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Friday, January 12, 2024

The Impact of Parentification Trauma on Adult Romantic Relationships

Adults who were parentified children often have problems in adult romantic relationships due to the childhood trauma of having to act as a parent to one or both of their parents (see my article: Overcoming Childhood Trauma that Affects Adult Relationships).

The Impact of Parentification Trauma on Adult Relationships

What is Parentification?
Parentification occurs when parents use their children for emotional or practical support instead of providing support to the children.  As a result, the children, who aren't psychologically or emotionally equipped to do this, become their parents' caregivers (see my article: Children's Roles in Dysfunctional Families).

Parentification is a form of emotional neglect because the child doesn't get what s/he needs from their parents and, instead, must try to extend themselves beyond their developmental abilities to take care of their parents.

Instrumental Parentification and Emotional Parentification
There are two types of parentification:  

Instrumental Parentification: This is when children take on the parental role of providing practical care which is beyond their emotional and psychological capabilities.  

This could involve:
  • Taking care of the parents, siblings or other relatives because the parents are unable or unwilling to do it, including taking responsibility for relatives who are physically or mentally disabled or who have a mental illness
  • Assuming household responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, doing the laundry and other similar responsibilities
Instrumental Parentification
  • Paying household bills
  • Serving as a translator for parents who are unable to speak the primary language of the country where the family resides
  • Other practical tasks that are usually handled by adults
Emotional Parentification: This is when children take on the parental role of providing emotional support to parents. 

This could involve:
  • Listening to parents talk about their problems, which is beyond the child's capabilities
Emotional Parentification

  • Providing parents with advice relating to the parents' problems
  • Serving as a confidante to the parents
  • Taking on the adult role as a mediator between the parents or other adults
  • Providing emotional support to the parents
The Trauma of Parentification
When children take on their parents' emotional and/or practical responsibilities on an ongoing basis, this is a form of relational trauma because there is a role reversal between children and parents.  

Also, as previously mentioned, if the child's emotional and practical needs aren't being met, this is a form of neglect.

Parentification can result in a variety of mental health issues including:
  • Problems with trust
  • Anger management issues
  • Problems with emotional regulation
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance misuse
  • Gambling
  • Eating disorders
  • Problems forming or maintaining adult relationships, especially romantic relationships
Clinical Vignette
The following clinical vignette, which is a composite of many different cases, illustrates the traumatic effects of parentification and how trauma therapy can help:

Jim
By the time Jim was 10 years old, he had taken over many of his parents' responsibilities in the household because his father, who was an active alcoholic and unemployed, would disappear for weeks, and his mother tried to support the family by working three jobs.

As the oldest child, Jim did the laundry, cleaned the house, helped his siblings with their homework, put them to sleep, dressed them in the morning and made sure they ate breakfast, among other things.

He was so tired that he often fell asleep in class. When his teacher tried to talk to his mother about it over the phone, she discovered that Jim's mother wasn't receptive to hearing about it. 

She told the teacher, "If Jim didn't take care of the younger kids and do the household chores, everything would fall apart. I don't have anyone else to help out and we can't afford to hire a housekeeper, so that's just the way it is." Then Jim's mother hung up.

When Jim's mother was at home, she often complained and cried about how awful her life turned out and how she hated being married to an alcoholic.  Jim would listen patiently and try to be supportive, but he didn't know what to say.

Then, she would shower him to praise and tell him, "You're so good. You're my little man," which made Jim feel good.

But when his father was home, Jim noticed that, despite her complaints to him in private, his mother would go out of her way to appease and cater to the father.  This confused and angered Jim. He couldn't understand why his mother didn't hold the father accountable.  

What was even more confusing to him was that her attitude towards him was very different when his father wasn't home. She doted so much on his father that it was as if Jim and his siblings didn't exist. Instead of confiding in Jim and praising him, his mother would often go along with his father in being critical of him, which hurt Jim's feelings.  

Sometimes Jim felt like he had two mothers--the one who was kind and praiseful towards him when his father wasn't home and the other one who ignored him and joined in his father's criticism of him when his father was home.

Despite this, Jim remained loyal to his mother and disdainful towards his father.  When it was time for him to go to college, Jim chose a school close to home so he could live at home and be close to his mother to help out.

By then, his father had quit drinking because he was having health problems and his doctor warned him that if he didn't stop drinking, he would die.  So, things were a little more stable at home and his father got a job as a janitor.

Throughout high school and college, Jim didn't date. He had a few male friends, but he felt shy and self conscious around girls.  Sometimes his friends teased him about being "a mama's boy," but he didn't care because he knew his mother still needed him at home.

After he graduated college and he started a new job, he met a woman at his organization who was from a different department. Jane was friendly and outgoing and she asked Jim to go to lunch.  Soon after that, they began dating.

Problems arose in their relationship a few months after they started dating whenever Jim cancelled their plans when he felt his mother needed him.  These cancellations never involved emergencies, but Jim treated these incidents as if they were emergencies,which angered Jane. So, Jane gave him an ultimatum to either attend therapy or she would leave him.

Jim began therapy to deal with feeling triangulated between his mother and his girlfriend.  This is how he learned about parentification and how it affected him in his relationship with Jane as well as his reluctance, before dating Jane, to date at all.

Trauma Therapy

As part of trauma therapy, Jim did EMDR therapy to help him to work through his history of trauma and the impact it had on his romantic relationship.

The work in trauma therapy was neither easy or quick but, over time, Jim began to heal from his childhood trauma. He was also able to differentiate himself psychologically from his mother so he could thrive as an individual and in his relationship.

Conclusion
Adults who were parentified often have a difficult time in adult romantic relationships.

The good news is that the trauma of parentification can be worked through in trauma therapy.

Getting Help in Trauma Therapy
If you are struggling with a history of parentification, you're not alone.

A skilled trauma therapist can help you to work through trauma.

So, instead of struggling on your own, seek help in trauma therapy so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapy.

I work with individual adults and couples (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

To find out more abou tme, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.