Written by: Kaycee Beglau, PsyD
“Children are not meant to provide the emotional or psychological needs of parents.” – Sheila Darling
In a “good enough” home environment, children have mostly consistent, predictable, and nurturing responsiveness from an attuned parent or caregiver. There is an internal experience of being taken care of that comes from healthy boundaries between the parent and the child. The child understands and knows on a deep level the adult is there and “has got this” while also not feeling overly controlled and smothered. There is a balance between dependence and independence, structure and freedom, love and discipline.
In family environments that aren’t so ideal, as in cases where a parent experiences ongoing emotional difficulties, this balance is not achieved on a consistent basis. The child intuits, or “picks up,” that something is not emotionally (or sometimes physically) safe and takes on a sense of responsibility for taking care of the parent in a variety of ways, typically by providing emotional or physical caregiving to the disturbed parent. Life in this kind of dysfunctional family environment pulls the child into a role reversal with the disturbed parent. The result for the child is often a pervasive sense of worry or anxiety about the feelings and needs of the adult, feelings of depression or sadness, low self-esteem, withdrawal from developmentally appropriate activities and engagement with peers, and an exaggerated sense of being mature or “wise beyond your years” that equates with a lost childhood.
Taking on these feelings and the overwhelming sense of responsibility for a parent is often referred to as being a “parentified child.” The costs to these children are tremendous. First, the child often learns that his or her needs are not wanted, acceptable, nor likely to be met. These needs are either ignored, neglected, or perhaps even worse, the child is actively punished, criticized, shamed, or rejected when expressing his or her own desires or wishes. As a result, the child learns how to “cut off,” bury, or deny his or her needs in order to take care of the parent’s and to prevent further disappointment or harm.
Secondly, as an adult, there is often a deeply profound sense of shame that comes from having a personal need emerge. Throughout childhood, there was a complete orientation towards taking care of the parent, often at the exclusion of being aware of one’s own sense of self and healthy entitlement to personal needs and interpersonal boundaries. After growing up always being oriented toward “the other,” adults from this type of family environment often have a hard time developing certain abilities, such feeling entitled to saying “no” to others, expressing anger, getting close and developing deeper levels of intimacy, and feeling whole and worthwhile as an individual.
If you recognize yourself in these descriptions, it is possible you grew up with a parent or caregiver that relied too heavily on you to meet his or her emotional and/or physical needs. Individual psychotherapy with a relational or attachment-focused approach can provide a certain kind of space and therapeutic relationship where you can be free to explore the effects of your unique childhood experiences on your development and ability to connect in healthy ways with others. Although this will inevitably require a certain amount of courage and willingness on your part, parentified children are undoubtedly strong and resilient by nature and healing and growth are certainly possible if given the right opportunity.