Did You Have To Grow Up Too Soon?
Healing from the trauma of Parentification
By Imi Lo
Our experiences in childhood, be it an acute trauma or hidden, chronic trauma, could impact us for life. Things that happened years ago can affect our relationships, self-esteem and quality of life today.
One form of childhood trauma that is rarely talked about, but remains insidious and toxic, is parentification. Unlike physical abuse, parentification is chronic and invisible. This, however, does not mean it is any less wounding. More and more research has found that parentification could leave us scarred for life. For instance, parentified children are more likely to experience depression as adults.
Parentification constitute a form of ‘role reversal’ in the family when a child is made to take on parental responsibilities. They may have to, aside from taking care of themselves, be their parents’ confidants, their siblings’ caretaker, the family mediator, etc. It is a form of boundary violation because the innocent childhood that one is entitled to is robbed away.
Forms of Parentification
Parentification can occur in two ways: Emotional Parentification, and Instrumental Parentification.
Emotional Parentification is when a young child is forced to meet the emotional needs of their parent(s), siblings or other family members, on a regular/ daily basis.
Some parents hurt their children not maliciously but inadvertently, through the lack of personal stability, maturity and emotional health. Childish and emotional under-developed parents tend to be preoccupied with their own life’s tasks or are constantly overwhelmed by their own distress, and do not have any bandwidth to see their child or children’s wants and needs.
Sensitive children, empaths and gifted children are especially prone to be parentified. They are by nature more empathic, responsive and intuitive than others. They are keenly aware of other people’s moods and nuances in their environments. They see, hear, sense and feel things everyone else is missing, including their parents’ unsaid grief and any toxic dynamic in the family system. Nothing slips through their radar, and they feel deeply into other’s pain. Thus, they pick up on their caregivers’ distress and vulnerabilities even when no one has explicitly asked them to. Even only inadvertently, it is was for others to slip into relying on their soothing presence.
The toxic dynamic can even include what is known as Covert or Emotional Incest, where a parent looks to their child for the support and connection they would typically get from a partner. Perhaps the parent is trapped in a dysfunctional marriage and feels lonely and empty in his/her own life. In need of a surrogate partner, the sensitive child is used to fill the gaps in their lives. There may or may not involve any overt sexual behaviours, touch or abuse, but the emotional closeness is suffocating. For example, the parents might tell the child about their sexual frustration, cry excessively in front of the child, sleep in the same bed with the child/ adolescence to avoid intimacy with their partners, or make sexualised remarks about the child’s developing body. Usually, enmeshment is involved. The child is made to feel guilty if they want to be left alone. They feel obligated to meet their parent’s needs at the drop of a hat and responsible for their happiness.
Instrumental/ Material/ Physical Parentification is like emotional parentification but in terms of physical and material aspects. Parents who either shy away from or have no care or consideration for practical duties and responsibilities can push their child to take on the roles they are neglecting. Children in this type of parentification are forced to become instrumental to the family and home’s practical survival. Imagine a child who is bombarded every day with the responsibilities to tuck in sisters or brothers, or read them bedtime stories; organise drinks or food, wash up dishes, or a myriad of housework. When burdened with that many responsibilities, self-care tends to go out the window. If the child continues to attend school, they may be withdrawn, unkempt, and visibly exhausted. Having to take care of everything from a young age, children subject to this type of parentification can develop extreme anxiety and other nervous- compulsive disorders. They may also become codependent in their future relationships.
What Happens to the Parentified Child?
In most cases of parentification, there is no physical abuse or a lack of love; the parents love their child but only with limited capacity. The harm is usually done not out of malicious intent but personal vulnerabilities.
However, when a child who is supposed to go through their natural cycles of development and self- evolution is forced to grow up too quickly, there is a cost. The consequences are not just physical, it is also mental, emotional and spiritual.
Parentified children are not given the time, care, love, emotional support, grounding or security needed to develop and thrive. Without a role model, they are deprived of the opportunity to learn through observation and guardianship. For the most part, they are expected to keep it together and never show signs of distress. If they were to be needy or vulnerable, they are either ignored or sometimes punished. Eventually, they internalise the message that having needs and desires is not acceptable. They become ashamed of their vulnerabilities, and eventually, emotional numbness and self-denial become their second nature.
Sadly, even the circumstances are no longer the same, they are not able to discard the impact of having been parentified.
To survive in a home with immature and needy parents, children adopt various survival strategies. Sometimes, these coping mechanisms follow them for life and become a core part of their personality.
Some children use jokes and laughter to diffuse conflicts and to disguise sadness. As adults, they become the ‘class clown’, the joker, the soul of a party. However, they are not able to get in touch with their true selves or have others see their sorrow. Underneath the facade, they are lonely.
Some children become extremely compliant. They hope that by becoming the quiet one, they can escape conflicts and blame.
Some children become helpers in the family. They believe they must serve, help and rescue everyone in need. As adults, they may find that they have a confused sense of self-identity beyond the helper role. They may be people-pleasers and are not able to set boundaries.
Some people leave home early to escape the traumatising home, but the painful memories never leave them. They become wary of relationships of any kind and are always afraid of being trapped by a suffocating partner. As a result, they avoid intimacy altogether despite a yearning for it.
Some children shoulder all responsibilities diligently and become the protector of the family. They have developed a hyper-vigilant nervous system and are unable to relax even when the threat is no longer there. As adults, they are highly perfectionistic and anxious, picking holes in themselves or those around them. They have an inner critic that is always complaining they are not doing things correctly, that they must improve and do better. They tend to blame themselves for everything that goes wrong, and constantly try to fix things that cannot be fixed.
If your parents tended to only recognise what you do, without valuing who you were, you would have learned to build your self-esteem based on something external. You might have an inner critic that is highly demanding, always pushing you towards the next goalpost, in the hope that it will bring you the love you want. No matter how much you have achieved on the outside, however, you are left feeling empty on the inside.
If your parents suffered from physical or mental illness and replied on you for comfort and care, the ‘helper role’ might have dominated your entire being. Your sense of self did not get fully developed before you needed to care for others, so as a result, you don't know who you are except when you are doing things for others. As an adult, you may be running around meeting everyone else's' needs, and you may be close to burning out trying to take care of your family and colleagues, but do not feel anyone is there for you.
If your parents were reckless, they might have created a chaotic and unstable environment for you and your siblings. As a result, you have trained yourself to always be on guard, watching out for the next sign of danger. You are unable to relax, trust others, or let go of control. When you are under stress, you can get paranoid about things even when you know they are illogical. Your overly cautious tendency may also stop you from reaching the next level in your professional life, as you are often held in 'analysis paralysis'.
If your parents behaved like bullies, you would have learned early in life a distorted definition of power. You believe you can only count on yourself, and that the world is a 'winners-take-all' place. You put up a strong front, but others find it difficult to come close to you. Even with your significant others, you struggle to let your guard down. As a result, in the invisible castle you have built to keep yourself safe, you feel alone in the world.
Healing and Integration
Fortunately, there are many healing process and routes to wholeness and recovery for a young adult or adult who has been parentified as a child.
The first step is to tell your story. By doing this, you acknowledge the harsh reality of what has happened. This is sometimes an arduous process as you might have learned, through social conditioning or out of your survival instinct, to suppress your memories and feelings. When someone ask you about your childhood, you struggle to recall any episode. Whenever you are prompted to speak about your parents, you feel guilty. You justify all adverse events that have happened in your childhood and feel the need to excuse your parents’ neglect or abuse. You may even feel bad about feeling bad. If what you have been through was mainly emotional parentification, then the lack of clear, visible signs of abuse makes it harder for you to speak up. After having carried the burden for so many years, suppression has become your ‘normal’, and acknowledging that ‘something might be wrong’ could be the hardest first step.
However, acknowledgement of the reality is the first step to healing & recovery. You are accepting not the injustice, but the truth of your story. As you see reality for what it was, you no longer invest extra energy in defending, suppressing, or rationalising. In contrast, if you continue to live in denial, your mental energy and life force would be spent in suppressing the pain that was in there, rather than healing what needs to be healed.
Since you had to grow up too early too soon, you might be trained to become hyper-independent. You are incredibly self-reliant that it may feel impossible to be vulnerable or seek help from others. Being highly self- reliant was your only option in a household with only emotionally vulnerable adults, but it is a strategy that no longer works for you. It keeps you in isolation and unable to connect with others. Therefore, challenging yourself to connect with others authentically would also one of the most potent ways to heal. The thoughts, feelings, impressions and emotions buried within are waiting to be heard, once and for all.
Psychotherapy, self- therapy and nature therapy can all be a useful adjunct to your integration process. Telling your story to a trusted other in a sacred space means it is no longer festering in your psyche. If you don’t feel that therapy or counselling in their traditional senses are for you, you can buy a journal or engage in an art form. Through art, music and literature, you get to channel your sadness and connect with those who shared a similar experience.
Self-compassion is an essential ingredient to your process. Before we move into extending compassion and forgiveness for others, we must first exercise self- compassion. As a parentified child, you likely live with a harsh inner-critic, who continually says in your mind that you are not doing enough, or that when bad things happen it is your fault. You may have internalised shame and guilt from not being able to fulfill the impossible demands that were put on you. Making room for self- directed kindness can significantly help you make sense of your experience and shine a light on even the darkest of places.
See if you can imagine yourself to be surrounded by people who love and support you, and what they might say to you. If you feel stuck for words, recall the body memories of what it feels like to be held by love.
If you have little experience of being loved in life, imagine what you would say to a person or a child you love. Then, direct the tender feelings towards yourself.
See if you can connect to the innermost core of yourself. In spiritual traditions, it is believed that in all of us, there is a ‘Self.' This part of us has never been wounded and remain in divine perfection, despite what has happened to us. Even that part of us is hidden under layers of trauma, it is still capable of qualities such as compassion, empathy and self-love. Even if there is no one external to provide you with the guidance and care you deserve, you can consult your own highest self.
Remember, you were a completely innocent child who came into the world with the hope to be loved and cared for like a child. Even when your actual childhood was painful, it is never too late to offer yourself the love you deserve.
Healing from a parentified childhood is possible by virtue of that deep, inner strength that developed in spite of all the challenges. You have already shown that you have the ability to stand and fight, to survive in the face of adversity, and your strength will no doubt be what brings you to a liberated future.