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Understanding parentification

On Behalf of | Mar 20, 2024 | Child Custody

Parents may find themselves overwhelmed by the chaos during and after a divorce or remarriage. Because of this, some may place their responsibilities on their older children.

This is parentification and can have serious short- and long-term impacts on children’s well-being.

Clarifying parentification

It is normal to expect children, especially older ones, to take on a certain level of responsibility, both to contribute to the household and to teach them responsibility. A reasonable level of chores and occasional babysitting when necessary do not constitute parentification.

It is when a parent crosses the line between children helping out and completely delegating responsibilities that should be theirs solely, such as actually caring for or raising younger siblings or shouldering financial burdens, that it becomes parentification.

Types of parentification

There are two main types of parentification: instrumental and emotional. Instrumental parentification occurs when children are responsible for tasks and chores that are typically the responsibility of an adult. This may mean taking over all household duties, such as doing all the cleaning or cooking or ensuring younger siblings get to school, do their homework and have their needs met.

Emotional parentification, on the other hand, occurs when a child provides emotional support and care for a parent or other family member, often at the expense of their own emotional needs. Parents may vent to children about very adult or inappropriate topics and expect comfort or advice.

Potential effects

Parentification can have several negative effects on children. It can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, as well as trouble forming healthy relationships in adulthood. Parentified children may also struggle with setting boundaries and asserting their own needs, as their experience conditioned them to prioritize the needs of others over their own. They may fall behind academically and socially and lose the opportunity to have normal childhood experiences.

Parents who worry their children may be the target of parentification at their other parent’s home may need to investigate. If the parentification negatively impacts the children’s life, their parent may be able to apply for a custody change.