The Parentification of Children and its Effects

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Parentified children are assigned a full-time job on the day they are born — parent their dysfunctional parents.







Children enter the world with countless needs. Until they are old enough to take care of themselves, children are supposed to be relatively free from the demands and concerns of the adult world. Ideally, a child’s parents place their children’s emotional, physical, and developmental needs before their own.

But when a parent has not been parented well themselves, the combination of unaddressed needs and parental power often lead to an unfortunate consequence for their own child — a type of role-reversal called parentification. Parentification is responsible for causing many mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and workaholism in the adults who experienced it as children.

There are two kinds of parentification:

Emotional Parentification
The child is expected to take care of and fulfill the emotional needs of the adult. Some examples of emotional parentification are: reassuring the parent that they will be all right when upset, shielding the parent from the emotional consequences of their actions and adjusting behavior to suit the parent’s emotional interests.

Instrumental Parentification
The child is expected to take care of physical needs, such as housework, care of younger siblings and management of parental affairs.

The effects and consequences of parentification are profound. Parentified children must continually struggle to meet needs they are not able to fulfill, and consequently, they develop deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. The pressure of having to constantly meet unrealistic demands instills a sense of hopelessness in the child that they will ever be able to handle the challenges life presents to them.                                                                                                   

Adults parentified as children experience the following things:

  • Fear that they cannot adequately meet their own expectations and demands
  • Poor self-esteem
  • A feeling of disconnection from their real self
  • Feelings of incompetence
  • Underestimation of their own intelligence
  • Overestimation of the importance of others
  • Shame, guilt, anxiety and depression
  • Feeling like they’re still children, who can’t cope with being adults
  • Taking on the role of caretaker
  • Work addiction
  • Codependency/Acceptance of too much responsibility


Parentification is extremely common in dysfunctional families with toxic parents. These parents may have substance abuse disorders and other addictions, personality disorders (particularly Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality DisorderBorderline Personality Disorder and Dependent Personality Disorder) and other mental issues and disorders. Children of single parents and families experiencing high levels of stress are more likely to experience parentification.

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