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When Growing Up Fast Becomes Growing Up Too Fast

Is your son or daughter acting less like a child and more like a parent? That may not be a good thing.

Kids mature at different rates, and that’s normal. Diapers may be de rigeur in preschool, but some kids are already moving on to the potty. In the third grade, there are kids who know how to fix their own after-school snacks while others loiter in the kitchen in hope of cookie distribution. There is a bell curve and there is also a pressure perceived by many parents to push their kids over the big hump. It’s not a great idea. The better approach: Keep an eye on the kid and try to figure out what that specific timeline is likely to look like. 

The truth is that some children mature far too quickly for their own health. Psychologists use the term “parentification” to describe what happens when kids begin taking on roles traditionally reserved for parents. The consequences can be dire. Kids in such situations often develop stress-related illnesses, eating disorders, and mental health problems traditionally seen in adults. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to measure whether a child is simply old for his or her age, or on the brink of a breakdown.

How To Measure Your Child’s Maturity

Gregory Jurkovich developed a questionnaire to identify parentification in 1986, and since then several versions of the survey have emerged. Below is one of the most common and robust version of the survey. Ask your child to answer the following questions with a simple “true” or “false”. (You can also take the test yourself, to determine whether you grew up “parentified.” It’s always nice to have another reason to blame your parents for your brain.)

  1. It seems like family members are always bringing me their problems.
  2. In my family I often feel called upon to do more than my share.
  3. I often feel more like an adult than a child in my family.
  4. In my family I often feel like a referee.
  5. In my family I often make sacrifices that go unnoticed by other family members.
  6. At times I feel I am the only one my mother or father can turn to.
  7. I often find myself feeling down for no particular reason that I can think of.
  8. In my family there are certain family members I can handle better than anyone else.
  9. I am very active in the management of my family’s financial affairs.
  10. My parents have enough to do without worrying about housework as well.
  11. I am very uncomfortable when things aren’t going well at home.
  12. It often seems that my feelings aren’t taken into account in my family.
  13. In my family I initiate most free time activities.
  14. I am at my best in times of crisis.
  15. It seems like there are enough problems at home without my causing more.
  16. If a family member is upset, I almost always become involved in some way.
  17. I often resent being asked to do certain kinds of jobs.
  18. I often prefer the company of people older than me.
  19. I am frequently responsible for the physical care of some members of my family.
  20. I am often described as mature for my age.
  21. It seems that I am usually the one held responsible for most of what happens.

It is noteworthy that, although the original questionnaire contained 25 questions (and some more recent spin-offs feature as many as 42 questions) statistical testing performed in 2002 concluded that the test was most reliable when it featured the aforementioned 21 items.  

How Do Kids End Up Parentified?

Studies suggest that as many as 1.4 million U.S. children between the ages of 8 and 18 are parentified. Children most often mature too quickly when they live in single parent homes with younger siblings, when they grow up amidst marital discord, or when a parent suffers from a substance abuse problem. In these scenarios, older kids often feel the need to pick up the slack.

In 1997, Jurkovich identified two categories of parentification: adaptive and destructive. Adaptive Parentification usually involves the child taking on an adult-like role for a short period of time, perhaps after a parent becomes sick. Destructive Parentification is as bad as it sounds, and usually involves a long-term “violation of intergenerational boundaries” that “breaks the naturalness of roles which differentiate parents and children”. That can seriously harm kids.

There are also two recognized types of parentification: instrumental and emotional. Instrumental parentification involves the child completing physical tasks usually reserved for adults (grocery shopping, caring for sick relatives, paying bills) while emotional parentification involves the child acting as a confidante (keeping secrets, calming combative family members).

What Can I Do If My Child Is Too Mature?

First of all, he or she might not be. The survey isn’t perfect, and any actual concerns should be addressed to experts, such as child psychologists or pediatricians. Relying solely on the results of a survey conducted outside of experimental conditions is never a great idea. Besides, there’s no “parentification score” at the end of the survey, so the actual results are tricky to parse. The best we can say is that a preponderance of “true” answers could be cause for concern, and that studies suggest the first seven questions are the most reliable factors in the survey.

In his book Lost Childhoods: The Plight Of The Parentified Child, Jurkovich describes how parentified children often struggle with anger and trust issues later in life, and may have trouble maintaining romantic relationships as they mature. Even in the short term, parentified kids may suffer from eating disorders, anxiety, and other mental health problems. And although some children adapt well to parentification and become more resilient as a result of taking on adult responsibilities, child development specialists agree that parentification is usually unhealthy.

If you suspect that your child is parentified (or that you were parentified and continue to suffer as a result), the best course of action is to talk about your concerns with a doctor or therapist.