What is parentification and what consequences can it have?

In rigid parentification, children go to great lengths to be responsible, living in situations that are inappropriate for their age. What are the consequences of this?

Last update: October 26, 2021

“He looks like the mother, he’s like a father to his brothers.” These phrases that can be a compliment, are perhaps an anchor for the childhood of these children, since are performing tasks that have little to do with their age. When this becomes a dead end, we are faced with a phenomenon of parentification.

Parentification refers to the reversal of roles. That is to say, sons or daughters who must assume the role of their parents. It is a term proposed by the psychiatrist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, although it is very popular within family therapies under other similar names, such as parenting of children.

Types of parentification

In general, parentification is classified into two subtypes that are not exclusive:

  • Psychological: refers to the situation in which the child is the one who listens and supports his parents. Sometimes they are even mediators between adult figures. This generates a conflict, since many times he has information that corresponds to the marital sphere and finds himself with a dilemma that is difficult to solve, of the type I love my father, but I shouldn’t love him because he misbehaves with my mother. It is considered one of the most harmful variants.
  • Physical or instrumental: refers to the child who is responsible for covering the different tasks or domestic activities, such as preparing food or shopping, among others.
The child who acts as a mediator in the conflict of his parents ends up with problems for handling information for which he is not prepared.

How to identify parentification?

Parentification leads to super-responsible boys and girls with their own and others’ affairs, with difficulties to relax, who learn to fend for themselves to the point of self-sufficiency and understand that it is better do not bother to others. It also causes children live in situations of negligence in terms of care.

However, one of the dangers of parentification is that the qualities that this child possesses are valued as positive. “He is so responsible, he takes good care of others, he knows how to take care of himself” are some of the compliments it receives.

From a cursory reading, they are very favorable attributes. But advancing a little further, it is possible to notice a reverse side: There is no equilibrium, but a great effort to be in a place that should not; a place that is empty because there are other people who do not play or cannot play their role.

Causes of parentification

Parentification is present in dysfunctional family dynamics. However, for a better approach it is necessary to explore the antecedents of the parents.

In some cases, more complex situations arise that lead to parentification. Some are as follows:

  • Problematic alcohol or substance use.
  • Either parent has a serious illness, mental disorder, or disability.
  • Parents who, in their childhood, register situations of emotional deprivation, abuse or neglect.

On the other hand also there may be situations of financial difficulties in the family or the death of one of the parents. Therefore, the child functions as a support.


As we have already pointed out, there is a great effort for responsibility and control that they are not suitable for the age of these children. There are consequences at the level of psychological development, because they have matured suddenly in some matters, but not in others.

Children may have low self-esteem as they learn that their interests are not important. However, as Selvini refers et al. (1991), sometimes parentification can have a positive connotation. This depends on whether it is a temporary role or not.

Then, the child accompanies the family system until it reaches a new point of equilibrium. The problem lies in the rigidity of the roles, when the child is trapped. There is no help there, only abuse. It stops being a circumstance of learning and resilience to become an obstacle.

What can be done about parentification?

If you are a parent and you just realized this problem, it is time for you to do something. It is true that parenting is very complex, especially if there are several family members to care for. However, it is also important to ensure that each member can enjoy the place they have.

If you are that son-fatherIt is time to leave that place and start enjoying other experiences. Some of the recommendations on how to get started are as follows:

  • Self-care and limits: For a while, you put other people’s needs before your own. Now it is important that you can start with the limits, that you put yourself first and take care of yourself.
  • Forgive and forgive yourself: Whether it was with intention or not, to move forward it is necessary to let go of the grudge and heal the past to focus on the present.
  • Work on emotions: In this type of role reversal situation, you learn to hide your own emotions so as not to disturb others. So there is little contact with them, resulting in an impoverished emotional life. Hence, it is necessary to start by recognizing what it feels like and learning what each emotion has to teach us about ourselves.
  • Free up time for leisure and fun: You still haven’t forgotten the desire you had to attend your best friend’s sleepover, which you missed because you should take care of your little brother. Now is the time to have free time for yourself, to enjoy plans that give you satisfaction.
Low self-esteem and lack of connection with their own emotions are characteristics of children who had to act as parents.

Helping is not the problem

Finally, it is important to clarify that use and abuse are not the same. Asking for collaboration from the children at home, such as setting the table, implies an appropriate and accessible amount of responsibility for their age. Even, This results in the development of personal autonomy and positive growth..

It becomes abuse when there is a lack of parental sensitivity about what that child needs, when balance is lacking and one of the parties is recharged, when there is a lot of responsibility and little room for play. Abuse is confusing help with the crystallization of a role or obligation.

Therefore, it is important to pay attention to this type of family dynamics, since in many cases the suffering caused by. In appearance, the balance is maintained, but it is not.

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