The 3 Unique Challenges of the Parentified Child in Adulthood

Marc

Marc’s parents divorced when Marc was seven.  From that point on, he was raised by his mother, with occasional “check-ins” by his father. Marc’s mother owned and managed a deli, and had to work long hours to support Marc and his two younger siblings. Marc hurried home from school to pick up his siblings at the bus stop, made dinner for them, and often was responsible for getting them to bed.

Alise

When Alise was nine, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As Alise grew into middle school and high school, her mother was at home, getting sicker and sicker. The more disabled her mother got, the more Alise picked up the slack at home. She cared for her mother, did the grocery shopping, and even fought with insurance companies over her mother’s medical needs.

There are many ways in which the child can become what therapists call, “parentified.” Addicted, depressed, financially pressured, physically ill, or bereaved parents are some examples.

Believe it or not, there is a silver lining to being parentified. Marc, for example, grew up to be a very responsible man. He worked his own way through college because he was determined to have a career. He didn’t want to struggle financially, as his mother did. Marc is now a giving, caring husband and father. He knows how to parent because he did it as a child.

Like Marc, Alise is also a very responsible adult. She’s a research scientist in the medical field. Alise is driven to find cures for incurable diseases, and she works long hours by choice to meet her passionate goal. She is a loving mother and wife. Alise is excellent at giving and care-taking, for her family and for the world. Because her childhood prepared her to be.

Yes, there are far worse things that one’s childhood can prepare her to be. In many ways, Marc and Alise are in an excellent position to live happy, productive lives.

However, there is a serious downside to being parentified.

The 3 Unique Challenges of the Parentified Child

  1. Excessive self-sacrifice: If you grew up caring for others, you may not have learned how to care properly for yourself. You may not have learned something that everyone else knows: that your first and primary responsibility in your life is your own health and happiness. Unless you take care of yourself first, you will be depleted by your life.
  2. Regret: When the child becomes the parent, she grows up far too soon. This leaves you with a feeling of sadness and loss when you look back on your childhood. “I never got to be a kid,” you lament. You hear stories of other peoples’ childhoods, and you feel envious and sad. You are sentenced to a lifetime of regret.
  3. Co-Dependence: When you are programmed as a caretaker, it becomes difficult to step out of the caretaker role. This, in some ways, is a set-up. You are more likely to form friendships with or marry people who need care, and stay with them far too long. At your own expense.

Marc

Marc learned many lessons from his childhood. He works long hours and supports his family well. Yet as those around Marc thrive and grow, Marc does not. His wife, and the mother of his children, is an alcoholic. So while she repeatedly drinks, passes out, and drops the ball in caring for the children, Marc quietly picks up the slack. He tries and tries to help her get sober. He lives under a black cloud, and cannot see that he has simply re-created his childhood.

Alise

Alise is busy saving the world, and this is her blessing and her curse. She enjoys success and the love of her family, yet she grows more and more tired every day. Alise learned everything she needs to thrive in her childhood, except for one key thing. She did not learn that her needs are important. In fact, she didn’t learn that she even has needs. Alise lives under the same cloud as Marc. Each day she wonders what joy is. Each day she longs for what’s missing in her life.

3 Steps for Marc, Alise, and You

  1. Put yourself first. Accept that you have needs, and pay attention to what they are. When you need healthy food, fun, rest, fresh air or alone time, take it.
  2. Replace the joy you missed as a child by finding it now. You didn’t get to run free through the neighborhood with your friends, or be doted on by two caring parents? Maybe you didn’t learn the feeling of emotional freedom? Learn it now. Discover what you love, and pursue it. Seek joy, and know that you’ve earned yours.
  3. Stop over-caring for those around you. Life is short, and you are living yours for others. This is your time to turn your powerful caring skills toward yourself.

If you were in the role of the parent as a child, your life is about to change. You are about to re-parent yourself in a way that you missed as a child. You’re going to start living as you were always meant to live and experiencing the joy, happiness, and care that you’ve always deserved.

To learn more about the parentified child as well as other forms of Childhood Emotional Neglect and how to heal from them, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free on this website. 

A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral as When the Child Becomes the Parent. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.

Jonice

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Michelle Suzanne Scott - January 10, 2020 Reply

It was only when my mom died and my own family expected me to soldier on through my grief, that I fully understood #3 above. As I am a Death Doula, I had sat with my mom as she died (my final act of care). I needed time to process and grieve and had to clearly and strongly advocate for that need. Luckily I knew how to.

Thanks for your work, Jonice – it sheds light on a particular type of suffering most don’t understand, let alone talk about.

Susan - January 7, 2020 Reply

I have read a lot of your articles and started and stopped ‘Running on empty’ ebook a few times.
Just had a real aha moment.
I was the parent in my household from a v young age. I am now in my late 40s with many long term failed relationships behind me. In every relationship towards the end I have felt that the other needed to grow up as I was fed up being their mother.
Today it is clear that being their parent is all I know re dynamic and that’s why it always happens in the end.
Jeez.

    Jonice - January 10, 2020 Reply

    Yes, we all have patterns built into us. This is yours, Susan. It’s so good that now you know about it!

Jill - January 6, 2020 Reply

I grew up in household where I was neglected. Outwardly everything seemed fine, but it was far from the truth. Parents divorced when I was young, Dad fell apart after being forced to move out. Me & brothers became his somewhat lifeline/ caretaker. Obsessively worrying about him since the age of 9 y/o. He was barely able to function & work after divorce. Borrowing money from us to pay his rent. We were kids! Instead of someone t
Stepping in & helping us & recognizing the problem & burden we were being put under, we felt sorry & did everything we could to help him. Then all that obsessive worry was left unchecked for years & years as Mom became corporate ladder climber leaving us alone a lot. And neglecting us even more. It all lead me to a terrible anxiety problem. And I still don’t know how to care for myself & to truly get rest/ relaxation. I outwardly fool everyone that I’m Fine, high functioning, good job, house. But I’m alone, no relationship. Always feel like I have to go or be going/ doing. Been working w/ a great therapist for a long time. It’s just never seems to get much easier. But the sad truth is, I never even truly knew I had needs & a right to them until I read your books. Even after years & years of therapy. Half my time in therapy was talking about my family, not myself. More than half. Why didn’t my therapists ever recognize this?! So much more to say… but just thank you for this work. It’s been monumental. Jill

    Jonice - January 10, 2020 Reply

    Dear Jill, I’m so glad you’re realizing the importance of paying attention to yourself and your own needs. Keep it up!

Barb - January 6, 2020 Reply

Dr. Webb,

I have already learned that I suffer from CEN, that I am codependent but couldn’t understand why and now I realize I was also parentalized as well. I feel very overwhelmed with all this. I am reading Running on Empty, but wow. Where do I even begin? I have no clue how to live myself since I was taught not to as a child and even when I get the positivity messages, my head says they’re not true. I am struggling with the most basic everyday tasks. Let me add in that my now ex boyfriend of over 2 years just wants to be friends now that I have figured out how truly messed up I really am. Been going all through my life thinking I was “normal” and at 43 now find out I’m not. I have been trying to do just the first activity in Running On Empty of visualizing the blank screen and looking inside myself to see what I’m feeling, but am seriously struggling to do that- either I have no clue what I’m feeling or there’s so many things I can’t even begin to figure out which ones they are. I was in therapy, but was only given 16 sessions and now I’m on my own trying to find a new therapist. My old 2 didn’t seem very invested in actually helping me. It was more like a vent session than them making suggestions about what I might be dealing with and trying to help me learn how to do that. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    Jonice - January 10, 2020 Reply

    Dear Barb, good therapy is not just a vent session! Please try another therapist. And do not give up on the blank screen exercise. It takes most CEN people many times to make it work so keep on doing it! Also, use some guided meditation to help you focus inward.

Abby - January 6, 2020 Reply

I just left a comment and put a “?” at the end, it was meant to be a “!”
(sorry about that!)

Abby - January 6, 2020 Reply

As always, your articles affect me deeply. I appreciate them, they give me a lot to think about, and ideas for how I might make changes in my life. Thank you so very much?

    Jonice - January 10, 2020 Reply

    Dear Abby, keep reading all the articles and if you can read both of my books. They’ll give you lots of structure and direction for healing and making changes.

Vernon - January 6, 2020 Reply

As I read this article I could picture my only child who grew up in the original emotionally disturbing family of mine and who became fostered at an early age by her grandparents in another city. Fortunately their house was the meeting place of a large properly adjusted, extended family so she was never short of cousins, uncles and aunts too and us (her mom and dad on occasional both-way visits). She never married and in her grandmother’s later years moved back in with her to help with her needs. Her gran later died and after little more than two years (just recently), my daughter returned to the city of her birth where family like me and my second wife are and also her mom and her step sister (my step daughter) live. However this recent move has been traumatizing for my daughter, as my wife is critical of her friendship with her step sister who has a relationship with a much older man, now paroled from prison. So I’m concerned that my daughter needs to be restored from what would appear to be the typical roles or history associated with those suffering from CEN. I value your experience and insights that you bring and trust for a resolution to these issues so that her move can truly bring about the new happy family life my daughter has hoped for. Thank you.

Janike van Dijk - January 6, 2020 Reply

Dear Jonice, thanks so much for your articles with great content and insight. A few years ago I discovered that I have CEN. I found a therapist who is of incredible help and read your articles with great interest to find comfort and tips.

I grew up as a middle child and both my older sister and younger brother had medical problems from a very young age. I was the healthy kid but also the most active and creative one. The other 2 were quiet children with many needs and I have always felt a trouble, `too much’ and a pain to my parents.

I am discovering now that I was a normal child, which gives a complete change of perspective. I am starting to love myself finally, but so recognise 2 of the 3 challenges listed in this article: 1- not good at taking care of myself, because others are always more important. 2 – regret. There’s this great sadness now that I see what I have missed and how things could have been so different if I would have parents who would accept me for who I was. I am really mourning over this.

As a singer I wrote a personal song about my CEN. Can I send it to you privately? I’d like to share it with you.

Blessings and thanks,
Janike (Netherlands)

    Jonice - January 10, 2020 Reply

    Dear Janike, I’m so glad you found such an excellent therapist to help with your CEN. I would love to receive your song. Just send it to my email via my website. Keep up the great work you’re doing!

Kliss - January 6, 2020 Reply

♥️♥️♥️

Sharon - January 5, 2020 Reply

I am the oldest of four children, two of whom are profoundly deaf and one of them has other significant disabilities as well. Needless to say, I was often expected to “help my mother”, especially since I was the only one who really learned how to communicate with my brother and sister. I was often the interpreter, especially between my sibs and my parents.
It was great at first. As a young child, I was praised and admired for what I did and just “drank it all in”. I was so good at this, I was going to become a teacher of the deaf, etc., etc. My future was already decided for me and at the time, I thought it was just great. Heck, everyone loved me for what I did!

Later on in life, however, I realized I had no life outside of my work (of course my work was in the helping profession and a lot with deaf persons) and my involvement in my sibs lives when my parents didn’t know what to do. Around the age of 40, it hit me that I didn’t have a clue who I was or what I really wanted for my life. Depression had plagued me since my teenage years and it became worse the older I got. I’m now 57, unemployed (I get a few paid jobs here and there and do volunteer a lot) and am spending a great deal of time taking care of my sister who was placed in a residential program where she’s been “maintained” for almost 30 years. I have a good life, in terms of being in a stable family situation (husband and son), but am still stuck in the belief that I’m only worthwhile if I’m helping others. I think if I didn’t feel that my sister and family needed me, I wouldn’t bother to stick around. My psychiatrist has suggested EMDR therapy to help me break out of this stuck pattern and inability to move on and leave my past behind. Any thoughts?

    Jonice - January 6, 2020 Reply

    Dear Sharon, please do follow the advice of your psychiatrist. It’s important to try something that might help you move forward.

Elsie - January 5, 2020 Reply

Yes, 10 years older than my sisters, who are 11 month apart, I became to the au pair at age 10. My mother was an alcoholic that “couldn’t cope” and I was left to care for and entertain the kids. I never had any children of my own, because growing up, it was hammered into my head that having children ruined your life. I’m 65 now, my mother is dead. My father and my sisters are estranged from me. I have such a hole.

Jennifer - January 5, 2020 Reply

Thank you for this! So helpful.

    Jonice - January 6, 2020 Reply

    You are welcome Jennifer!

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