, as long as you have them believe that you will get through on your own. Pass on your strengths to children by demonstrating resilience and resolve. “Children observe and emulate parental language, behaviour and habits. While it’s important for parents not to suppress their emotions before children, it’s also important not to go over the top and vent them unreservedly. Also most importantly when parents share their vulnerabilities and fears with children, it’s also imperative to tell them how they had overcome many such problems in the past. This will develop resilient children who will not only manage themselves emotionally but will have your back, if and when needed,” says Vandana Jha, a Bengaluru-based well-being coach and counselling psychologist.
Although children benefit from taking on responsibilities early in life, child development professionals warn that parentification is unhealthy. If you suspect that your child is parentified, the best course of action is to consult a therapist or a child counsellor.