When Children are Parentified

N.S. Golemi, M.A., LPC

How we relate to each other is often deeply rooted in our childhood. Patterns of behavior become ingrained by both covert and overt messages driven by family dynamics. Parents, knowingly or unknowingly, help set the stage for how their children experience relationships throughout their lives. Critically, parents teach their children lifelong messages about boundaries and self-worth. Healthy parents help their children form functional boundaries and and individuated sense of self. Toxic parenting comes into play when caregivers use their children for emotional support they should be getting from a partner. This dynamic is also called covert incest. Parentification may also involve the chosen child becoming a parent figure to siblings.

Covert incest is a type of enmeshment that leaves children with a profound sense of responsibility for their caregiver’s emotional state. This enormous burden causes the child to neglect the normal development of healthy boundaries to ensure the well-being of the primary caregiver, as their life depends on this adult. The adult may use the child in place of a romantic partner to meet her emotional needs and to process adult matters such as (but not limited to):

  • problems with an actual romantic partner
  • financial concerns
  • disclosure of (adult) secrets
  • discussion of sexual matters
  • problem-solving parenting issues regarding the other children
  • gossiping about others, including other family members
  • relying on the child to self-regulate
  • making the child an extension of self
  • using the child to make themselves look “good”

Those who experience this type of abuse may feel an unspeakable sense of violation and obligation while in the presence of this parent or immediately after the abuse occurs. In families where this dynamic exists, one “Golden Child” is chosen to fulfill the role of substitute emotional partner. It is not uncommon to see scapegoats in such toxic family systems as the unhealthy parent employs covert incest to triangulate family members against one another. Children chosen for this abuse quickly learn that there is no way out and do what they must to survive.

Long term, these survival mechanisms learned in childhood serve to plunge the adult survivor into future abusive situations. Since they have learned to subordinate themselves to the will of another in every conceivable way, they are particularly at risk for narcissistic abuse. The concepts of “intimacy” and “love” have been linked to an unbalanced power differential. Until this attachment wound is healed, they will repeat the pattern from the toxic template formed by the unhealthy parent.

Survivors of parental emotional enmeshment have many tasks ahead of them in their healing journey. Awakening a clear sense of self is critical to overcoming the tendency to have diffuse boundaries in relationships. Several key developmental tasks must be recovered as their childhood was essentially less productive. Naming and sorting the trauma with a therapist skilled in this covert abuse is very important. Surrounding oneself with a healthy support network while establishing boundaries with the unhealthy parent is paramount to recovery.

If you recognize these signs in yourself and are ready to begin your healing journey, call 920-545-HELP(4357) or contact nina@serenitytherapyclinic.com.