“We cannot tell what may happen to us in the strange medley of life. But we can decide what happens in us - how we can take it, what we do with it - and that is what really counts in the end. How to take the raw stuff of life and make it a thing of worth and beauty - that is the test of living.” Joseph Fort Newton
This week in the childhood trauma education series, I will tackle parentification. I discovered so much while researching this topic that explains a lot for me. Have you heard about this term? It is an invisible trauma.
WHAT IS PARENTIFICATION?
Parentification is a role reversal between a parent and a child where the child take on more responsibilities than appropriate for their developmental stage. The child is assigned the role of an adult and “become adult too soon”. The phenomenon is very common in the world but often not talked about. The risk factors leading to a child being parentified are maternal sexual abuse, adult attachment issues, parental addiction, parental alcoholism, divorce, intrusive parenting style, poverty, sometimes being a child in an immigrant family immersed in a new culture, etc.
There are two types of parentification. The child can either be parentified emotionally or instrumentally or both.
Instrumental parentification: the child takes on functional responsibilities like shopping, cooking, cleaning, doing the dishes, paying the bills, etc (logistics for running the household). When this happens only for a short period of time (e.g. a parent is sick), it can boost the child’s self esteem to have responsibilities, especially if their contribution is recognised by the parent.
Emotional parentification: the child becomes an emotional/psychological support and does crisis intervention for the parent. The parent might see the child as their confidante/best friend/friend and share worries and personal details of their lives with the child who is not equipped to handle such information. Of both types of parentification, this one has the most devastating effects in the life of the child. The child has to put away their needs and fulfil the emotional needs of the immature parents, this often happens when these parents did not have their emotional needs met in childhood and then feel safe using their child to this end.
In a family with several children, the eldest child or the most compassionate and vulnerable one is often chosen to be paretified. The longer the parentification period the greater the consequences for the child well into adulthood. The child often has to sacrifice their needs in order to take care of the needs of parents or siblings, missing out on the different childhood experiences that allows them to build their personality, feel safe and loved. The child even perceives their role as a means to develop closeness with their parent because for the child any connection with the parent is better than none.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH PARENTIFICATION
I was raised by several people growing up, both inside and outside of my family. During my first few years spent with my great-grandmother, I had chores (get firewood, get drinking water from the community tap and carry it home, sometimes sell peanuts in the market) but they did not make me feel parentified because I had a lot of play time and my great-grandmother, despite her age, was a great caregiver. The situation changed when I was sent to live with a new caregiver in the city, during that time play was not allowed. My daily routine consisted of chores and homework and I was not allowed to speak when the adults were talking unless I was spoken to. My chores increased significantly when the wife of my caregiver suddenly passed away. I started cooking, cleaning and taking care of my younger sister, I also became quiet. I was focused on my tasks, protecting my sister, covering school work and avoiding beatings. The last caregiver I had before reuniting with my mother was an alcoholic who owned a bar in the compound we lived in in Kumba, Cameroon. She promised Mom she would take good care of us and once Mom was gone, she turned me into a mini house manager at 13. For the next three years, I cooked, cleaned, sold in the bar, managed her money, worked hard for school, and took care of my sister and other children this woman had in her care.
I envied my friends and felt shame for being in my situation. As a teenager living in a new country, Switzerland, I was the peacekeeper in my family, the cultural translator and the keeper of secrets. She is so “wise for her age”, she is an “old soul”, “she works really hard in school” were things commonly said about me and which is often said about the parentified child in general. I entered adulthood very tired as if I had lived a whole life already. I was/am still very duty-driven and often forget to have fun.