Harming Your Child by Making Him Your Parent

Harming Your Child by Making Him Your ParentParentification

A very subtle way to create damage in your child is to turn that child into your parent. This process is called parentification, not to be confused with parenting. Parentification can be defined as a role reversal between parent and child. A child’s personal needs are sacrificed in order to take care of the needs of the parent(s). A child will often give up his/her own need for comfort, attention, and guidance in order to accommodate to the needs and care of logistical and emotional needs of the parent(s) (Chase, 1999). In parentification the parent gives up what they are supposed to do as a parent and transfers that responsibility to one or more of their children. Hence the child becomes parentified. That child is the “parental child” (Minuchin, Montalvo, Guerney, Rosman, & Schumer, 1967).

Types of Parentification

Emotional Parentification: This type of parentification forces the child to meet the emotional needs of their parent and usually other siblings also. This kind of parentification is the most destructive. It robs the child of his/her childhood and sets him/her up to have a series of dysfunctions that will incapacitate him/her in life. In this role, the child is put into the practically impossible role of meeting the emotional and psychological needs of the parent. The child becomes the parent’s confidant. This can especially happen when a woman is not having her emotional needs met by her husband. She can gravitate towards trying to get these needs met from her son. It is as if the son becomes emotionally her surrogate husband. What child does not want to please their parent? An innocent child, is exploited by the parent and it creates a form of emotional and psychological abuse. This type of relationship can be the equivalent of emotional incest. Parentified children have to suppress their own needs. This comes at the expense of having normal development and causing a lack of a healthy emotional bond. These children will have difficulties having normal adult relationships in their future.

Instrumental Parentification: When a child takes up this role he/she meets physical or instrumental needs of the family. The child relieves the anxiety experienced normally by a parent that is not functioning correctly. The child may take care of the children, cook, etc. and by this essentially taking over many or all the physical responsibilities of the parent. This is not the same as a child learning responsibility through assigned chores and tasks. The difference is that the parent robs the child of his childhood by forcing him/her to be an adult caregiver with little or no opportunity to just be a kid. The child is made to feel as a surrogate parent over the siblings and parent.

Future Problems as Adults

Intense Anger: Parentified children can become very angry persons. They will tend to have a love-hate relationship with their parent. Sometimes this adult child may not know why they are angry but will be angry at others, especially their friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, and children. They can have explosive anger or passive anger, especially when another adult happens to put expectations that might trigger their parental wounds of emotional exploitation.

Difficulty with Adult Attachments: The parentified adult child can experience hardship in connecting with friends, spouse, and his/her children. This person could be operating out of deficits in knowing how to attach. Hence he/she could find it difficult to experience healthy intimacy in relationships. Relationships will tend to be distorted on some level.


Chase, N. (1999). An overview of theory, research, and societal issues. In N. Chase (Ed.), Burdened children (pp. 3-33). New York, NY: Guilford.

Minuchin, S., Montalvo, B., Guerney, B., Rosman, B., & Schumer, F. (1967). Families of the slums. New York, NY: Basic Books.


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Dr Samuel López De Victoria Ph.D.

About Dr Samuel López De Victoria Ph.D.

Samuel Lopez De Victoria, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist in private practice. He has taught as a psychology professor at the Miami Dade College in Miami, FL., the University of the Rockies in Colorado Springs, CO, and currently for the Ashford University in Clinton, IA. He can be contacted through his web site at www.DrSam.tv

One Response to Harming Your Child by Making Him Your Parent

  1. AvatarJose Cruz says:

    I remember my mother doing this with my older brother to an extent. My father had been a mean drunk and he used to beat my mother after coming home drunk on many occasions. He did this even when she was pregnant with me at the time. My brother was around a year to two years old at the time and witnessed the physical violence. Well, he grew up resenting my father for this. My mother encouraged my brother to get in the way and stick up for her whenever she and my father were having an argument. By this time my father had stopped drinking but they still had plenty of arguments and the home was far from a loving place. Well, I remember my brother feeling like he had to intervene and stick up for my mother against my father whenever they had an argument. I think this harmed my brother since it was both my of my parents’ job to support and protect him – not the other way around.

    This deeply affected my brother among other traumatic things that happened in his life. He grew up to become addicted to heroin and died of an overdose at the age of 30 years old.

    My parents, to my knowledge, never realized the harm they caused him.

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