Note: This topic can be a triggering one for many of us. If you feel yourself having an intense physical or emotional reaction when reading this post, take a break. Close the tab. It might have hit home in a way you were not prepared for, and that's okay. Do what you need to do to calm your nervous system and feel at ease again
Have you ever described yourself as someone who 'grew up quickly'?
You may even carry this is a badge of honour. If you found yourself taking on adult-like roles as a child, there is a chance that you were praised by the other adults in your life. You may even have been recognized as 'responsible' and 'beyond your years'.
Children are usually eager to please and be recognized for their efforts. If people relied on you to have adult-like emotions and behaviour, it's likely that you felt proud and useful when fulfilling this role.
Does this sound like you?
If it does, you may have been 'emotionally parentified' as a child.
Growing up too quickly is a sign that during childhood you unknowingly and unwittingly became an adult or took on adult-like responsibilities and coping strategies.
One of the most obvious consequences of emotional parentification is we grow accustomed to feeling responsible for our parent's emotions. And that is what this post is all about!
In this post, we will explore:
The concept of emotional parentification
How we come to feel responsible for our parents' feelings
Tips to heal from emotional parentification
What Is Emotional Parentification?
Very simply, emotional parentification is a dynamic between children and their caregivers. It occurs when children feel responsible for taking care of their parents emotionally while growing up.
This can look like:
- Children constantly trying to accommodate how their parents feel
- The child becomes a source of emotional support and caregiving to parents
- In high-conflict, stressful, or traumatic situations, children soothe and regulate the parent's emotions
- Parents over-share their emotional pain and age-inappropriate problems with children and either lean on them for support or expect them to help with problem-solving
- Children are placed in situations where they feel more like the parent
Through emotional parentification, children end up fulfilling their caregiver's emotional needs at an age where they are simply not equipped to do so.
As an aside, there is also instrumental parentification, where children take on practical household tasks in an adult-like capacity. This can include cooking, cleaning, taking care of younger siblings, and managing the household.
While both types of parentification have consequences for the development of a child, emotional parentification can have farther-reaching effects into adulthood.
It's also important to note that giving kids age-appropriate responsibilities is NOT the same thing as parentification, which involves adult-like levels of responsibility and behaviour expectations. It's also natural for parents to desire love and support from their child. However, when the roles are reversed consistently and particularly in high-intensity situations, this can be damaging for a child's emotional development.
So Why Do We Feel Responsible For Our Parents' Feelings?
Through the process of emotional parentification, we gradually learn to put other people's needs before our own. This often occurs at the expense of our wellbeing!
Putting other people first comes very naturally to those who have been emotionally parentified because this is exactly what they did with their caregivers while growing up.
Children are naturally quite empathetic. Parents who are struggling or in emotional pain may find that a child has a natural ability to provide some comfort and support.
However, children's brains are not developed enough to handle adult stressors or the responsibility of helping parents regulate their emotions. When we teach them to take care of us during emotional breakdowns, children will learn to do their best for us and figure out their own coping later (or not at all).
Eventually, this becomes a role they fulfill in the household. Often, the eldest child, or the one who is the most naturally empathetic and sensitive, takes on this role.
As adults, emotionally parentified individuals may continue to live this role and use it as a means to seek acceptance and validation
For example, you may live in fear that if you don't take care of your parents they will fall apart. Since you have been the 'glue' in their lives for so long, it can be very difficult to imagine your parents fending for themselves emotionally without you protecting them from challenging emotions and situations.
The Guilt Component
The truth is that your parents' emotional pain is their responsibility.
Saying this out loud (or even thinking it) can bring on waves of guilt. In South Asian communities, the expectation is to take care of our parents- and there is nothing inherently wrong with this. However, when you factor in guilt culture, adult children are often made to feel intense guilt and shame for not fulfilling their parent's expectations.
When those expectations are not reasonable to begin with (i.e. brought on by a lifetime of emotional parentification), we end up staying stuck in the role of being our parents' therapists and problem solvers.
We also struggle in romantic relationships because we have not learned how to share our own emotions and needs.
The irony is that the trauma and emotional pain our parents are going through will not be healed simply because we feel responsible for it.
Additionally, the more we cater to our parents' needs, the more we set aside our own. This means we enter the formative years of our lives with deeply unmet needs. Our parents likely had the same story, which contributed to their tendency to lean on their children for emotional support and validation.
Without sincere reflection, emotional parnetification becomes a cycle.
Healing From Emotional Parentification
If you have been emotionally parentified, there is one thing you should know without a doubt:
You are not responsible for your parents' feelings
This is not an easy thing to shake, especially if you have spent a lifetime feeling this way. First and foremost, it is SO important to have compassion for yourself and also for your inner child.
Here are a few tips to begin the work. Please keep in mind that it won't feel natural or easy right away- you are quite literally uprooting your most hardwired instincts to protect your parents' needs and cast aside your own. A therapist can certainly help with this!
Share Your Story With Safe People
Feeling responsible for other people's feelings can be an isolating experience. As therapists, we can tell you that you are certainly not alone. Many people will relate to your upbringing and be able to provide you with the emotional validation you may be craving.
Set Boundaries At Your Own Pace
Honour the fact that putting your relationship with your parents on a healthier track will not be easy (for you, or them). Putting in a multitude of hard boundaries right in the beginning can feel overwhelming and this will reduce your chances of actually sticking to them.
Start off small. For example, if your mom is feeling upset or wants to rant about an incident with your dad, encourage her to talk to her friend or directly to her husband. You may also want to say that we need to set aside a time to talk about what is on her mind because you cannot always make yourself available.
Learn to Rely On Others
If you were always the reliable one, it can be difficult to ask for help or even be vulnerable enough to admit you are struggling. Truly connecting with others usually requires some level of vulnerability, making it hard for you to form meaningful friendships and relationships.
Just because you have learned to take care of everyone else does not mean that you can't be taken care of. Absolute self-reliance can be very lonely :(
Try reaching out for connection. For example, if you miss someone, ask them to grab a coffee. Or make a point to eat lunch with others whenever you can (even if it's over Zoom).
Listen To Your Needs
When our needs are not being met, they make themselves known to us in a language we don't always understand. Pay attention to how you feel when others rely on you. Do you feel bitter? Resentful? Trapped? Or ambivalent?
Feeling like this might indicate that you have your own emotional needs that are not being met. Perhaps you feel neglected and pouring into your parents' cup is making you feel bitter.
Practice identifying the need behind strong emotional reactions. Without identifying your needs, you cannot learn to prioritize them.
Before You Go...
Sometimes it can feel jarring to see your own experiences captured and validated. It's also important to acknowledge that this is a loaded topic and can be particularly difficult to learn about for parents.
The process of emotional parentification is rarely intentional. Most parents do not set out to manipulate their children into becoming a life-long crutch for their emotions. However, as we have mentioned in our piece on guilt culture, it is important to separate the intention from the impact of the action. Our intentions should never be used to deny the impact our actions had on other people.
If you are feeling triggered and raw after reading this post, please take care of yourself. Drink something warm, sway to some music, put on calming and relaxing rain sounds. Talk to someone who will listen to and validate your experiences.
You are certainly not alone in this journey of setting boundaries and figuring out how to navigate healthier relationships with parents and caregivers as an adult.
Until next time!