What Is Parentification?

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Parentification occurs when there is a reversal in roles between a parent and child, and the child gets pulled into the role of the emotional, physical, or logistical caregiver for the parent, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

Have you ever felt that you took more care of your parents than they did of you? Do you feel like you practically raised your siblings? Did you end up taking on a lot of responsibility at a very young age? If so, you may have experienced parentification.

In healthy parent-child dyads, the parent provides tangible and emotional support to their child, says Dr. Romanoff. The role of the parent is to give and the role of the child is to receive. By taking care of the child’s physical and emotional needs, the parent gives the child room to explore, learn, and grow.

However, parentification is a distorted dynamic where the roles of child and parent are reversed, with the child giving the parent more than they receive.

This article explores the types, causes, signs, and effects of parentification.

Causes of Parentification

These are some of the potential causes of parentification, according to Dr. Romanoff:

  • Emotional immaturity: If the parents are emotionally immature and struggle to regulate their emotional, physical, or logistical needs, they may find it easier to rely on their children than be self-sufficient. However, it's important to note that neglecting a child and failing to provide for their needs is a form of child abuse.
  • Overwhelming responsibilities: When parents are so overwhelmed with their own challenges, the boundaries between parent and child get blurred and parents begin to view their child as a friend, caretaker, or parent.
  • Lack of support: Parents who don’t have supportive relationships or a strong support system might enlist their children to do this for them.
  • Health conditions: Parents who have a medical condition, mental health condition, or substance use disorder may find it difficult to care for themselves or their children. As a result, the child may be forced to step into the role of caregiver. This could also be the case if the child’s sibling has a health condition.
  • Childhood abuse: Parents who have been abused as children may lack the emotional competence to self-soothe and regulate their emotions.
  • Difficult circumstances: Parents who are struggling with difficult circumstances, such as divorce, the death of a spouse, financial hardship, or immigration to a new country may rely on their children for support.

Types of Parentification

Below, Dr. Romanoff describes the two different types of parentification.

Emotional Parentification

Emotional parentification is when the child provides the parent emotional support in the form of giving advice, holding secrets, comforting siblings during arguments, and diffusing conflict

In many ways, the child identifies as their parent’s personal therapist, listening to their parent’s work, relationship, and daily troubles, and then reassuring and soothing them.

Instrumental Parentification

Instrumental parentification is when children are tasked with adult responsibilities, such as cooking dinner, managing finances, or being responsible for their siblings. 

While some of these tasks may be age-appropriate, an important difference to make is if the child is being taken advantage of and the task is serving the parent more than the child, or if the child is learning valuable skills and responsibilities through these tasks.

Signs of Parentification

According to Dr. Romanoff, if a parent relies too heavily on their child to meet their needs, the child might show signs such as:

  • Self-doubt
  • Strong desire to please others
  • Difficulty with assertion
  • Guilt and depression
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Difficulties at school
  • Loss of childhood

A 2017 study of children living with mentally ill parents notes that parentification can cause children to internalize stress and develop problematic behaviors as a result.

Effects of Parentification

Below, Dr. Romanoff outlines the effects of parentification on children.

Suppressed Needs

In parentification scenarios, the parents employ the children to manage their own problems or take on their responsibilities. These children, eager to please their parents, tend to take on adult responsibilities and parental roles of caretaker for the adults and siblings in their world.

As a result, the children learn that their own needs and emotions are threats to their parents because they are either inconvenient or lead to consequences or punishments. They fear being labeled selfish or ungrateful and don’t want their parents to turn on them.

Instead of having parents who can hold space for their needs, these children learn to hold them in or suppress them. Subsequently, they believe they must suppress their needs in order to maintain relationships.

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Ultimately, these children learn there is only room for one person’s needs in a relationship. They fear expressing their own needs, taking up space, or making waves.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Unhealthy Relationship Dynamics

These children grow up to have significant problems in relationships, often choosing partners who are self-centered because they are more comfortable with this dynamic. They struggle to express their own needs without experiencing fear of abandonment or rejection.

Mental Health Issues

Constantly suppressing one’s needs is not healthy, and as a result, children who have experienced parentification may experience anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, and other mental health issues.

Emotional Intelligence

It’s important to note the strengths that come from parentification as well.

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Children who have experienced parentification are often extremely responsible, organized, empathic, and connected to others. They have extremely high levels of emotional intelligence.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

These children have the superpower of feeling the emotions of others strongly, often at the expense of dispelling their own needs and emotions.

A Word From Verywell

Parentification is an unhealthy relationship dynamic that can have lasting effects on children. Children need to have the space to play, grow, and develop, without the burden of parental responsibilities.

While it’s all right for a child to do chores around the house, the tasks should not interfere with the child’s health, school, or relationships. Similarly, while it’s all right for children to see their parents upset, they should not be made to feel responsible for fixing their parents' circumstances.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Połomski P, Peplińska A, Lewandowska-Walter A, Borchet J. Exploring resiliency and parentification in Polish adolescents. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(21):11454. doi:10.3390/ijerph182111454

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing child abuse and neglect.

  3. Van Loon LM, Van de Ven MO, Van Doesum KT, Hosman CM, Witteman CL. Parentification, stress, and problem behavior of adolescents who have a parent with mental health problems. Fam Process. 2017;56(1):141-153. doi:10.1111/famp.12165

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.