3 Bright Sides To Being A 'Parentified' Child

Maturing at an early age can be hard, but it can also give you immense strength.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 01, 2024

Imagine Emma, a 16-year old who lives with her parents and two younger brothers. Her parents work long hours and can't afford a babysitter. They ask Emma to take care of her brothers after school and get some chores done before they get back from work. She has to make lunch, get them fed, supervise their homework, do the laundry and make dinner. Her parents sometimes include her in arguments about their finances and ask her who is in the right.

If you've felt like you carried the emotional or manual burden of your house as a child, then you've shared Emma's childhood experience of "parentification."

Disturbed family dynamics, working parents or illness in the family can lead to the parentification of children. This phenomenon occurs when children provide caregiving for family members that typically exceeds their capacity and developmental stage. Taking on these responsibilities can have detrimental outcomes, including distress and a loss of the innocence and sense of wonderment of childhood.

However, parentification can yield unexpected benefits for the parentified child. A 2023 study concluded that perceived fairness, appreciation and validation, a positive relationship with parents and community support paved the way for thriving outcomes. For example, children that believe they have been assigned responsibilities fairly, get validation from their parents and share supportive relationships with their siblings and grandparents might be able to make it out of a parentified childhood relatively unscathed.

Here are three positive outcomes that can be experienced by parentified children in supportive environments.

1. A Wide And Solid Social Circle

Due to circumstances beyond their control, parentified children speed through childhood, shouldering responsibilities that overwhelms their capacity. Yet, these children can cultivate healthy relationships with their parents while bearing their household duties and emotional needs. A study published in Family Process found that African American youth improved their relationship with their parents as a result of meeting the emotional needs of the family.

The support network offered to the children can contribute significantly to the establishment of positive relationships. A study evaluating the parentification of siblings of children with autistic spectrum disorder found that siblings' relationships improved with consistent social support. The 2023 study concluded that strengthened sibling bonds facilitated the development of empathy, understanding, acceptance for others, emotional connections and a heightened proclivity toward social support.

Parentification is an unfortunate reality for many households, but that does not mean that the child has to suffer in isolation. Social support from extended family and one's immediate neighborhood can mitigate the negative side-effects of parentification while also giving children the opportunity to be "raised by the village."

2. Extraordinary Resilience And Sense Of Responsibility

Amidst the caregiver roles taken on by parentified children, they develop resilience as they navigate challenges typically reserved for adults. A study concluded that college students experiencing parentification scored high on resilience. Parentification can help children learn adaptability and maintain composure under duress.

Simultaneously, parentification can equip children with a heightened sense of responsibility. They become adept at managing household tasks, caring for siblings and providing emotional support to family members. Despite the challenges posed by assuming adult roles prematurely, they emerge with a profound understanding of accountability and a strong work ethic, which can serve as a foundation for future success.

3. Elevated Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy

Parentification can engender a positive view of self as children perform parental responsibilities successfully. A study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that parentified children exhibited higher levels of self-esteem when they perceived greater benefits of parentification and enjoyed positive relationships with their siblings. Children identified the benefits as deriving enjoyment from their role, feeling appreciated and sensing that their family functioned effectively as a team. Thus, for parentified children, receiving gratitude from their family members seems to boost their confidence and sense of worth.

Additionally, children seem to build their self-esteem through identification with the role assigned to them, carrying out the responsibilities and experiencing a sense of self-approval. In a supportive family environment, children actively embrace the roles assigned to them to maintain attachments with their typically busy parents. The identification and subsequent benefits gained from parentification can be seen as an adaptive defense mechanism.

The "adult-like" duties carried out by children creates feelings of competence, self-efficacy and a sense of agency. Children can prosper despite the burdens of parentification by gaining a sense of mastery and accomplishment.

It is crucial to be mindful of the heavy responsibilities placed on children in parentification scenarios and to provide the necessary support and understanding. Encouraging open communication, fostering a nurturing and supportive environment and seeking external support networks can minimize the negative impact of parentification on children. Recognizing the strengths that can emerge from these experiences while also acknowledging the need for balance and care is key to promoting positive outcomes for parentified children.

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