THE PARENTIFIED CHILD
We might devoutly wish that those considering parenthood
would wait until they are psychologically ready before
reproducing. Babies have a way of appearing nine months
after a particular encounter between their parents.
Readiness is not a factor.
This is not a miracle, just biology. The real miracle
is not that adults produce offspring. It’s that, sometimes,
offspring produce adults.
It is in the interest of every child to have a good,
mature, responsible parent to run the family and take care of
them. Not every child is that lucky. Some are born to
immature parents who aren’t equipped for the job. Some
parents are so overwhelmed by the strains of adult life
that they regress to a less mature level of functioning.
Executive leadership is so vital in families that a
child will often take on this role, or parts of it. A child
may become a mediator in parental conflicts, a confidante to
a grieving parent, an assistant to an overburdened parent,
a lover to a parent whose rightful partner has withdrawn
Power has its perks. The job carries status and
privileges that are attractive to the child. To be treated
as mature seems, to the child, a good thing. Loyalty,
love and feeling needed create a potent inducement to fill
and even enlarge upon the pseudo-parental role.
When the child reaches adolescence, the press of self-
interest may cause an abrupt change. The torch may be passed
to a sibling, but not always. Some will remain their
parent’s caretaker for life. Until this is resolved, the
adult parentified child will be unable to give freely to his
or her own spouse and children. As soon as they marry they find
themselves boxed into a loyalty conflict.
People who grew up under these conditions feel like they
never had a childhood. And they miss it, too. The normal
play and peer relationship activities of childhood have
important developmental meaning. When they don’t happen on
schedule, something of value is missing for life.
Children need to trust their parents to be parents. If
parents fail in this, the child may never learn to trust.