- Parents who are high in narcissism may informally appoint one child as "surrogate parent."
- "Surrogate parents" may be expected to meet the emotional needs of their parent as well as the needs of their siblings.
- "Surrogate parents" may lose out on their childhoods and can experience a range of emotional and relationship issues as adults.
Parents who are high in narcissism tend to view their children as part of their narcissistic supply. The child's primary role, as far as the parent is concerned, is to meet their needs.
Emotionally and physically caring for children can be particularly demanding for a parent that is highly narcissistic. They may, for this reason, assign a high degree of parenting duties to one of their children, sometimes called the “surrogate parent.”
The surrogate parent may either take on a partner-like role for their narcissistic parent (emotional parentification), or may simply be assigned to the practical care of their siblings (instrumental parentification). They may also take on both roles.
In the case of emotional parentification, the parent may treat the child like their partner or close confidante. The child will be expected to meet the parent's emotional needs and will likely be on the receiving end of troubles and worries, many of which might be far too much for a child to handle at a young age. They may hear inappropriate details of their parent’s life or be placed in situations that are completely beyond the realm of their emotional maturity.
In the case of instrumental parentification, the child may be involved in taking care of younger siblings, which may involve meeting their emotional as well as practical needs. They may be assigned a high level of household duties and may be given responsibility for “adult” tasks, such as helping with paperwork or arranging appointments. The child may also adopt a high level of responsibility for protecting the parent from themselves or protecting their siblings from inappropriate, aggressive, or manipulative parental behaviours.
Why Is a Child Made the "Surrogate Parent"?
Surrogate children are often sensitive and empathic children who notice the needs of others and may recognise a gap in the level of their parent’s care. They may, initially, be driven by a desire for parental attention. Becoming indispensable is one way to attract that attention. Alternatively, a child may simply be assigned the role of surrogate parent because of her gender or position in the family.
For example, my client Sandy told me, “I was the quiet, sensitive one in the family. I was desperate to be like an adult so that I could help Mum, and I began to take on responsibilities that were way too advanced. My mum was only too keen for me to take on that role, and soon I felt like everyone’s parent.”
Another client, Desiree, explained that her mother gave Desiree and her siblings a huge amount of housework to do. “We did absolutely everything. While the others tried to get out of it, because I like things ordered, I just ended up being in charge. All of my spare time was spent cooking and cleaning and looking after the younger ones.”
Angela told me, “Looking back, I really resent the fact that I ended up taking on this parent role. It was so unfair, but at the time it made me feel important. My siblings bullied me and called me ‘aunty,’ which I hated. I never felt like a kid.”
How Is the "Surrogate Parent" Affected?
1. Loss of childhood
A child who takes on the role of surrogate parent essentially loses out on their childhood. While the child should, ideally, have been spreading their wings, having fun, and experimenting with distancing themselves from their family, they likely felt tightly bound to them.
The way the family views this child may have shaped the way they view themselves. If a child was consistently seen as responsible and "adult," for example, and was forced into a role that reinforced that image, it can be difficult to break out of that mould. The individual may find themselves repeating the relationship “truths” they learned as a child and taking on the role of surrogate parent in their close adult relationships.
2. Anger, resentment, and regret
Children have little to no control over how they are treated. As adults, however, they have likely started to examine their life through a more emotionally mature lens.
Someone who took on the role of surrogate parent may begin to question their upbringing and realise that the way they were treated was unjust and unfair. As part of this process of self-exploration, they may feel anger and resentment towards their narcissistic parent, in conjunction with feelings of sadness and regret. The thought that one was never really allowed to just be a kid is a lot to come to terms with.
3. Remaining tied to the narcissistic parent
Someone who has experienced parentification becomes tied to their parent in a particular and powerful way. Far from feeling like a child who had needs to be met, they were transformed into feeling like an adult who had responsibilities towards their parent and perhaps to other siblings.
Regardless of what stage of realization or healing someone is at, they may still feel a very strong drive to take care of their parent. They may continue to feel as if they have responsibilities that, rightly, should never have been assigned to them.
4. Driven by guilt
Because the "surrogate parent" child has been assigned the role of an adult from such an early age, any attempts to distance themselves from their family may be viewed from the perspective of someone who is responsible for their family’s wellbeing. My client David told me, “I couldn’t shake this idea that I was responsible for my mother’s happiness. I desperately wanted to cut all contact because of how badly she treated me, but I felt that if I did so, I’d be abandoning this poor, helpless being.”
5. Emotional regulation issues
When someone is placed into the role of parent at such a young age, their own emotional needs tend to go unnoticed and neglected. Often, these children learn to internalise their needs. They may become adept at feeling that they don’t deserve to have emotional needs or become skilled at pushing them down. As adults, they may find that they have poor emotional coping mechanisms or that deeply buried emotions jump up and explode in extreme or unmanageable ways.
Being placed in the unfair role of surrogate parent can affect someone for the rest of their life. If you are coming to terms with the impact of your own childhood, it is important to stop viewing yourself as someone who was responsible for your family’s happiness. That should never have been your responsibility—and in moving forward, you may need therapeutic guidance to learn to see the world through the eyes of someone whose primary responsibility is to work on their own needs.
Learn more in Raised by a Narcissist: 7 Steps to Healing from a Toxic Childhood.