“Sometimes people wound us because they’re wounded and tell us we’re broken because that’s how they feel, but we don’t have to believe them.” ~Lori Deschene
I’ve always been proud of how I can handle life so well. I’m great at managing responsibilities and taking care of others, but I’m not so great at being aware of my own needs. It’s part of being a highly sensitive individual and growing up with parentification trauma.
Parentification is a long-term problem. If you’re like me, you might not even realize it’s something you experienced until you’re well into adulthood. This form of trauma should be more widely known to help people cope with it and move beyond its grasp.
What is a highly sensitive person?
Understanding how the brain processes interpersonal relationships will help us heal.
I was raised by a mother who would often remind me of how deeply I felt about certain things. I was always the one in my family who cried when I was happy or sad.
Other people were not bothered by certain textures, light sources or noise levels. The feeling of a suede couch beneath my legs made me itch. Ceiling lights caused me to feel anxious and the microwave beeping set off my fight or flight instinct.
After college, I began to see a therapist and learned more about people who are highly sensitive. They’re people like me—we’re more easily stimulated by our environment and perceive things more deeply on instinct. We may feel more emotion and have more empathy towards others.
Researchers have identified some genetic markers that are associated with highly sensitive individuals (HSPs), but environmental factors play an important role in the emotional processing of our emotions.
What is the relationship between HSPs and parentification? Let’s dive into what that specific trauma is before connecting it to our more sensitive minds.
What is Parentification?
Parentification can be a destructive family dynamic.
My younger brother was a baby when I first experienced it. My mom asked my family to reverse roles when she needed more assistance around the house. She asked me do the cleaning, cooking, and yard work, while she watched her brother or went to work.
It was only eight when I started.
There’s also the emotional side of parentification. Parents who are emotionally immature may treat their child like a confidante or counselor. It can be difficult for parents to deal with their child’s emotions when they share too much information.
We live with the effects of either or both types of parentification in adulthood, even if we don’t realize it. I was dealing with the consequences before I realized there were any to overcome. But professional help enabled me to start the hard work.
What can cause parentalization?
My parents’ basement is filled with home videos that prove how excited they were to have me. How can parents love their baby so much that they raise them in a family with a toxic dynamic?
There are many reasons for parentification. Our parents may have grown up in households where they didn’t learn tools to process their emotions healthily. They may have been unknowingly influenced by their parents’ emotional parenting.
You may have experienced abuse, lost someone to illness or taken care of someone who was addicted.
You could have also experienced trauma which you never processed. Instead of speaking with a professional or accepting their emotions, they may have repressed them and taught themselves a unhealthy way to model their emotional intelligence.
It’s possible that we won’t always receive answers. My parents don’t talk about their lives before my brother and I arrived. I’ll never know why their parents became emotionally parentified, and that takes a great deal of effort to accept.
What is Adaptive Parenting? What is Destructive Parentification?
This dynamic can be adapted in a short time. If you live with your dad and he’s injured in a car accident, he might be unable to walk for a week. You can cook for your siblings during that time and help them do their homework.
In that case, you’d take on parental responsibilities that are inappropriate for your age, but it would be for a limited time.
When this dynamic occurs on a longer term, it is called destructive parenting. When your emotional and childhood boundaries are constantly violated, the negative effects can last a life time.
What Are the Effects Of Parentification?
Although I highly recommend finding a therapist specializing in trauma and family dynamics, you don’t have to wait for an appointment to reflect on your past. You may never have thought about these signs of being parentified as child.
1. Taking Responsibilities Too Seriously
When we are young, it is easy to become overly focused on survival. When I started caring for my mom and brother at eight years old, I learned that if I didn’t keep up with meals and laundry, my family wouldn’t eat or have clean clothes.
When we fail, have a bad time, or forget to do something, our HSP minds become anxious. One of the consequences of parentification was that I never got out of survival mode.
It’s hard to relax at night. Sometimes it’s even hard to recognize my own physical or mental needs. If my college roommates weren’t keeping up with our apartment chores, I’d vacuum and do dishes even if my bladder was painfully full or I hadn’t eaten all day.
Putting others’ needs before your own at all times isn’t a healthy way to live. It’s also never fun to feel annoyed when someone tells me to relax or get anxious when I have free time. Just like everyone else, we deserve to relax and care for ourselves.
2. Addiction and Living with Multiple Addictions
People raising kids with an unhealthy parentification style may say, “That’s not what you feel” when their child expresses anger at an upsetting situation. The parent may blame the child for being angry and refuse to respond until things are resolved.
Years passed before I could get over those experiences. My anger was not directed anywhere, no matter if it was justified. It turned inwards, creating an endless cycle of self-criticism.
My self-hatred evolved into an eating problem as I aged. Others start self-harming, or use addictive substances. Sometimes the coping mechanisms help release negative emotions, but they’re ultimately only self-destructive.
To overcome parentification, you may need to identify unhealthy coping strategies and learn how to recognize the frightening emotions that lie beneath them. Healing and processing are possible with the help of a licensed therapist.
3. Dissociating for Varying Durations
Parenting comes with triggers. When I didn’t predict what my mom wanted, she became passive-aggressive. Now signs like subtle digs and sarcasm can cause my mind to freeze. When my thoughts cease and my entire body numbs, dissociation sets in.
It is one way that our brains cope with traumatic stresses. Dissociation allows us to separate from uncomfortable emotions or situations, because our brain is trying to protect itself. People don’t always develop dissociative tendencies while living with parentification, but it’s a potential effect.
The dissociative phases would sometimes last an hour or a whole day when I was living at home. I couldn’t recall getting home from school or doing anything until I went to bed, even though I had finished everything for the day.
Now that I’m out of that environment, my mind starts dissociating when I’m triggered by the mannerisms my mom had. I’ve also experienced it during or before a visit to her.
4. Living with Anxiety
You could experience social anxiety if you have dealt with either instrumental or emotional parentalization. I get anxious in certain settings because I instinctively try to predict others’ needs. I’m constantly evaluating what’s safest to discuss or changing environmental factors, like closing blinds by the dinner table before the sun sets so it doesn’t shine in my friend’s eyes.
Fear of retribution could be a result of the way our parents behaved when we were children, or worry that we will upset a relationship in any way. This anxiety can eventually affect our self-worth.
Anxiety can cause us to ignore our feelings. One of the signs that you were parentified is your ability to compartmentalize. Being anxious about our feelings can lead us to ignore the pain for years.
5. Recurringly getting into unhealthy relationships
Children learn social skills by interacting with parents. Parentification has the effect of forming unhealthy future relationships that are based off of those with parents.
It has affected my relationships with friends and partners. I’ve unknowingly formed unhealthy attachments that can start in a positive place, but eventually, it always feels like I exist to fix their problems. They’re always using me as an advice machine or to care for them like a pseudo-parent.
Here’s an example if you’re not sure this applies to you.
We became friends in high school. We were roommates at the same university. We’d been friends for so long, it felt smarter than rooming with strangers.
Around a month after I moved in with her, her behavior began to change in ways that were in violation of my boundaries. She wanted me to pay for all our bills, do the laundry, and clean up after the boyfriends. The excuses were always legitimate but made me feel as if I was her mother.
I tolerated the situation for about a year. I was unable to enforce my boundaries due to the parentalization stress that came with not being able care for my family perfectly. After feeling invisible and worthless for a long time, I needed to rebuild my confidence when we moved away the next summer.
Before we became roommates, my friend never treated me that way. While there were things we both could have done differently after moving into that apartment, I couldn’t get myself out of that unhealthy relationship due to parentification trauma. Even when we are aware of an unfair situation, it can still trap us into toxic relationships with our friends and partners.
Is parentalization abuse?
Parentification might not result in physical beatings, but it’s still abuse. It takes kids advantage mentally and emotionally.
It removes our right to a childhood and the ability to handle responsibilities that are appropriate for our age. Parentification can override boundaries and make us feel like we cannot say no.
Parentification is also a form of neglect. As children, we are not provided for by our parents.
Even after adulthood, psychological scars can remain. I know they did for me. The effects harm our future relationships and self-worth, ultimately deteriorating our quality of life if we don’t get help to process our history.
Tips to Overcome Parentification
The good news is that parentification doesn’t have to influence your mind and relationships forever. Here’s what I did to start reversing the damage.
1. Find a licensed psychotherapist.
In adulthood, people experience parentification in different ways. We would not be discussing trauma like this if we could reverse the effects.
I found a licensed therapist specializing in family trauma when I came to peace with the idea that I couldn’t repair the damage through sheer willpower. She knew how toxic dynamics like parentification affect a child’s development and therapeutic ways to process my past.
I found it easier to talk about my traumas with a therapist. Once I was ready we began eye movement de-sensitization reprocessing through tapping noises and bilateral stimulation. Although EMDR recalled emotional pains, I healed by giving myself space to finally feel compartmentalized emotions and deconstruct with a therapist.
Contact a therapist and ask how they can assist you. They might recommend similar resources or a treatment plan, such as dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). This depends on the training of their therapist and your personal experiences.
2. Listen to your physiologic needs.
My therapist also showed me how I don’t listen to or honor my mental and physical needs. I don’t let myself feel sad when I’m hurt or rest when I’m tired.
We have developed strategies to help me recognize these feelings. I also have resources at home for self-care, like asking my partner for help and doing evening activities that don’t center around a survival responsibility. I love to do embroidery and soak in baths with lavender bombs.
One of the consequences of parentification is that you may feel like you are not worthy to be taken care of. This can be reversed with therapy and journaling. They are essential tools for stress management that will ultimately help you build self-worth.
If you have a history of eating disorders or addictions, you may want to work with a nutritionist or doctor for help with coping strategies.
3. Prioritize your self-care.
I was always in favor of the idea that self-care is important for others, but it never occurred to me to do so myself. My therapist showed me how to allow myself to have fun, relax, and try new hobbies.
It is important to believe in yourself. Processing specific traumas may be necessary. Once you understand how the brain functions, you can develop self-care habits that will help you heal.
I learned from my experience of parentification that it is my purpose to look after others. Therapy showed me that I’m on this planet to experience joy and that I experienced a childhood injustice. It was easier to take breaks at night or leave responsibilities until another day after accepting that.
If I want to flourish, I also deserve to relax. It was necessary to process this before I could indulge in self-care without feeling guilty or anxious.
A therapist can help you reach the same conclusion. You’ll learn to support yourself and become your biggest cheerleader as you determine how you like to relax and have fun.
Adults can overcome parentalization
Parentification can make you feel worthless and erased. It’s a childhood trauma that people don’t often realize is harmful, but it doesn’t have to influence your quality of life forever.
Connect with a therapist and they’ll show you how to rebuild yourself. You’ll start overcoming parentification by processing your past. Even when things hurt, you can still make them better.
You don’t have to earn your healing. By asking for assistance, you are only taking the first step.
Beth is the Mental Health Editor at Body+Mind. She has more than five years’ experience writing about mental health, mindfulness-based cognition therapy. Beth writes also about the power that human design has to reveal our potential and purpose. You can find Beth on Twitter.bodymindmag. Subscribe to Body+Mind and read more articles by Beth Rush.
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