What Happens When Parent-Child Roles Reverse? Understanding Parentification and Codependency

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Parentification happens when parents expect children to take on adult caregiving responsibilities and roles. Traditional parent-child roles are reversed as children come to provide support to their parents.

Some experts also call this boundary dissolution – when the usual generational roles in the family system break down and the distinctiveness of each member’s role is lost.

There are two main ways that children can take on the roles of adults in a family, emotional and instrumental. Instrumental role reversal happens when children take on responsibility for concrete tasks in the family, like housework or caring for someone who is ill.

When emotional caregiving roles reverse, children are expected to support their parents’ emotional needs. This might involve providing emotional support when their parents are distressed or resolving conflicts between family members.

While children take on caregiving roles in the family, parents may also (although not necessarily) stop providing emotional or practical support for their children.

Role reversal can happen to varying extents. In some cases, children may take on only a few adult caregiving roles in the family, while in others, they may be expected to fulfil all of them.

Why Does Parentification Happen?

In a family, parents are usually expected to fulfil their children’s basic physical and emotional needs. This means providing them with food, shelter, and warmth, as well as care, affection, and attention.

It involves intervening in difficult situations, protecting them from harm, and providing emotional support when they feel distressed.

However, not all parents have the resources to continually fulfil their children’s needs.

They may lack the time to spend with their children because of work or other obligations. They might also not have the financial means to meet the physical needs of their family. In some situations, parents are obliged – or choose – to let their child take on the adult role in the family.

There is no single pathway to parentification or a unique risk factor. Instead, many different factors can lead to role reversal and make it more likely that a child will take on their parent’s roles.

Some reasons that parentification happens may include:

  • When parents have physical or mental illnesses and require care
  • When parents have to work and are absent from the house for most of the day
  • When parents are experiencing emotional distress and lack support from partners or other adults, such as following a divorce or when their relationship is dysfunctional or abusive
  • When a family experiences high levels of stress, affecting parents’ abilities to fulfil their usual obligations
  • When parents live with alcohol or drug addiction

In some places, specific social and economic situations can cause children to take on adult roles.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures and work restrictions meant that parents had to balance work, household chores, childcare, and supervision of their child’s schoolwork. Some children began to take on adult roles, caring for themselves while their parents were obliged to work.

Changes in the family system and wider society can both lead to the parentification of children. But some experts think that a child’s personality may play a role too.

For example, children who are more easy-going and adaptable may be more easily persuaded to take on adult caregiving responsibilities in a family.

What Effect Does Parentification Have on Young People?

Parentification can affect a child’s mental well-being, quality of life, and their development. Some experts think that when children take on caregiving roles, they develop an identity that is centred on fulfilling their parents’ needs. This stops them from developing their own identity as an autonomous individual with their own needs and boundaries.

Equally, when children take on responsibilities that are not suitable for their age, these roles become overwhelming and prevent them from engaging in normal aspects of childhood that underpin healthy development.

They may miss out on opportunities to play, explore, socialise, and integrate their experiences, preventing them from forming their own identity and a coherent sense of self. By adopting adult roles, they may struggle to acquire the skills they need to become adults and find it hard to navigate parts of adult life.

According to some experts, children seek stability within the family. When they see this as threatened, they are likely to try and restore stability themselves. This might involve attempts to resolve issues between parents or to distract family members from their conflicts.

However, because of their life experience and developmental age, children’s attempts to restore stability are less likely to be effective than adults. This may lead to persistent feelings of hopelessness or inadequacy that can be absorbed into a young person’s identity.

Some models of boundary dissolution suggest that the effect of parentification on a young person depends upon aspects of the family system, social structures that influence their environment (the exo-system) and broader society (the macro-system). For example, parentification may not be damaging when children take on roles that are culturally appropriate, receive recognition for their caregiving, and have adequate support from their family or the neighbourhood.

In this way, older siblings in parts of Southeastern Asia, where children hold duties towards their parents, may take the responsibility to look after younger children while maintaining positive parent-child relationships and healthy emotional development.

Can Parentification Ever Be Positive?

While a complete role reversal of parent and child, where a child takes on overwhelming adult responsibilities and receives little to no support from the parent, is likely to have a serious effect on a young person’s well-being and development, there are certain circumstances where a much lesser degree of parentification may be positive and empowering for a child.

Positive parentification experiences usually involve a child taking on limited responsibilities that are suitable for their developmental age, while receiving praise and recognition for their role. Some other possible components of positive parentification include:

  • emotional support
  • supportive relationships with other family members, like siblings and grandparents
  • parents openly delegating roles to each child
  • parental support and validation
  • a child’s positive perception of role-taking
  • cultural acceptability of role-taking

How Do Parentification and Boundary Dissolution Affect Adult Mental Health?

Researchers have found that adults who experienced boundary dissolution (the breakdown of parent-child roles) as children are more likely to experience mental health issues as adults.

Studies have found that boundary dissolution is associated with somatisation, depression, and anxiety. Retrospective reports of boundary dissolution are also linked to lower self-esteem, decreased happiness, fear of failure despite past successes, and fear of not living up to others’ expectations.

What Is the Link Between Parentification and Codependency?

Codependency happens in unbalanced relationships where one person (the ‘taker’) is overly reliant on another (the ‘giver’), who in turn sacrifices their own needs in order to fulfil the needs of the taker. 

The giver, also known as the codependent, begins to lose their own identity and starts to value themselves by their ability to support the taker.

Codependency most often happens in abusive relationships between partners or in relationships where one person lives with addiction. However, some people think that parentification may lead to codependency in a parent-child relationship as well.

Children who take on parent roles in a family may develop an adapted, co-dependent self that is over-conforming and other-orientated.

They may sacrifice their ‘true self’ and individual needs in order to meet the needs of their parent(s). Moreover, the development of a caregiver identity may persist into adulthood, making it more likely that they’ll become codependent in future relationships.

Treating Parentification and Codependency

Parentification can have a big impact on a child’s well-being and mental health that can persist into adulthood. It can act as a barrier to healthy emotional and social development, preventing them from forming an autonomous, coherent sense of self. Children who have experienced role reversal may continue to take on caregiving roles as adults, sometimes in codependent relationships.

The good news is that effective interventions can help to restructure family systems and rebalance relationships between parents and children. Interventions may also provide support to a young person to protect them from some of the harm of parentification and support their healthy development. 

As well as this, therapy sessions and other treatment approaches can young people who have experienced parentification to heal, develop an autonomous sense of self, and address feelings like shame or inadequacy. These approaches help prevent the harm of parentification from persisting into adulthood and affecting a young person’s relationships and quality of life.

Some therapeutic approaches and other interventions may include: 

  • Family therapy sessions that address unhealthy power structures within a family
  • Encouraging families that may be at risk of role reversal to seek extra support from their community so that their children do not take up the caregiving roles
  • Improving the relationship between a child and the other parent or other family members
  • Talk therapy sessions that help improve a young person’s self-worth and confidence
  • Therapy sessions that encourage self-empathy and acceptance of mistakes while overcoming feelings of shame

The Wave Clinic: Specialist Recovery Programs for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers specialist recovery programs for teenagers, adolescents, and their families, making a difference in the lives of young people around the world.

Our first-of-a-kind programs take a whole-person approach to mental health support, combining top-tier clinical care with education, social responsibility and a gap year experience as young people embark on a journey of healing, self-discovery, and personal growth.

We understand the importance of family for a young person’s recovery. Family structures can constitute the scaffolding that supports a young person through challenging times, encourages positive behaviours, and helps them avoid falling back into harmful patterns.

On the other hand, unhealthy family dynamics can trigger the return of previous thought patterns and behaviours. At The Wave, we involve families in the treatment process, combining psychoeducation with therapy and other approaches to promote healing for the entire family.

If you are interested in our programs, please get in touch today. We’re here for you.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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