- Playing an adult role in your family of origin can give you some great strengths, but it may also harm you.
- Parentified kids learn how to ignore their own emotions and emotional needs so they can care for their family.
- This form of emotional neglect can endure for your lifetime if you do not address it.
Elyse’s sister battled mental health issues growing up. Ever since Elyse was 15 years old, her parents came to her for advice. They praised Elyse for understanding mental health issues better than they did and blindly trusted her parenting recommendations. Elyse felt responsible not only for the health of her sister but for her parents as well.
Jay came from a picture-perfect home. His parents were in a happy and loving marriage with a household full of six children, Jay the oldest. Everything changed when his mother passed away quickly from pancreatic cancer. His father fell into a deep depression, and Jay took on the duty of caring for his five younger siblings. He helped his father with the bills, did the shopping and household chores, and even took on the task of planning his mother’s funeral services.
Parentified Children in Adulthood
Elyse and Jay are what therapists would call “parentified children.” There are many ways a child can become parentified, whether their parents suffer from addiction or mental health issues, contend with physical or medical issues, struggle financially, or deal with bereavement. No parent chooses for these things to happen, but they happen, nonetheless.
Parentified children grow up with childhood emotional neglect. Because they are required to put their own feelings and emotional needs behind those of their parents and/or siblings, they learn to subjugate their own feelings to the needs of others, a childhood habit that likely sticks with them for their entire adult lives.
But being a parentified child has some surprising advantages, and Elyse is a good case in point. She grew up to become a therapist, feeling as though helping others with mental health issues was her gift in life. She intended to help people understand mental health because she saw her parents struggling to know how to help their daughter. Elyse is now a successful therapist and mental health advocate.
Jay experiences some benefits of being the parentified child, too. Now Jay and his younger siblings are all adults, and Jay has extremely close relationships with his siblings. He’s known as the loyal and loving brother, uncle, and son. He attends all of his nieces’ and nephews’ sporting events and is the primary caretaker of his aging father. He’s well-loved and excellent at caretaking and giving to others.
Being parentified children has set Elyse and Jay up to be caring and connected people. While their upbringings were difficult, they prepared them, perhaps too well, for adulthood.
Behind these perceived advantages holds the unfortunate truth about Elyse and Jay: Thanks to the emotional neglect they experienced as children, now as adults, they aren’t living for themselves.
The Parentified Child All Grown Up: 3 Major Challenges
- Grief and regret: If you were a parentified child, your childhood was quickly replaced by adulthood. When you reflect back on growing up today, you may feel a sense of sadness and loss. You missed out on the opportunity to be carefree and playful. You might see children living rich childhoods today and feel envious, or you may hear others’ stories of childhood and feel the same way. You never got to be a kid, and since you don’t get a do-over, you feel like you’re sentenced to lifelong feelings of loss and regret.
- Extreme self-sacrifice: Since you grew up caring for others, you missed out on learning the importance of caring for yourself. You might believe that other peoples’ feelings, needs, desires, and preferences are more important than your own. You don’t know the truth: The primary responsibility each and every person holds in life is to themselves. Your health and happiness come first.
- Childhood emotional neglect: Stepping into a caretaker role at such a young age sets you up to continue to under-attend to your own feelings and needs, the hallmark of childhood emotional neglect. You may end up overfocused on other people’s feelings and underfocused on your own. The focus shifts from caring for your parents or siblings to caring for your friends or partners. The focus is seldom on yourself.
Elyse loves the work she does as a therapist. Yet, as she’s helping others to heal, she finds herself stuck with feelings of resentment and anger toward her own parents. Her parents continue to come to her for advice and often say they don’t need therapy themselves because they have Elyse. She still feels responsible for them, and can’t seem to break free from getting involved in family drama. She questions who she is outside of her role as a therapist. She questions if she’d still be loved if she didn’t have sound advice to give. That idea nags at her.
Jay loves his siblings deeply. They are all married and have children, but Jay has neither. He gets invited to their family holidays and events and feels like a special part of the family, but he sometimes longs for a family of his own. Jay says he doesn’t have time to date. And that’s true; he’s busy caring for everyone else. Jay missed out on learning something crucial in childhood: His needs are important. Because he treats others as more important than himself, he lacks his own sense of identity.
How to Go From Parentified to Reunified With Yourself
- Prioritize yourself. You have feelings, needs, desires, and preferences just like everyone else. Accept that and start paying attention to what they are. Are you tired? Take some time to rest. Do you need some excitement in your life? Plan an outing with friends. Remember, you must care for yourself before you can give to others.
- Heal your emotional neglect. Did your parents ask you about your feelings growing up? Did they notice your emotions and teach you what to do with your anger, hurt, or sadness? Most parentified children didn’t receive enough emotional attention and validation, and now, as adults, tend to ignore their own feelings…but it’s not too late. Start attending to your feelings, including the good ones: joy, laughter, and fun. Attending to your feelings is a human right, and you have earned it.
- Minimize your responsibilities to others. Take note of your responsibilities to other people in your life. You might be surprised by how much you’re doing. Redirect all that you are doing for others to ways you can care for yourself. You have just one life to live… why not live it according to you?
You have been separated from yourself for far too long. You can get what you missed in childhood by reparenting yourself today. Give yourself the emotional validation and care that you have been pouring into others. It’s time to flip the script. You are so deserving of it.
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.
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To determine if you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my bio.