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Speaking Out: Voices of Adult Children of Divorce on Parentification

This is the 6th in a series of blogs on this topic.

This has been a tough blog for me to write. Every time I schedule time to write about “Parentification”, something comes up and I’m grateful for the distraction. I think it’s because the idea came from the realization that my siblings and I often play a “parenting role” with each other. It can be easier to rely on your sibling and not have to choose a parent for guidance. It wasn’t a question on my original survey so I revisited with some people to find out if they felt that they had taken on this role in their family.

In the Parenting class I teach, we talk about “Child Support” and we’re not talking about money. In this case, we’re cautioning parents against relying on their kids for emotional support. When kids see parents hurting, it’s a natural instinct to want to help. A child may cancel their weekend plans to stay home with a parent who is sad. Parents need to find their own support networks: friends, family, therapists, etc and not burden their children with this difficult role.

According to Wikipedia: "Parentification is the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as parent to his or her own parent. In extreme cases, the child is used to fill the void of the alienating parent's emotional life.

Two distinct modes of parentification have been identified technically: instrumental parentification and emotional parentification. Instrumental parentification involves the child completing physical tasks for the family, such as looking after a sick relative, paying bills, or providing assistance to younger siblings that would normally be provided by a parent.

Emotional parentification occurs when a child or adolescent must take on the role of a confidant or mediator for (or between) parents or family members."

Once again, I learned from adult children of divorce who completed my survey. In the example below, Stacey took on the role of “instrumental parentification”; she essentially took care of her younger brother.

“Yes, I was the PARENT!!! My mom was such a freaking mess that from the time I was 4 years old I was taking care of my baby brother. She was always crying, unable to function, suicidal, messed up and I was the one who handled everything. At 14, I had a full time job to take care her and my brother. Even though she passed in 1986, I still take care of my brother as he is really crazy from all the childhood sh*t.” Stacey

Stephanie felt responsible for her dad:

“My dad is more of a fun child himself and I had to take a lot of the responsibility with making sure he didn't forget things, and make sure we were on time for other things.”

Geoffrey felt the burden of responsibility for his younger brother as well:

“My mom suffered from anxiety and depression. She took pills for her condition and I hated being alone and taking care of my brother when she was sleeping from the pills or when she was out on a date.”

Jessica and Amy took on emotional parentification, feeling that they had to support their parents.

“Yes, I believe I was Parentified. When my parents got a divorce my Mom heavily leaned on me emotionally although I was only eight years old. She was devastated when I became a teenager and started to spread my wings. It was hard on me because I wanted to live a normal life as a youth, but she wanted me around all the time because she was lonely.” Jessica

“In my family case it was emotional parentification…almost like we became the sounding board or the dumping ground for the emotions when a therapist would have been best.” Amy

In T.S.’s case, there was inappropriate sharing from mom to child regarding intimacy and their sex life.

“At the age of 10 (when my parents separated), I became my mother's confidant. She would tell me about how she and my dad never had intimacy.... how he cheated on her with a married woman with a cocaine addiction... how she questioned his sexuality... how she once cheated on him with a man she met at work to get affection... how my dad was verbally and physically abusive towards her etc.... This pattern of her confiding in me about adult issues continued through the years.”

It seems straight- forward that a parent shouldn’t rely on their child for emotional support but when you are in the midst of divorce, it’s an emotional roller coaster and can be difficult to be appropriate in your parenting. I have many resources and am happy to share if you find yourself in this position. As always, I’m writing to help people avoid the pitfalls of the previous generation. Learning from adult children who experienced divorce in their lives is the best way to learn how to get the support you need and be the best parent you can be.

Jody Comins, MSW is a Divorce & Family Mediator and Collaborative Coach in the Greater Boston area. She is an adult child of divorce and uses her experience to create a child-centered practice at A Better Way: Divorce Mediation. She is a mentor for volunteer mediators in the Norfolk Probate & Family Court and a court approved facilitator for the required parenting classes in MA.

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