It is common in many families with more than one child for the older ones to take on more responsibilities as they age. It is also natural to expect children to contribute to the household through chores. However, there are situations where “helping out” becomes foisting parental duties on them.
Parentification is a term used to describe a situation where a parent forces a child to take on the responsibilities and roles typically associated with a parent. This role reversal dynamic can have serious effects on children’s development and well-being.
One indicator of parentification is when a child takes on the role of a parent. This may include being responsible for caring for younger siblings in most or all areas and performing all household tasks. Beyond occasionally watching younger brothers and sisters on date nights or doing normal chores, parentified children fully take the place of parents. They may do all the cooking and cleaning, get their siblings ready for school, watch them immediately after school and ensure they have their homework done and any needed paperwork filled out.
Parentified children may also take on an adult role emotionally. They may be the ones parents pour out their worries to, look to for support and even place financial burdens on. Parentification may occur after a divorce because a new stepparent with stepchildren enters children’s lives and needs help with them or any new children. It may also happen because suddenly single parents may not be able to handle the new changes and persuade themselves it is just the children helping out for a little while.
Parentification can have serious emotional consequences for the children involved. The burden of adult responsibilities at a young age can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety and a sense of inadequacy. These emotions may persist into adulthood, affecting their ability to form healthy relationships (including with their siblings) and navigate life challenges. They may not get to experience childhood, discover their interests or develop their identity beyond being a caretaker for the family. Their social skills may suffer since they may not have time for outside activities.
According to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, the percentage of parentified youths may be anywhere from a few percent to up to 30%. Parentification is a role reversal that can be hard to spot because many view it as having natural expectations of children. However, it can have short- and long-term negative consequences for children, and parents who see signs that their children may experience it at their other parent’s house may need to investigate.