Flipping the Script on Parentification
Children are taking on a parental role and their mental health is suffering as a result.
Children are regularly assuming parenting positions, but not in the ways you may think. Instead of being parented themselves, many kids actually have to become the parental figure in their family unit when guardians are unable to do so.
Nonetheless, when you think of the term “family,” many things may come to mind. You might associate it with extended kin including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and more. Or you may think of a smaller unit with just parents/guardians and their children. These are very typical, traditional, or even nuclear families. Most likely, your first instinct is to assume that it will have adults who care for their children, send them to school, cook their meals, clean for them, and help them with their everyday activities. But do you ever actually think of families where the majority of responsibilities fall not on the adults, but rather on the children?
“Parentification” — when a child parents the parent
“Parentification” is a term coined in the 1970s to refer to a role reversal between a parent and child, whereby the child takes on the position of the parent or partner to their own guardian.
Causes of Parentification
There are many reasons as to why children would become the primary caretaker in their family unit. Sometimes it is from child neglect, and other times it is borne out of circumstance and not the fault of the parents/guardians per se. Here are just a few reasons:
- Parental history of attachment issues.
- Deprivation in the family (eg. emotional deprivation).
- Alcoholism / Addiction.
- Family unpredictability.
- Physical / Mental Disability.
- Very commonly, immigrant parents lack an inability to communicate in English (or the language of the country they’ve moved to)
What Tasks Do Parentified Children Perform?
- preparing meals,
- taking care of or disciplining other children in the family,
- doing housework,
- earning money or managing the family’s finances,
- providing for or responding to the emotional or self-esteem needs of the parent or family members,
- accompanying parents to doctor’s visits to translate symptoms,
- acting as a personal translator during meetings or interviews, and
- completing government or school forms.
Ultimately, the child must sacrifice many of their own needs for attention, comfort, and guidance in an effort to take care of the family, whether monetarily and/or emotionally. Further, they are less likely to engage in age-appropriate activities than their non-parentified peers because their time and efforts are focussed on caring for the family.
Consequences of Parentification
The consequences of parentification are mostly negative among adolescents, and the effects largely continue into adulthood. It causes:
- narcissistic or self-defeating personality traits
- feelings of unworthiness, even if they achieve great successes in their lives
- significantly poorer school/academic performance, and
- resentment towards parents.
How Do We Prevent or Fix the Problems?
What We Do at Youth Empowering Parents (YEP)
Our programs provide a new approach to engaging young people that enables them to teach everyday skills such as technology, music, English, and dance to their parents or other adult learners. For language courses, we provide “functional literacy” lessons, wherein our youth instructors teach adults conversational English such as how to express their symptoms to a doctor. It provides them with immediate and tangible skills that are necessary for everyday situations, while easing their own children’s burdens and allowing them to engage in more age-appropriate activities, like schoolwork. The adult learners can then feel a sense of accomplishment knowing that, from that point onward, they can become more independent and lean less on their children for support. Padma, one of our adult learners, expressed that, “I’m now able to do things without my daughter’s help, which makes me feel a lot more confident and a lot less reliant on others.”
For the youth volunteers themselves, our programs turn an otherwise negative arrangement into a leadership opportunity, as many of them have some experience with parentification. Now, teaching adults everyday tasks and helping them understand a language or culture can stop being a burden and start being a fun extracurricular activity. Jonathan, one of our regular volunteers, told us that, “YEP has been an enlightening process that makes me feel like I’m actually affecting change in my community, especially with members who may be struggling with seemingly regular tasks.”
Moving Forward, Not Back
One of the aims of our programs is to turn a negative situation into a positive one, and in doing so we hope to combat the detrimental effects of parentification among youth. We then hope to create positive outcomes for our participants such as resiliency, which has been previously identified in those who had prior experiences with parentification. This tells us that, even if a young person has undergone highly negative experiences in their family upbringing, they’re not defined by their past circumstances and can thrive as adults. While parentification remains a very real phenomenon among youth, organizations like ours are working to break the harmful cycles and simultaneously shape youth’s experiences into constructive moments. Creating more programs that help young people and adults learn everyday tasks that will weaken parentification processes is a great start, but we must also go above and beyond to get to the roots of the problems. Parentification is an issue ravaging our societies, and as such, it’s on us to stop it.
Join Youth Empowering Parents on February 15, 2021 for a virtual event titled “Re-thinking the capabilities of children: What happens when students become teachers?” Sign up by visiting https://yepeducation.eventbrite.com/