Michael Bader: Having to parent a parent
July 5, 2016
What happens when a child is a parent to his or her own parents?
I'm not talking about caring for a parent who is old and infirm, but a pattern beginning in childhood of assuming responsibility for a parent's psychological comfort and well-being. In my clinical experience, this dynamic is common and invariably leads to emotional pain and suffering.
Psychotherapists have noted the effects of this role-reversal for decades. We speak of the "parentified" child, who develops an especially acute sensitivity to one or both parent's moods and stresses and feels responsible for "fixing" them. In the course of such attempts to comfort or fix the parent, the child sacrifices his or her own autonomy, ambition, and/or personal life satisfactions.
One male patient of mine became his mother's confidante, listening at length to her complaints about his father. He felt guilty about going out to play with friends and engaging in typical masculine pursuits because it meant — symbolically — abandoning or betraying his mother. A female patient recalled feeling as if her mother vicariously lived through her. She felt obliged to call her mother every day to report on the ups and downs of her social and work life. My patient never felt that her successes were her own. And still another patient took over the care of her younger siblings and alcoholic father because her mother was so depressed that she took to her bed much of the time. She became the de facto mother but rarely felt mothered herself.
In all of these cases, the mother was the weak link in the family. Sometimes the father is the parent that needs to be taken care of, but since mothers in our culture are still much more responsible than fathers for child care and, therefore more important to a child's psychological development and security, when a mother is weak or inadequate, the pressure on a child to step in and pick up the slack is much greater.
The emotional effects of growing up as the caretaker of one's parents are complicated but almost always damaging. The child gives up his or her childhood in order to mother a mother or fix a father. Feeling responsible for a parent's welfare usually involves intense feelings of guilt about perfectly normal wishes to separate and become independent. It can lead to a precocious empathy for the suffering of others, and while such empathy can be a virtue for some (e.g. many psychotherapists were once parentified children), for most it means that they can't take care of themselves properly, or pay enough attention to their own needs. The parentified child is a prisoner of the moods of others, who often becomes an adult who shows a tendency to be self-sacrificial or masochistic in exaggerated ways.
It is normal for such children to feel responsible for other family members because their security is based on the health and well-being of those family members. When a parent is anxious, depressed, or otherwise unhappy, the child experiences those feelings deeply because parents are crucial to the child's survival and development. Insecure or emotionally disabled parents threaten that survival. Thus, the child is highly motivated to restore a real or imagined sense of safety and security using whatever means possible, including by attempting to heal his or her wounded caretakers.
Some parents greatly worsen this dynamic, this asymmetrical relationship, by explicitly depending too much on the child to regulate the parent's self-esteem or moods. In these cases, the child is in an impossible bind, because the parent is overtly communicating that the child should feel responsible for him or her. The painful fact that the child then feels less protected and guiltier about his or her own needs is irrelevant.
These dysfunctional patterns invariably tend to repeat themselves in adult relationships. An adult who was a parentified child acts as if self-sacrifice is a precondition for love, or as if being able to read a partner's mind is the hallmark of a healthy relationship. While empathy and altruism are, indeed, strengths in a relationship, when they override personal well-being it leads to unhealthy outcomes.
Parentified children may grow up and repeat this pattern with their own children, or may burden adult relationships with inordinate feelings of dependency, or may attract partners who are needy and dependent like their own parents were.
The problem lies in the universal tendency to repeat our own childhoods in adult life.
Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at michael email@example.com.
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