When he was a child, Brent Sweitzer heard a lot about his parents’ troubled marriage. Much more than he cared to. And in retrospect, Sweitzer says having his mom lean on him for emotional support was quite damaging. The parent-child relationship blurred.
“When my mother shared her emotional pain with me, I felt like I was falling down a hole,” says Sweitzer, now a father of two and a licensed therapist in Cumming, Georgia. “In adulthood, I found myself avoiding close relationships, especially romantic ones. I was afraid to share my real feelings and authentic self with others.”
It wasn’t until Sweitzer went to counseling that he realized he habitually put other people’s needs before his own. He also learned that children aren’t supposed to comfort adults about their adult problems and that kids’ brains aren’t developed enough to handle that level of responsibility. Later, he took some time out from contact with his mom so he could heal. Sweitzer’s mother, who he says didn’t realize she had caused him any harm, has since apologized.
Children are naturally empathetic, so it’s easy for parents to cross the line unintentionally into “parentification”: the act of placing children in situations where they feel more like parents than children.
“Kids are easy to exploit like that, unfortunately,” says Aaron Anderson, LMFT, director of The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver. “If you teach children to be available whenever you’re having an emotional breakdown, they will be, whereas another adult wouldn’t.”
Parents don’t make a conscious effort to exploit their kids, Anderson says. But it’s common to think, It’s so much easier to talk to my child; they care for me and they give me a hug when I’m feeling down.
Reaching out to a child for love and support might not sound like it could damage their development, but when such behavior “parentifies” kids, it can. There are two types of parentification: “Instrumental parentification” refers to kids caring for younger siblings or taking on household tasks, and is generally less damaging to children. The more problematic type is “emotional parentification,” in which parents, through a range of behaviors, turn to children to fulfill their emotional needs. Kids who regularly experience the latter can take on an unhealthy role — an amalgamation of parent, therapist, and best friend — in the parent-child relationship.
What Sweitzer experienced with his mom was emotional parentification, a form of dysfunction that’s harder to put a finger on than overt abuse. Like Sweitzer, a lot of men don’t recognize it when it happens. As adults, they might go to therapy for help with anxiety or depression, or to figure out why they keep getting divorced. Feeling like a parent inappropriately leaned on them for emotional support isn’t typically what brings guys into therapy.
We hear a lot more about “toxic” mother-daughter relationships. Women, in general, tend to be more emotionally expressive than men, so it makes sense that they might turn to kids to fulfill their emotional needs more often than dads. Moms are primary caregivers more often than dads, and so bear more of the brunt of finger-wagging parenting criticism.
“Men probably ‘parentify’ less often, because they’re taught, ‘Don’t lean on kids, don’t lean on your spouse, don’t lean on anybody,’ really,” Anderson says. “Throughout their lives, men are told not to feel and to stop being emotional.”
Although parentification likely happens less often among fathers, it still happens, to boys as well as girls. And men who had these experiences growing up but don’t realize it are at risk for repeating the behavior with their own kids.
Parentification: When Dads Are Guilty
Men tend to seek support from their children in different and, often, more subtle ways than women, says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, California.
“I’ve worked with fathers who have turned their full attention to their young children, often a young daughter, to avoid emotional intimacy with the mother,” says Manly. “The child then ‘replaces’ the mother, who often becomes angry and embittered, and becomes Daddy’s little princess.”
Kids enjoy being doted on this way, but fathers who do this often don’t set firm and clear limits for children, so they’re robbed of seeing their parents as a healthy, united front. These kids often grow up to be entitled and seek out partners who will take care of them. This type of parentification reduces their ability to mature into strong, confident people, she says.
Manly also has clients (women as well as men) who say their fathers are like little kids who avoid any part of life that isn’t fun. “When a father has this attitude, the child is naturally forced into the role of parent,” she says.
Manly adds that many men will say that their wives are their best friends, which is great, but sometimes she’s their only friend as well. When Dad isn’t getting along with Mom, he might confide in his teenage son or daughter about his relationship problems, which is never appropriate. Another common scenario Anderson sees in his practice is dads who, after they discover their son found his stash of porn mags, tells him, “Don’t tell your mother.”
“That’s a parentified relationship,” Anderson says. “He’s relying on his son to protect the secret, which puts the child in the position of protecting the parent, whether it’s to protect him from embarrassment or getting in trouble with his spouse.”
Although it might not strike a lot of parents as problematic behavior, it’s not okay to tell your kid, “I had a stressful day at work and need a hug,” Sweitzer says.
“That’s more about your needs and not your child’s,” he says. “It interferes with children’s autonomy. They might think, ‘What will happen if I don’t hug? Will my parent stop loving me?’ It’s fine to ask your child to sit on your lap, for example, but it should always be a choice for the child.”
Typically, dads are more likely than moms to parentify through play, Anderson says. A man raised by a parentifying father might feel guilty not doing certain activities with his dad, rather than his wife, because he knows his father has few friends. Or a child might play catch with his father or go to a ballgame not because he wants to but because Dad is bored and wants his son to entertain him.
Dads might wonder, “WTF is wrong with bringing my kid to a ballgame? I’m just spending time with them and doing something fun.” But it’s the emotional reliance aspect that’s key, Anderson says. Put another way, it’s the “why” that’s important: If your child feels obligated and put in a position of providing support for you (say, going to a baseball game with you even though he hates baseball), that’s inverting the parent-child relationship, which is a problem.
“We don’t want to discourage men’s engagement with children, but they should ask themselves, ‘Is this fostering my child’s autonomy and is it primarily to meet my needs or the healthy developmental needs of my child?’” says Sweitzer. “It’s not wrong to want your needs met, too, but ask yourself if you’re going against the needs of your child.”
The parent-child relationship shouldn’t be inverted even when children are young adults, says psychotherapist Susan Pease Gadoua, LCSW, co-author of The New “I Do.” One of Gadoua’s clients, for example, asked his young adult daughter to help him decorate his new apartment after his divorce from her mother, which inappropriately put her in an adult role. In addition, the daughter probably didn’t feel free to say no, because her dad needed her.
Parents who parentify can get defensive about it when it’s pointed out during therapy, Anderson says. Common protests include: “But my child is so smart and mature — they can handle it,” “You should’ve seen my parents; I’m way better about it than they were,” and “My kids love me and like helping me.”
More traditional parentifying parents might raise children with the philosophy that they’re the authority and can raise kids, and talk to their kids, however they want, Sweitzer says. He adds that they might say things like, “Blood is thicker than water,” “What happens in the family stays in the family,” or other philosophies that can be co-opted into excuses to parentify kids.
The Problem with Parentification In the Parent-Child Relationship
“The parent-child relationship by definition is hierarchical,” says parenting expert Vanessa Lapointe, a registered psychologist in the Vancouver area and author of Discipline without Damage: How to Get Your Kids to Behave Without Messing Them Up. “Kids need to be able to lean in to the emotional rest that hierarchy provides for them. The child leans in by being braced by the strong backbone of the parent. If you’re besties with your littles, they’re leaning in and you’re leaning back into them, and the structure becomes wobbly.”
When kids can’t find that “emotional rest” with you, she continues, it interrupts growth and development, particularly emotional development. The end result is kids who are emotionally immature.
“That’s not to say there shouldn’t be closeness in a relationship; there should be, without a doubt. But the parent needs to be in the lead position,” Lapointe says. “Then you get to enjoy the happiness of your child, and your child is free to be happy and not captive to the needs of the parent.”
Many parents aren’t aware of the power differential in the parent-child relationship, Sweitzer adds. Moms and dads are physically bigger and have a fully developed brain, and kids are dependent on them for all things. “Parents can forget that, particularly if they’re in a crisis,” he says.
It’s an unfortunate paradox that parents’ well-meaning efforts to give their kids agency can, at times, lead to parentifying behavior. For example, Lapointe has clients who gave their 8-year-old a say in what school he wanted to attend. They wanted to consider his opinion, but Lapointe pointed out that that was parentifying: “Now it’s on the kid if that decision doesn’t work out, which is terrible!” she says.
“The number one most problematic thing happening today to kids and parents is what I call ‘Hulk children’: Kids are absolutely running the show, and parents are putting them in that place,” Lapointe continues. “Parents have emotionally and behaviorally abdicated their lead position. To a large extent, it helps explain the anxiety epidemic.”
The helicopter parent is a kind of symbol of parentification, Anderson agrees.
“Here’s this parent putting themselves aside, to the point that they forget themselves,” he says. “They forget to go out with friends, as a couple. They’re focused solely on their child, and as a result their kid becomes an emotional support system for them, which a child shouldn’t be.”
Children who are emotionally parentified have real power in the family, which is where that entitlement effect stems from. But they also tend to be insecure, because on some level, children know they’re not capable of soothing adults. This makes kids feel anxious, Sweitzer says.
Studies have linked all kinds of negative effects with parentification, including depression, anxiety, and compulsive caregiving. But some research has found positive effects, as well, such as greater resilience in kids who are parentified. One study published in the mid-2000s found that parentified young kids of color caring for parents with HIV/AIDS showed some positive effects, including less substance abuse and better coping skills.
The effects of parentification are complex and need more study, the authors of the above-linked 2011 paper noted. They found that a temporary period of increased responsibility due to, say, a parental job loss, might be more tolerable for a child. Cultural factors also affect how a child might react to parentification. Significantly, the researchers also found that perception was a key factor in how parentified children react. If children feel their experience was inequitable or unfair and that there was little acknowledgement or appreciation on the part of the parents, they tended to have more mental health problems than kids who didn’t feel that way.
In addition, children’s personalities are a big factor, as well, Gadoua says. Put simply, some kids handle the pressure better than others. But it might be safer not to make that bet.
Avoiding the Parentification Trap
“It’s hard asking parents to be psychologists, essentially,” Gadoua says. “Parenting is very challenging, and a lot of your learning is going to be in hindsight. Looking back you’re going to say, ‘Wow, I shouldn’t have done that.’”
All human beings have a fundamental need to feel seen and heard, and everyone, most psychologists will tell you, has some piece of baggage from their own upbringing that they bring into their relationships with their own kids. That sets us up a bit for failure on the parentification front.
“People often fantasize about what it’d be like to have a child,” Lapointe says. “We’ll finally get to be with someone who loves us the way we’ve never been loved before. So from the outset we’re a little set up to look to children to meet our needs. So we overshare or try in many other ways to fill a hole inside of us that shouldn’t be, or really, can’t be, fulfilled by children.”
The most important thing, she says, is for you to be the answer for your child, not to have all the answers.
“You’re not going to be perfect, but when you do make a mistake, you need to repair it,” Gadoua agrees. “Repairing something that isn’t right can help create resilience in children and teaches them that they need to repair their own wrongs, as well.”
Taking care to not parentify, which helps kids become confident and secure adults, shouldn’t be confused with coddling. It’s not shielding kids from the pain of the world. Parents who avoid this are just not overburdening them in ways that aren’t appropriate.
For example, It’s okay for kids to see parents cry and, in fact, it’s important that parents don’t tell their children they’re fine if they are crying. That teaches them not to trust their perceptions, as they can see from a parent’s energy that Dad is sad, Gadoua says. It’s better to say something like, “I need to cry right now, but it’s not your job to take care of me — it’s my job.” Parents need to let children know they already have the support they need. Ideally, parents actually do have that support.
“Parents should make sure they have an adult support group to lean on and that they’re doing adult things with adults,” Anderson says. “That way, you don’t turn toward kids to fulfill those needs. When you have good adult relationships, no child can compete with that.”
Expressing emotion, in other words, is okay as long as parents are not leaning on their kids when dealing with adult problems. In the parenting workshops he leads, Sweitzer suggests that parents pay attention to the language they use when expressing anger or frustration with kids.
“If kids are being disrespectful, it’s appropriate to say, ‘I’m frustrated that you’re not listening to me,’” he says. “Because you’re owning up to your feelings and bringing up something in the moment and something your child can control.”
The beauty with kids, however, is that parents don’t have to try to get love and support from them — they’re naturally dependent on them and love them.
“As a family, there’s a need to feel united and safe and cared for,” Anderson says. “Those are all appropriate needs and should go back and forth. But there are age-appropriate ways to do it.”
Sweitzer says he’s mindful to get his emotional needs met through adult friendships and in his own therapy.
“I’ve also worked hard to listen for what my children have heard or perceive about our financial situation, so that I clarify with them what they are responsible for as members of our family — helping with chores, playing, going to school — and what they’re not responsible for: taking care of the grown-ups,” he says.