In functional and healthy families, parents and children have clearly defined roles — the parent cares for the child while the child grows and develops. However, in some families, these roles are reversed, and this is known as parentification.

“Parentification is when a child has to fulfill the roles and responsibilities of a parent. This may occur because the parent has asked the child to take on this role or because the child notices that no one else is filling the role,” Dr. Cara Goodwin, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, tells SheKnows. “Parentification may include being responsible for household tasks such as cleaning or cooking, caring for younger siblings, or serving as emotional support for their parents.”

According to Goodwin, this family dynamic becomes problematic when the child is asked to complete tasks or provide support that is inappropriate for their developmental level and when the parents’ needs consistently come before the child’s needs. “In these circumstances, parentification may be considered child neglect.”

What causes parentification?

Parentification can occur for many reasons, says Goodwin, including the parent’s own family background or attachment issues that may cause them to unconsciously see their children as parental figures.

“For example, the parent may have experienced abuse or neglect themselves as a child. This type of history may lead parents to have particular cognitions and attitudes (such as believing that their child is mature enough to handle the role), which then lead them to parentify a child.”

Parentification can also occur when the parent experiences issues related to substance use and abuse or struggles with mental health, since these issues may prevent parents from effectively meeting their responsibilities as a parent.

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