Mother holding boy child close

The parentified child: What it is, how it happens, and how it impacts a person’s life

Blythe Landry Guidance

As children, we really should only have one job – to be children. Unfortunately, in some families, there are dynamics that lead to children being treated like para-adults. Not only does this happen for many reasons, but it also has far-reaching effects that can change the course of a person’s life – even well into adulthood.

In an ideal world, people who have children would have come from their own childhoods with their mental health, sense of self-esteem, and their ability to navigate healthy relationships intact. They would then parent their children with the same healthy sense of connection, individuality and social responsibility that was age and maturity-level appropriate. As anyone reading this knows, we absolutely do not live in a perfect society where people are all walking around undamaged. And because of that, many people who have really positive intentions in raising healthy and loved children, struggle with the boundaries of the parent-child relationship.

Let’s take the single Mom who grew up in an alcoholic, abusive home for example. Let’s say she grew up in a home where she left at a young age to escape the violence. As a kid, she swore up and down she would NEVER do to her children what was done to her. She would NEVER be her parents. She was serious. She goes out, gets a job, tries to change her life and has kids of her own. Because of a lack of education on the traumas she grew up with, maybe she picks a partner to have kids with that is really just as abusive as her Father or Mother was. Maybe she is in it and can’t even believe she has fallen into the same old traps. She finds a way out. Gets two jobs. Finds a way to raise her kids independently. But now she is afraid. She has now come from one abusive situation and found another. She no longer believes she can have a partner or know how to have a healthy relationship. She is working all the time. She is unable to spend time with peers who are like-minded, because when she isn’t working, she is with her children. She starts to get super sad and lonely, but she stuffs it down, because she has to literally just roll up her sleeves and get by. Because she is lonely and isn’t getting any mental health support (due to lack of time, resources and money) and she isn’t engaging with anyone else other than her colleagues), she starts to turn to her 10 year-old son for things that would really only be appropriate to share with another adult.

Maybe it starts with just talking about regular work stresses. Talking about her days, etc. Maybe she sees that he is “okay” with that and starts to talk about other things, like dating, relationships and even sex. Maybe over time, she lacks the need for physical touch being met and she expects her son to cuddle with her – even past the age where it is appropriate for a child to cuddle with their parents. It all seems innocent enough, I mean they are just cuddling with their clothes on (note: I’m not talking here about kids who ask to cuddle their parents and want to be close to their parents for their own needs to be met. I’m referring to the parent who is so lacking in connection that they encourage their child to do these things, even when the child may feel uncomfortable, for their own benefit – BIG difference there).

None of these behaviors are horrific in nature in the same way as parents who are inciting physical, sexual, mental and emotional violence on their children with intent, or parents who are overtly ignoring these things happening to their child and not protecting them; but that does not mean these subtle shifts in emotional responsibility are not extremely harmful to the child in the long run.

What is happening in this scenario? This parent had really great intentions. She WANTED nothing more than to right the wrongs she had endured. And she has tried really really hard to change the course of her life. But, inadvertently, she is carrying the same trauma she grew up with and filtering it down to her son in a different way. She is shifting the funnel from parent who is parenting child and child never being responsible for parent’s emotional, intellectual or physical needs, to child being parent to the parent and being pushed to respond to parent’s emotional, intellectual and physical needs.

What does this do to the child? First the child may feel instantly uncomfortable while this is happening, but he has no frame of reference for what is normal outside of his one parent. He is also a kid. So he wants nothing more than to be loved and adored and loving to his Mother. He just wants to fit in. He also doesn’t trust his intuition that this kind of role reversal isn’t right. In fact, it kind of makes him feel super duper special and powerful. Considering that when his younger sister was born (she is now only 5), he felt like he lost some of that attention, this “unique” relationship he has with Mom makes him feel valued, seen and maybe even like “her favorite.” How can he not fall into that role?

What happens next? He starts to shy away from making deeper friendships at school, because he starts to integrate a worry for his Mom all day. He begins to feel responsible for her bad days at work, her loneliness in life, her lack of a dating life or friendships and, for goodness sakes, all he wants to do is help and make it better. He rushes home from school before she gets home from work to have dinner on the table for everyone. He cleans up her messes after she starts eventually also turning to alcohol to escape her ever growing loneliness and fear of the future. He begins monitoring her every move to make sure she gets up for work on time and takes care of even her most basic needs.

He begins to grow up and isolates himself on weekends from social events. When he does go out, he feels guilt, fear and shame that his Mom is still “all alone” and he is out in the world having fun. She doesn’t dissuade him from this guilt, because now she has grown dependent on his support in her life. He is a really good kid. He even gets lauded at school for his perfect behavior and grades. I mean this being a perfect kid and mature kid thing is really paying off for him! While he may be exhausted from needing to be vigilant all the time, there are definitely benefits he is noticing. At this point, where even social benefits start to emerge, he has fully become the Parentified Child, who is now more the parent emotionally than the parent is to him.

He has now also developed four key traits that will lead him into the next phase of his life: being a helper or fixer of other people’s problems (and doing it perfectly) in order to maintain a feeling of being special, shame/guilt at having autonomy from his primary relationship, feeling completely and totally responsible for other people’s feelings, and expressing no needs or feelings of his own for fear that he may be abandoned if he takes up too much space in relationships. These four traits are the hallmark of what happens to the Parentified Child.

This young man now goes out into the world fully armed with being OVERLY emotionally responsible, empathic and mature and YET totally unequipped with some of the most fundamental building blocks of what makes a life. He can listen like a champ and give advice and show up immediately in a crisis, but maybe he doesn’t even know how to make a real friend (when he should have been playing with friends he was supporting Mom) or organize a bank account, or take care of his own needs for physical, mental and emotional well-being. He is now an adult who went to graduate school in life emotionally before he even got to go to Kindergarten.

He goes out into the working world and dating world with an entire persona that he must maintain in order to feel special and an entire secret that he has to hide that he literally only has one major tool for living, which is being a perfect caretaker of others in order to fit in. He finds himself doing well at work, but never getting promoted. He doesn’t understand why, because he does ten times more than everyone else and stays two hours later. He doesn’t get asked to go out after work by his peers, because he doesn’t know how to truly connect to them and they find him socially awkward. Even when he does go out, he can’t stop thinking about what a terrible son he is for not being with his Mom. He still calls Mom every night to check on her and stops by her house several days a week to see if her now progressed drinking is “manageable.”

He happens to get lucky and meet a woman at the local pub where he eats alone most nights of the week. She is the bartender. She grew up with a horribly abusive Father and the minute she meets him she tells him her entire life story. He is instantly hooked, because he must be so special that a complete stranger “trusted” him enough to tell her his whole life story in the first 30 minutes of meeting. He makes decent money and has a perfectly tailored apartment, so he instantly decides to rescue the bartender from her abusive home and into his. She drinks. She drinks a lot. She yells at him and even physically abuses him a few times. He considers this a sign that he needs to love her more, give her more and that she just needs him to be more supportive and then she will change. He takes her drinking and abuse and begins the same cycle with her that he has long held with his Mom: monitoring her drinking, feeling responsible for her pain, feeling that he can somehow fix her wounds and taking full responsibility for all the challenges in the relationship, beating himself up for everything that doesn’t go perfectly or as planned.

All through this, the real him is dying inside. He doesn’t even know who the real him is. Things get especially dark in his life when the abusive, alcoholic bartender leaves him for another man (who will abuse her and continue her cycle of self-loathing). He doesn’t understand. He was PERFECT. He did everything he learned to do. That was supposed to PROMISE him everlasting love and support. But all it did was get him left.

Shortly after that his Mom gets in a drunk driving accident and doesn’t make it.

He has a complete mental breakdown. He is CONVINCED had he gone to his Mom’s that night that he could have saved her life. He deems himself selfish and repulsive and worthless. In his mind, he failed at his one purpose in life. This is all HIS fault. He has no ability to stand in his own skin without another person to take care of, because that sense of autonomy was robbed from him starting at the age of 10. He is now 34 and literally at the bottom emotionally, mentally and financially (because he kept feeding his Mom and the bartender girlfriend money that kept feeding their addictions).

He is in a panic. He can’t breathe. His entire sense of self and identity come crashing down. He turns to his younger sister to try to save her, but she doesn’t need saving. She has taken a different path. She has gotten help and gone to a recovery program and even formed a relationship with a person who is healthy and well-adjusted and loves her unconditionally. She loves her brother, but she rejects his attempts to try to fix her, because she just isn’t broken any longer.

This is when he entirely crumbles. For the first time in his life he both has nobody to save and he also has no frame of reference for what life means when he isn’t looking outside of himself to rescue another person. This wasn’t his fault, after all, this is all he ever knew.

At this point he is at a crossroads. He is either going to hit an emotional bottom and find the help he so desperately needs OR he is going to find the first person he can find that will allow him to take over the role of rescuer/caregiver in their life. The choice is up to him. But, hopefully, at this point, the pain is so great that he becomes willing to learn a new way of living that no longer feeds his sense of self-worth through playing the part of an automated robot who exists solely to feed life to a weaker, more troubled human being.

Maybe you are reading this and you can identify with some of the traits that either the Mom or the son are coping with. Neither of these people were bad people, they just fell into bad and emotionally stilted patterns. Both need and/or needed help.

If you or someone you know is dealing with the consequences of being a parentified child, I can help. Please refer to this blog post for a complimentary consultation.