The Risks of Parentification of a Child

Hand separates parents and child

By: Rabbi Azriel Hauptman

Our lives can be like a roller coaster with many ups and downs. When we are going through a difficult time, we rely on our family and friends to be a listening ear and offer emotional support. However, there is one person who you should not look to for your emotional needs. That person is your child.

In order to explain what we mean, let us present you with two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Rachel was going through an especially trying time. One day, when she was alone in her room she felt so much stress that she began sobbing. Her nine-year-old daughter happened to be passing by in the hallway and heard her mother’s sobs. She entered the room, put her arm around her mother’s shoulder, and said to her, “Don’t worry Mommy. Everything is going to be all right.” Rachel responded and said, “You always make me feel so good. Can I ask you to put your arm around my shoulder whenever I am having a bad day?”

Scenario 2: When Rachel’s daughter put her arm on her shoulder and assured her mother that everything will be all right, Rachel responded and said, “Thank you so much for saying that. I want you to know that it is okay to cry sometimes when you are sad. Sometimes we are happy and we laugh, and sometimes we are sad and feel a need to cry.”

You surely noticed that in the first scenario, the child is functioning almost like a parent as she provides emotional support for her mother. In the second scenario, Rachel switched into parental mode when her daughter entered the room and used this as a teachable moment to show by example how one can deal with and process a stressful situation. Rachel also absolved her daughter of being responsible for taking care of her mother.

The first scenario is just one example of how a parent can inappropriately turn to a child for the fulfillment of their emotional needs. Another common example is when parents overshare with children. Discussing with your child the ins-and-outs of your issues at work or with other family members is not an age appropriate topic for children. Additionally, it sends your child a message that they have a responsibility to be a listening ear for their parent.

It is true that when a child feels that their parent needs them for emotional support, it can initially feel very exciting for them since they are being treated as an adult. However, over time this can have a devastating effect on their emotional development and is essentially a form of emotional abuse. By trying to meet the emotional needs of their parents, children are not having their own emotional needs met. They can grow up with the mistaken notion that their own needs do not count and they should only focus on taking care of everybody else. Although this sounds very noble and altruistic, in reality this type of perspective is a recipe for dysfunctional relationships.

You should bear two points in mind when deciding what is appropriate to share with your child. First of all, they are mere children! There is a big difference between age 8 and 38! In addition, your child is a separate and distinct individual and is not an extension of yourself. Just because they are around you all of the time and you provide them with all of their needs, does not allow you to lift all boundaries and share with them whatever you want.

If once in a blue moon, you overshare with your child, it is unlikely to cause lasting harm. Mistakes in parenting happen, and we should try our best to learn from them. When parentification of a child becomes a pattern and the role of a child is elevated to that of a pattern, the child might become emotionally injured in ways that can stay with him or her for the rest of their life.

Share this article: