Don Vito Corleone in the Godfather was not a paragon of gender equality. Witness his famous statement:
“I spend my life trying not to be careless. Women and children can afford to be careless, but not men.”
His statement on women is false and misogynous but he offers a truth about children: they need to feel safe being careless.
Kids get to feel careless so long as their parents allow them to. Parents must first take care of themselves fiscally, physically and most of all emotionally. Just like the airplane pre-flight routine instructs the parent to put the oxygen mask on themselves before helping their children – so must they be capable of meeting their own needs before they can successfully meet their child’s needs.
Dave Chappelle in his recent Netflix special hilariously points out what happens when parents don’t do this. He compares President Trump’s transparency with his worry over our national security threats…
“Even as a parent, you think I’m going to sit my kids down, “Hey, little man, let me holla at you for a second. Yo, I am three months behind on the rent, …, and I am worried. Very worried. Go on, go to school and have a productive day, …, I was just thinking out loud, just getting shit off my chest.”
Chappelle’s bit is hilarious because the scenario feels absurd. It breaks Don Vito’s edict. That kid could not feel nor act carelessly while worried that his parent may not be able to take care of the family. Chappelle’s impunity with which he imparts this worry to the kid makes it even funnier. That’s not what parents are designed to do. They are supposed to carry themselves in ways that say ‘everything is going to be alright’. In good-enough childhoods kids get to believe that message.
When parents burden kids
There are some parents who do exactly what Chappelle and Don Vito caution against: treat their children like parents. Kids get used for emotional and/or logistical support. An expert in the field of parentification defines it as:
“a functional and/or emotional role reversal in which the child sacrifices his or her own needs for attention, comfort, and guidance in order to accommodate and care for logistical or emotional needs of the parent.”
Such parents reject the responsibility to shield their children from taking on too much. Parentification can fall into at least two categories:
- preparing meals,
- caring for younger children,
- performing household chores,
- earning money, or
- managing the family budget,
2) emotional support:
- identifying and communicating emotional needs of parents,
- being the parental confidante,
- peacemaker, or
What’s the problem with parentifying kids?
Research suggests that emotional parentification can do the most damage. Kids are not emotionally developed enough to meet an adult’s emotional needs. Thus, a kid in this position is inherently traumatized. Trauma is the experience of a stressor that outstrips a person’s coping resources. Kids who are parentified into emotional caretakers can develop a deep sense of inadequacy, worthlessness and guilt for being unable to meet this demand. They also learn not to depend on adults for the protection they need. Since Mom and/or Dad are unable to take care of themselves let alone the child, the parentified child must seek total control over people and situations. The alternative where nobody takes care of anybody is not survive-able.
Although getting parentified disrupts a kid’s natural development the damage can vary. The least destructive form of parentification may happen when a child is burdened with meeting logistical needs (e.g. taking on a job to support the family, cooking meals, etc.) but receives acknowledgement and appreciation from his parents.
The worst form of parentification is when the child is expected to meet parents’ emotional needs while receiving no recognition or gratitude.
In these cases, kids conclude that they are just expected to abandon themselves and take care of their parent. Worst of all, such a kid can conclude that they do not deserve the kind of caretaking they so desperately need. Wanting what we do not believe we deserve can feel shaming and humiliating. These beliefs and resulting feelings get plastered into the kid’s basic sense of being and can make life joyless and tedious.
Parentified Children as Workaholics
When kids are handed emotional lemons by a parent, they try to make lemonade. Kids must believe that their parent wants to connect with them. If the parent requires caretaking behavior the child provides it. One common way of trying to make this impossible lemonade is to become the family’s ‘hero’ or workaholic.
The ‘workaholic’ child strives – and often becomes – an all-star at home and school. He develops a ‘can-do’ attitude and spirit designed to make up for his parents’ deficits. Tragically, the workaholic child can feel like he’s living a double life: 1) the outward image of a high-achieving, take charge kind of person vs. 2) the inward sense of always falling short of his perfectionistic and unrealistic expectations. The inner worlds of workaholic kids share traits with ‘people-pleasers’.
Parentified adults will maintain appearances of being the perfect employee, parent, etc. yet harbor secret vices. Substance abuse/addiction and/or infidelity can become parts of one’s private life. They may feel justified from their belief that nobody else truly cares about them. If they have found a way to feel pleasure – the thinking goes – well they deserve it. This was certainly the case when they were children – they were not truly cared for. As adults, however, they may very well have a partner and/or friends who genuinely care but this fact often is missed. Such people operate under the belief – usually unconscious – that being in relationships means making the other’s needs more important than your own. This assumption can make it hard to realize when someone is offering reciprocity in relationship.
Does therapy help?
Well, I’m biased but I believe that it often can. The tasks of recovering from losing one’s childhood to parentification are:
1) learning that it is now safe to trust other people
2) mourning the absence of a childhood
3) disconfirming the belief that other’s needs are more important than one’s own.
This kind of therapeutic work can take some time but is well worth it.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are interested in therapy for the type of issue described in this blog post, please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation. I based most of the research in this blog post on this source: