“Children should not be serving the intimate needs of a parent, or placed in the role of secret-keeper,” says Lisa M. Hooper, a researcher and professor at the University of Louisville, who has conducted extensive studies on the effects of parentification — when the parent projects their role onto the child. In divorced families, for instance, parents can fall into the trap of relying on their kid as a “confidant” — by revealing private information in the way of venting about the father/mother, or by having them mediate conflicts.
For instance, it’s not appropriate for a mother to say “Your father never follows through on anything, he’s always disappointing me — I’m so fed up with him,” says Juli Fraga, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco. Experts believe this kind of behavior creates an atmosphere of neglect, because children are made responsible for looking after the emotional and psychological well-being of the parent while suppressing their normal childhood needs, such as play or friendships with kids their own age.
Hooper notes that “when a child starts serving as a friend to the parent, and the parent is getting his or her needs met through the child — that becomes problematic.”
Her research has shown that the effects of childhood parentification can be long-lasting and multigenerational. In one study published in the Journal of Family Therapy, data was taken from 783 university students to evaluate the link between their childhood roles and responsibilities with their later adult psychological functioning. The researchers found that people who experienced early parentification are at an increased risk for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance misuse as an adult.
“Parents and caregivers ought to be at the top of the hierarchy in the family system,” says Hooper. A father who constantly asks his son for relationship advice or complains to him about other family members, for instance, is inverting the role of adult and child, because he’s relying on his kid to provide the same kind of emotional support normally sought from a trusted friend or spouse.
And while it’s true that children who take on more adultlike roles can have positive outcomes, such as a strong work ethic, resiliency, and self-efficacy — when taken to the extreme, you’ll start to see kids anxiously caring for others, compulsively overworking, and striving to juggle their responsibilities at school with their role of confidant at home.
“A child imbued with a very early sense of responsibility may carry that trait forward with them forever,” says Gretchen Kubacky, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert in Los Angeles.
Despite good intentions, learning where to draw the line can be especially tricky for parents who want to be seen as their child’s “best friend.” In many cases, it’s because they have their own history of attachment issues caused by growing up with distant, rigid, or neglectful caregivers — and now tend to overcompensate by becoming overly involved in their kid’s life.
“Friendship is reciprocal, based on a mutual sharing of equanimity and equality,” says Fraga. And children simply don’t possess the same emotional maturity and understanding that adults do. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be loving and caring — but that you distinguish between being honest and supportive with also maintaining appropriate boundaries.
“Some people tend to see their children not as separate beings, but merely as extensions of themselves,” she adds. “They don’t have the filter to understand that their kid is 7, not 37.”
Fraga believes that line is being crossed more and more these days with our culture of oversharing on social media and influences in pop culture. An example of these blurred boundaries can be seen on the hit TV series “Gilmore Girls” — where the mother-daughter relationship between Rory and Lorelai has long been characterized by an enviable quality of closeness. But as with many parent-child friendships, the unforeseen consequences don’t show up until after adolescence.
In previous seasons, Lorelai comes across as a mother with a penchant for oversharing with her teen daughter — often blurring the line between parent and bud. This light form of parentification can seem harmless, but fast-forward to a now 32-year-old Rory, and the lax boundaries she shared with her mom come back to haunt her. The new season reboot, “A Year in the Life,” offers a portrait of a Rory who struggles with bouts of anxiety, and difficulty trusting in her own decisions regarding her career and love interests.
“As adults, children who have been parentified tend to lack confidence and [have] an inability to believe that they can think their way through the simplest of life’s problems,” notes Fraga. “It can really eclipse a person’s ability to receive and to be loved as adults, because it’s too dangerous to let someone in when you’ve been crashed into.”
In his book, “Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child,” author Gregory Jurkovic wrote that children who take on parental roles during their formative years are later plagued by interpersonal distrust, ambivalence, involvement in harmful relationships, and a destructive sense of entitlement as adults.
“Boundaries should be able to be flexible, and expand and contract based on what is age-appropriate,” says Hooper. It’s fine for parents to share daily happenings with their kids, but essentially, it comes down to sharing information according to a child’s development, and no more than what they can deal with. For instance, talking to your child about the importance of the recent elections, versus ranting or expecting them to prepare their own lunch for school, because you’re too overwhelmed by what’s happening in the news.
“In order for us to see someone else’s needs fully and separately, we have to recognize their subjectivity of being a very different person than we are,” says Fraga. “With different thoughts, feelings, and phases of development.”
Ultimately, responsible parenting isn’t synonymous with holding back or showing indifference, but an ability to differentiate between where you end and your child begins.
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist. Find her at cindylamothe.com.
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