WHAT IT IS
Parentification is a role reversal between parent and child. The child's needs of comfort, guidance and attention are sacrificed to meet the parent's physical and emotional needs.
There are two types of parentification:
A child is robbed of a childhood when they have to meet the emotional or psychological needs their parent. Parents sometimes talk to their children as if they are therapists, best friends, or confidants. Even worse is when a parent takes advantage of their child by treating them as a surrogate spouse or significant other. Sometimes this is called emotional incest, and it happens with the child who is the opposite sex of the parent.
Sometimes called instrumental parentification, this is when the child takes up the role of meeting the physical needs of the parent or family. This could include cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, paying bills, getting younger siblings ready for school, helping with homework, giving out medications, and much more. It's not the same as giving a child assigned chores to complete. It's dysfunctional in that the duties are beyond the age-appropriate level for that child, leaving them little/no time to engage in normal childhood activities like playing, going to school, developing peer friendships, and sleeping.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH IT
Children learn about their world through experience. They go through developmental milestones each year which allow them to be self-sufficient adults. When they are in a home with responsible parents, they are free to explore their environment and not worry about making mistakes because they have their parents as safety nets.
A parentified child has no such freedom. They are stifled, unable to explore for fear of making mistakes, and they can't afford to make mistakes! They become isolated from their peers and may associate with individuals who are older, putting them at risk of being manipulated or used by older people. They carry an enormous burden which is unhealthy and overwhelming. It's emotional abuse with damaging effects.
What type of parents do parentified children likely have? Usually if there is any kind of drug or alcohol abuse, the child can try to take care of their parent. Stealing their keys so the parent doesn't drive drunk, hiding alcohol or pills so they can't be found...that type thing. If a parent is absent and there are multiple children, the oldest will generally be parentified, stepping in to take care of the younger by doing laundry, learning to cook, making school lunches, etc. Parents with personality disorders or severe mental illness are also prone to parentifying their children. It varies from situation to situation, but rarely (if ever) would you find a parentified child with a perfectly "normal" parent.
There are many. I'll stick to a few main ones below.
1) Rocky relationships as adults - in general, a parentified child has difficulties forming relationships as an adult. Many marriages and friendships fail as adults. Sometimes when a child isn't allowed to act like a child when he/she is a child, they start to act like a child when they grow up. Their partner might think them irresponsible or immature, as if they are sowing wild oats not sown before.
2) Anger - can be explosive or passive. They may not know why they are angry, but find themselves lashing out at people they care about. They can harbor lingering resentment at their parent, long after the parent has died or been incarcerated or institutionalized. Eventually the child will grow up and realize they had no childhood, and they'll never get that time back.
3) Perfectionism - mentioned above, but a parentified child had to live up to high expectations, not only of their incompetent parent, but also of themselves. What child doesn't want to please their parent, to take care of them if need be? As children they believed that their power was unlimited. Rescuing their mom or dad required doing everything just right, and if they failed, they berate themselves and think it's their fault. They do this into adulthood.
4) Control freak - being robbed of any other way of living except being in control, a parentified child might automatically default to being in control (if they don't swing in the other direction), and might react badly when a situation goes beyond their control or they feel their control is being threatened.
Parentified children make excellent grown-up heroes and heroines of books. It's not as much fun to read about the active parentification of a child. It's sad, actually. But once they've grown up, you've got a lot you could deal with for their character arc. You can include some flashbacks to when the child was actively trading their needs to meet their parent's needs, and it could shed so much light onto why they are they way they are at the present time. Peel the layers back of the parentified child when including backstory, though. Just a little bit at a time so the reader doesn't get socked with it all at once in a backstory dump. What these children go through can be intense, and it's a great way to soften a hard-nosed hero or make the reader empathetic to your type-A heroine.
You're reading this Thursday Therapeutic Thought on parentification because Shannon left a comment on this post requesting one! If you have any ideas of a topic you'd want me to cover, let me know!