A parentified child has responsibilities placed on them that are inappropriate, considering their age and abilities. These responsibilities can include practical duties, such as paying bills, or emotional support, such as acting as a confidant.

Parentification can have negative effects on a child. Parentified children may experience anxiety, depression, and other psychological and physical effects. The impact can be lasting and might continue into adulthood.

In certain cases, some degree of parentification may have positive effects, such as building resilience and competency.

Overall, receiving increased support and having therapy may help a person overcome the negative effects.

Below, learn more about parentification, including the types, the signs, and strategies for overcoming the negative effects.

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Parentification refers to the roles of a child and parent being reversed. Instead of providing emotional and practical support, the parent relies on their child for this.

Parental responsibilities, such as raising siblings and managing the household, are forced on the child. These responsibilities do not typically fall on children, and they can often exceed the child’s abilities, given their age and resources.

Parentification can occur when a family system experiences high levels of stress, and a caregiver is unable to perform their parental duties. These stressors might include:

  • drug abuse, including alcohol use disorder
  • divorce
  • economic instability
  • persistent neglect
  • physical disability or illness
  • physical or sexual abuse

Parentification can be parent-focused or sibling-focused. And either type can be instrumental, emotional, or both.

If parentification is instrumental, a child may be forced to take on practical duties, such as paying bills. If it is emotional, the child may have to take on responsibilities, such as mediating conflict between family members.

It is important to note that in cases of parentification, the duties are age-inappropriate and excessive.

Parent-focused parentification

In this case, a child might perform these parental duties:

  • earning money for the family
  • managing the family’s finances
  • acting as a confidant
  • providing comfort to other family members
  • mediating conflict or being a peacemaker

Sibling-focused parentification

In this case, a child may have inappropriate responsibilities that involve:

  • being the primary caregiver for one or more siblings, who may have health conditions that require extra care
  • bathing, dressing, and grooming siblings
  • providing comfort in difficult situations

Research shows that parentified children or teenagers may experience or demonstrate:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • hyperactivity
  • disruptive or antisocial behavior
  • aggression
  • feelings of shame
  • feelings of isolation
  • disturbances in interpersonal relationships
  • substance abuse
  • a range of physical symptoms

Parentification may have negative and positive outcomes. The duration of parentification and cultural factors can influence these outcomes.

Negative effects

Adults who were parentified during childhood or adolescence might experience:

  • substance misuse
  • one or more eating disorders
  • symptoms of dissociation, such as losing track of time and forgetfulness
  • symptoms of personality disorders, such as difficulty managing emotions or challenges relating to self-image

A person experiencing any negative effects of parentification may benefit from discussing it with a healthcare professional, such as a mental health professional.

Find resources for free online therapy.

Research suggests that parentification may affect academic achievement, and experts have suggested various theories about the nature of this effect.

Some have found that children who care for an ill parent, for example, have little or no time for homework and receive no support in keeping up with their classes. This can lead to lower grades.

Other research has shown that children and teenagers who have experienced parentification have tendencies toward alcohol use disorder and perfectionism.

Positive effects

Research has found that parentification may sometimes lead to an increase in competency and maturity. This may be true when the child’s duties do not exceed their capabilities and when the parent expresses appreciation.

An older study looked into the long-term effects of parentification on children with a parent who has HIV. During the 6-year follow-up, there was an association between parentification, improved coping skills, and reduced substance use.

The following steps can help prevent parentification:

  • Make sure duties are age-appropriate. When tasks are suitable for a child’s age and abilities, it encourages them to develop responsibility. For example, a younger child might feed a pet, and an older child might help prepare a meal.
  • Do not delegate parental responsibilities. This might include managing finances and making decisions during challenging periods.
  • Maintain boundaries. This might involve not relying on a child for emotional support or treating them as a confidant. For example, during a separation, avoid making negative comments about the co-parent to a child.

For anyone struggling with steps, a counselor or psychologist can help.

Family therapy may also be beneficial. Therapists can work with parents and children to encourage dialogue and build healthy relationships. This therapy aims to amend the parentification and prevent it from occurring in future generations.

Learn where to access therapy without health insurance.

Research suggests that receiving support from peers, teachers, and other family members can help a person overcome the negative effects of parentification. Receiving greater community support can also be very beneficial for caregivers.

Therapy may also help address the reversed relationship between the child and parent. For example, some research suggests that CBT may be beneficial for people who experienced parentification in their childhood or teens.

Learn more about different therapy types here.

A parentified child has practical or emotional responsibilities that exceed their resources or abilities. This reflects a reversed relationship between a parent and child.

The causes of this reversal might include a parent’s illness or economic instability, for example.

Parentification can have negative effects in the short and long term. Receiving appropriate support, which may include therapy or counseling, can help someone overcome these effects.

To prevent parentification, make sure that a child’s duties are age-appropriate and that healthy boundaries are in place, even during very challenging periods.