What is Parentification? Why is it Toxic to Children?

diane sitting on steps with three kidsRecently, a friend asked me if I thought there was anything wrong with how her spouse was constantly telling their young son, “Make me proud!” or “The world is watching— let the world know what a great family we have!”

Inside I cringed.

Perhaps on the surface these seem like words to encourage a young child to do well. However, when done to excess, and when they put an unfair pressure on a child to perform or to take care of the parent, that’s called parentification and it can be very toxic for a child.

According to Dr. Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, creator of Contextual Therapy, “Parentification is an adult’s maneuver to turn a child into a functional ‘elder,’ i.e., someone who takes more than age-appropriate responsibility for a relationship… It is destructive when it depletes the child’s resources and trust reserves. This occurs when adults manipulate their offspring’s innate tendency for trusting devotion. The predicament of split loyalty always parentifies a child.” 1

Summarily, parentification refers to any time a parent puts unfair responsibility on a child’s shoulders to care for them or others in the family, the weight of that responsibility overwhelms the child psychologically and interferes with normal processes of fair and balanced giving and receiving in relationships.

These are the messages that basically say, “If you don’t perform well, it will be all your fault that bad things happen” or “If you don’t choose to love me more than the other parent, I will die/get sick and never recover/suffer terribly” or “Terrible things will happen if you don’t do what I am telling you that you must do, even though it is way beyond your abilities to do so.”

An example of parentification.

There is a poignant scene in the movie Good Will Hunting when Robin Williams, playing the part of the therapist, over and over tells Matt Damon (Will) that the things that happened were not his fault. Every time Robin Williams says to him, “It was not your fault,” Will reacts with anger or fear and finally with profound sadness, sobbing into Robin Williams arms, holding him for dear life. It was as if he could finally release himself from the bondage of being parentified.

Children are naturally loyal to their parents and to what their parents believe.

Children innately trust their parents. They know they are not capable of understanding the world yet, and their parents are their protectors and the ones that tell them how to live, how to love, who to love, and when to love.

When parents transmit fair and appropriate messages that allow the loyalty to be safely embraced, children fare well.

ring bearer holding pillow with ring on it

Here’s more bad news from Nagy.

“Indirect, invisible loyalties to one relationship commonly show in the substitutive victimization of another relationship. Behaviorally, they also give rise to a whole range of self-destructive patterns like addiction and psychosomatic illnesses.”2

I remember Dr. Nagy sharing a story when I was in group supervision with him years ago. He told about a 2 ½-year-old who was assigned to be the ringbearer in a big family wedding. The parents and other family members told this little boy that he was responsible for making sure the wedding was successful. He was told that everyone would hate him if he didn’t perform properly.

When the big day came and he was standing at the far end of the aisle, fear and anxiety overtook him and he fell apart. His family was mortified by his inability to behave properly. He took on a deep sense of shame because he had failed the people he loved. Nagy pointed out how inherently unfair it was to have these kinds of expectations of a child of this age.

I wonder how many of us walk around having been parentified as children.

How many of us carry core messages of being a failure, messages that promote deep shame and a sense of inadequacy? These messages can rip somebody apart inside, and later can prevent them from being able to be fair towards their own children.

It’s important to give children opportunities to take appropriate responsibility for their behavior. The operative word here is “appropriate.”

Children should never be placed in positions where they are told they have the power to do terrible damage when their immaturity means they will probably fail at whatever they are being expected to do. Children also should never be put in positions where they must choose one parent over the other because one parent is informing them that that parent’s life depends on the child’s loyalty to them.

This is a deep and profound concept. It is also an extremely important one for parents to consider whenever they place demands on their children.

What is fair, appropriate and reasonable for a child is important for parents to know. Being on the lookout for toxic parentification is a serious parental responsibility, whether it is looking at your own behaviors or the behaviors of others in your family.

The deep invisible wounds of parentification—especially when coupled with unfair pressures to be loyal to one parent over another—can impact a child’s relationships throughout their lifetime.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. As you read this, did you become aware that you might have been parentified as a child? What were the unfair expectations? What split-loyalties did you experience? How have these affected you in the various relationships you have had during your lifetime?
  2. Have you in any way parentified one of your children? Have you put undue pressure on them to be more loyal to you than to the other parent? What can you do to now reverse some of the messages to free your child from being parentified and/or experiencing split-loyalties?
  3. If you think your partner is parentifying and/or is imposing split-loyalties on your child, whether you are currently in a relationship with that person, or if there has been a breakup and yet you share children, what are some ways you can provide healthier counter messages to free your child from the forces of parentification and/or split loyalty?

1 Between Give and Take: A Clinical Guide to Contextual Therapy. Page 419
2 Between Give and Take: A Clinical Guide to Contextual Therapy. Page 77