Tag Archives: parentification
Narcissistic parents often expect their children to care for them rather than the normal course of events where parents care for their children. They expect their children to meet their emotional needs, listen to their woes, make them happy when they are sad, fix their problems & more. This is called parentification, parentalizing, emotional incest or covert incest. (For simplicity sake, we’ll use parentification in this article.)
While parentification may not sound all that bad, its effect on children can be devastating. Children feel responsible for their parents, which burdens them with the false belief they are responsible for everyone in their circle as adults. That type of responsibility is incredibly stressful, no matter a person’s age, & as everyone knows, stress can cause a plethora of physical ailments.
It also robs children of their childhood. Parentified children aren’t allowed to hang out with their friends. They have their parents to take care of instead. Basically these children are living an adult life in their childhood.
Parentified children also are depressed. They often feel like failures for not being able to fix their parents’ problems, & narcissistic parents only make this feeling worse by blaming their children for not being able to accomplish the impossible.
These children often carry a great deal of anger inside, too, yet are unable to express it. To be angry at their parents feels so wrong since their parents have made it their job to protect these parents. Since expressing that anger is wrong, as far as the children are concerned, the anger gets stuffed inside & often manifests in very unhealthy ways. It can come out as self destructive ways (such as addictions) or other destructive ways (becoming abusive towards other people).
Parentified children have a right to be angry. They have been subjected to an incredibly cruel & insidious form of abuse by their own parents. And, to make matters worse, unknowing people compound their pain. They tell the children how lucky they are to have such a close relationship with their mother or father. Some people compound the guilt & responsibility on their child by saying things like, “I don’t know what your mom would do without you.” “You have to be strong for your dad- he needs you.” These kinds of things only make a child feel ashamed for having any complaints about the relationship, extra responsible for the parent they shouldn’t be responsible for in the first place & angry that they have been forced into this position.
If this describes you, you are NOT alone! Many people have been the victims of parentification, in particular children of narcissistic parents. I’ve been through it myself & sympathize with your pain. My parents came to me ever since i can remember with complaints about each other & even wanting me to fix their disagreements. I still have moments when I think of it that I get angry. And you know something? It’s ok! Being abused in any way, shape or form isn’t right. It’s ok to be angry about the unfairness of abuse & being forced to live with the painful effects, such as PTSD or C-PTSD.
The best way I’ve learned to cope is to go to God, & tell Him about what I feel. He truly understands & gives me a lot of comfort. I also have friends who have been through the same thing & understand. Sometimes one of the most helpful things for me is when they get angry over something I went through. That can be so validating! What my parents did wasn’t right, but, as a typical child of narcissists, I’ve always felt guilt for being angry with them. Although it’s diminished a great deal, it’s still there a little. Someone else getting angry about what my parents did helps me to understand that it’s ok to be angry about what they did & to realize just how wrong it was.
If you’re still in a relationship with your parent who indulges in parentification, you are not in a good place. Until such time as you decide to end this relationship, if you decide to take that step, you will need to learn ways to cope. Narcissists don’t accept boundaries like normal people, so you will need to get creative. Whatever you do, do NOT tell your parent, “It hurts me when you talk about/do that. Please don’t do it anymore.” Statements like that are like throwing gas on a narcissist fire. They will mock you for being oversensitive or do the behavior more often just to hurt you.
Instead, try changing the subject. Since narcissists love to talk about themselves, you can use that to your advantage. Ask your narcissistic parent something about herself. How is her job going? How did her last doctor visit go? Has she talked to her favorite cousin lately? It’s really not that hard to get a narcissist to talk about themselves. Why not use it in your favor?
Suddenly have to go. You just looked at the time & you have to go. You don’t owe any explanations- you just have to go.
Ask if your parent has talked to someone else who has been through something similar about this situation. After all, that person knows a lot more than you do & no doubt can help your parent more than you can! Let them think that you’re only suggesting this because it helps them in some way, not you.
Whatever your situation with parentification, I truly wish you the best. I pray you find effective ways to cope with your parent or are able to release any false guilt you may feel for no longer being in that situation.
Growing up with at least one narcissistic parents almost always means there was an emotionally incestuous or parentalizing relationship between the narcissistic parent & her child. Since narcissists are so self-absorbed, they often have children to take care of them or to fill some need in their life. This is where emotional incest, aka parentalizing, comes into play.
Parentalizing, parentification, covert incest & emotional incest all describe the same thing. (To simply, we’ll use “parentalizing” in this post.) It is when a parent & child’s roles are reversed, when the parent makes the child responsible for her emotional well being. A parent who talks to a child about adult matters such as her sex life or failing marriage is indulging in parentalizing. Although this behavior may not sound so bad, it is devastating to a child. Her feelings & issues can be made worse when people tell her how lucky her parent is to have her to count on or other misguided comments such as, “She needs you!” “You have to be strong for her!” “I don’t know what she’d do without you!” On the outside, this parentalized relationship may appear loving & good. The parent & child are close- what a wonderful thing! When people see the relationship, they encourage it or make those misguided comments, often without realizing the harm this is doing to the child.
Children who have survived a parentalizing relationship with their parent or parents often grow up full of guilt, angry, depressed, possess poor relationship skills, are in co-dependent relationships, have a very overdeveloped sense of responsibility (feeling responsible for everyone in their life) or have addictions. Another side effect you rarely see mentioned though is the feeling of needing to be invisible, to blend into the background.
Parentalizing parents seem to take up all the space in the relationship with their child. Be they overt or covert narcissists, they share one common thing- the fact that they come first in that relationship, period. Through fear or guilt, they give their child the message that they are more important, & their child isn’t important at all. Children often internalize the message, & as a result feel they must stay invisible so as not to disturb their narcissistic parent. Never upset that parent! Either comply with anything & everything the parent wants or stay strong for her.. All of these ideas are to please the narcissistic parent & avoid the rage that comes from not pleasing her. These thoughts even continue into adult relationships, such as “If I’m good enough to him & give him what he wants, he’ll stop hitting me.”
Parentalizing parents also communicate the message that they aren’t able to handle things, they are weak, & need the child to clean up their mess. This message tells the child that her needs are just too much. Just existing is a burden to the parent. Her needs aren’t important, including the need for validation. In fact, often the only validation the child gets is when she is her parent’s “savior” by fixing her parent’s problem. If she dares to express any need, chances are good it will be met with anger, even rage, so the child learns to fade into the background until she is needed.
Feeling invisible, I think, is rooted in shame. We are ashamed of having needs, wants, feelings because we were made to feel ashamed of them. Our parentalizing parent also gave us the message that we aren’t important. Both of these things, I believe, work together to create a root of toxic shame. Toxic shame can cause you to feel so ashamed of who you are, that you don’t feel worthy of anything. You assume people won’t want to help you or even talk to you. Simple things most people don’t think twice about can be a challenge for you, such as leaving your home. You may feel so ashamed of who you are that you don’t think you should bother people with your presence. Even expecting help from salespeople, service people, or staff in a hospital may seem impossible because of that deep root of shame. It’s surprising just how deep shame can go.
So what do you do to get rid of toxic shame?
First, pray. Ask God to help you to heal. Obey any instructions He gives you.
Next, push yourself outside of your comfort zone sometimes. The more you see you can do things successfully, the more confident you will become & the less hold shame will have on you. Sharing things with trustworthy people, you will see that other people actually do care about you which helps as well.
Also, question the shaming beliefs when they come up. Why do you feel so ashamed of yourself for wanting something? Why do you feel to blame for a situation where you had no control? Things like this. Ask God for the answers if you don’t know them. And, ask Him to help you to release those beliefs.
I have learned these things help a great deal. I have slipped up, unfortunately, & when I have stopped doing these three things, I fell right back into old, dysfunctional & miserable patterns. For them to work, you have to keep doing them, even when it gets uncomfortable. Remind yourself of these things often. You’ll be glad you did!