by Shirley Galea
‘I do not want to add up to their troubles!’ this is what I often hear when I encourage a child to share her troubles with the parents. Some kids keep their lives secrfet out of a healthy self-interest to avoid fights or escape consequences. In some cases though, there is a higher self-sacrificing mission – that of protecting the parents. Here the child will prefer to brave out the suffering alone. However, in the absence of parental guidance, the child is left isolated, confused and helpless.
So what leads a child away from seeking the parent’s comfort?
Children and teens are incredible observers. They watch the adults around them for it is through them that they can satisfy their needs and grow. A stressed or anxious parent may trigger self-blame in the child: ‘If mum and dad are anxious am I being too much for them?’ ‘Will I just make their life worse with my problems?’ The child sees the parent as too emotionally vulnerable and therefore unable to contain additional problems.
The situation becomes more difficult when an isolated parent turns to the child for comfort and reassurance. The child gets to see the disappointments, frustrations and helplessness of the parent. In her blind love she rushes to the rescue and takes on the burden of the parent. Here the order is reversed. Instead of having a parent taking care of the child, it is the child taking care of the parent – a phenomenon known as ‘Parentification’. The ‘parentified’ child learns to put aside self-needs in order to satisfy the needs of the parent. This interferes with the child’s psychological development.
What are the consequences of Parentification?
Parentified children are often invested in the happiness of their parent to the detriment of their own. Nicole, a twelve year old child, took the role of her mother’s counsellor. Following a difficult separation the mother fell into a depressive episode and turned to her child for support. Nicole loyally carried this responsibility yet soon enough the emotional toll started to eat up her energies. She could not concentrate at school, isolated herself from her friends and lost the ability to experience joy. Her face became solemn and most of her talk became loaded with dread about the future. She felt her mum was too overwhelmed to give any support. She kept all the worries to herself until one day she broke down in class.
In therapy she was initially very protective of her mother. It was hard for her to give up the important role of being ‘mommy’ to her own mother. Through further sessions she realized that it was not up to her to satisfy her mum’s needs and emptiness. The mother was also made aware of the situation and encouraged to seek support. Through professional support the mother-daughter relationship was restored back into order – The order where the parent gives and the child receives.
So How do You as a Parent avoid Parentifying your Child?
Keep in touch with the adults around you – Sometimes it’s easy to get absorbed in work and leave little time for relationships. It’s important to sustain adult-to-adult relationships. Talk to your partner, your parents, your family and friends. They will give you the emotional support you need. When your child sees you happy and grounded she will find it easier to emotionally rely on you.
Be Silent and Attentive – The child will not talk to a parent who always has too much to say. It leaves little space for the child. Be silent and get absorbed in the child’s world. Try to look at the world from his point of view. You will discover that there is a lot to learn from the unbiased worldviews of a child.
Invest time in your Relationship – No need for grand ideas to show your love. Eat together, laugh, play, swim, cook – do all this in the company of each other. Your reassuring presence is what stays mostly with the child.
Create the Space – Do not always be too busy. Leave some time where you can be still. It is in this space that the child will sense your openness and pluck up the courage to speak to you about her intimate issues.
Stay Strong – Cry if you have to but try to protect the child from your despair. Reach out for help and make sure you stay emotionally fit for the long, long marathon of parenthood. Let your child see that you can be resilient in front of difficulties. S/he will grow up to admire you and model your strength.
Hellinger, B., Weber, G., & Beaumont, H. (1998) Love’s Hidden Symmetry. What Makes Love Work in Relationships. Zeig, Ticker & Co. Arizona, USA.
Hooper, L. (2007) The Application of Attachment Theory and Family Systems Theory to the Phenomena of Parentification. The Family Journal, 2007;15; 217
Jurkovic, G. (1997) Lost Childhood. The Plight of the Parentified Child. Brunner Routledge, New York.
PSCD teacher | Psychotherapist
In my professional career I have worked mainly in family and school settings with children, adolescents, parents and families. I have also worked in private practice with individuals and couples. For the past five years I have gained specific experience working with relationship issues, low self-confidence, depression, loss, anxiety, stress and self-harm. Working on these issues often unravel feelings, thoughts and choices that were previously not seen. I support my clients to work at their own pace.
As a therapist I seek to establish a good relationship with my client and I believe this to be the basis for good therapy. I find myself learning from the client’s experience and my hope is that the client learns from me. I love doing therapy as it gives me the privilege of witnessing (and perhaps playing a tiny part) in the life story of my clients.