Parentified Parenting

When did you learn how to be a parent?

Seems like a fairly simple question.

Perhaps you stocked up on parenting books when you realized you were having a child, although parenting books only teach you so much. After all, children don’t come with instruction manuals.

I imagine that some would answer that you learn about parenting as you go along.

The first time you swaddle and hold your newborn in the hospital.

The first time you feed your child, or soothe him/her from a fitful scream.

The first time your child runs a fever of 104.

Some of us learn about parenting long before we become adults.

Perhaps your own parent turned to you for refuge from severe anxiety or depression. A substance use problem. A high conflict relationship.

They confided in you. They brought you into their combative relationship. They expected you to hold off on soccer practice or a birthday party so you could watch your younger siblings because they were unable to. They stood back as you disciplined your siblings for them.

How often did the child version of you worry for other people? How often did the child version of you feel guilty for setting boundaries and doing your own thing? How often did the child version of you blame him/herself when conflict happened, when a parent became super anxious or particularly underfunctioning?

How often do you still experience worry? Guilt? Self-blame?

Parentification has a significant impact on how you parent your own children.

A recent study at Notre Dame showed that women who were parentified in their own families of origin were less likely to show their 18-month-olds positive emotional affect, praise, and encouragement. These parents had a lower sensitivity toward the child’s emotional cues, particularly those that asked for exploration and independence. The parentified parents had more unrealistic expectations for their toddlers around age-appropriate developmental tasks, a process that’s been shown to continue throughout adolescence. Parentified parents tend to replicate parenting practices they used in their own family of origin with their own children, perhaps creating similar feelings of anxiety, frustration, and helplessness for both generations.

You can help your children have a different experience of youth. Consider these ideas:

  1. Play with your children. Enter their world of imagination without placing any of your own expectations or parameters around the play space. Rely less on board games and more on innovation and creativity, especially with younger children.

  2. Take care of your own anxiety. Acknowledge parenting situations that create worry and the potential to overfunction. Schedule unstructured play for your child, both by him/herself and with other children, and give yourself permission to step back.

  3. Read more about the development of children. May we suggest starting with How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough.

If you’d like more information or support for your family and parenting process, please give us a call at 617-750-0183, or by scheduling one online.