I’ve noticed that the most common search engine terms that lead people to my blog are ‘parentification’ and ‘spousification’. I’ve only touched on these forms of adultification (when a child/teen takes on the roles of an adult) briefly in other blog posts, but I wish to now expand upon the topics for those looking for information or real-life stories.
You can also read more I’ve written about adultifcation here.
*Please note that I am not a doctor, psychologist, therapist, etc., and therefore have no professional expertise or experience on parentification and/or spousification. Any information I provide is simply knowledge I have gained from reading studies or psychology texts, and speaking to my own counselor. I can’t promise 100% accuracy; I’m just explaining things as I understand them.*
“Parentification refers to an experience whereby children take on adult roles in childhood.” (Williams, ‘Examining the Construct of Childhood Parentification: An Empirical Investigation’)
Spousification (or Peerification)
“[W]hen a child’s instrumental duties and responsibilities model those of a spouse or partner.” (Burton, ‘Childhood Adultification in Economically Disadvantaged Families: A Conceptual Model’)
Activities which might indicate parentification/spousification/peerification:
- being responsible for one’s own care
- being responsible for the care of siblings
- being responsible for the care of other family members/relations
- being responsible for household activities not normally placed on children (such as: paying bills, doing all the cooking, all cleaning, etc.)
- acting as a confidant to parent(s) (eg. listening to secrets, complaints about their personal life, etc.)
- acting as a mediator for a parent or between parents
Let us keep in mind that there is a difference between being responsible for a few household chores, occasional babysitting of siblings, cooking sometimes, being expected to get yourself ready for school, etc. and the things listed above. All of the listed activities come with the supposition that the child/teen performing the activity is acting outside of their role in the family by taking on a role that an adult/parent would normally hold.
My Story, My Family
To some extent, I am still spousified/peerified, though as an adult, I’m not sure how that would/should be viewed. While I still don’t believe that it is entirely my responsibility as my parent’s offspring to act as their confidant and mediator, at least I am better emotionally-equipped to handle the situation and I am able to recognize it and remove myself from the situation if necessary. However, as a child I was not equipped for it. I knew that some things I did were not common activities for children, but I felt that I was responsible, that I had to do these things.
Money was a big issue here; I often gave money for bills or groceries. Sometimes the money was just a loan, and I did get it back, but most times it was a monetary gift. When I think about it, I still do this now. I have paid for groceries and heating costs when visiting back at home. I have often bought my brother expensive gifts so that he isn’t ‘left out’ (an mp3 player, a laptop [though he needed that for school]). I mind a little bit, but at the same time, I am glad that I am able to do this for my family. It’s a sort of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ situation now.
I was not parentified in that I was expected to care for myself and my brother, yet I took up the responsibility for my brother’s mental and emotional health. Even as a child, I knew that my brother was not ‘alright’, not really; he would have depressed periods, or get angry easily, he was terribly shy, he was bullied, etc.. It is funny because if you asked my brother now, he probably would not recognize that I was trying to keep him happy and sane, and that’s alright. I definitely still worry about my brother, but he’s an adult now, and I remind myself this when I feel myself going into ‘parent-mode’ over him. I simply cared for him as a child in the ways that our parents did not, to fill that void in the realm of emotions. This is perhaps why I was more emotional when my brother graduated than my mother was!
Mediating was important in my house. When you are in a home where both parents live, but do not speak to each other, you’re going to end up as a go-between. Sometimes this was just little things, like passing on a phone message that one answered for the other. Sometimes it was larger tasks, like making sure the two of them were never left alone together and therefore giving them a chance to argue. I spent much of my teens acting like my mother’s protector, shielding her from situations in which my father might blow up.
Confidant was another role I took on. When a parent had something to complain about (work, family, money problems, etc.), I was the one they went to. Countless evenings I had to sit at the kitchen table and listen to my dad ramble when he got off work, complaining about his life and work. I was “fortunate” enough that I also got to be the confidant when one parent wanted to bitch about the other, which is a terrible position to put your child in, almost like pitting them against the other parent. I’m a pretty good listener, but at that time this was all too much for me. Remember that I was a child with un-diagnosed depression and anxiety. After listening to rants, I would just get more worried, more depressed. This still happens as well, but I’ve gotten quite good at tuning it out!
Here and Now
I’m still learning to stop acting as a ‘care-taker’ in situations where it is unnecessary for me to do so or when it is unhealthy for me to do so. It’s not easy. Recognizing that I was parentified and spousified/peerified as a child and teen was one step towards healing. It helped remove a lot of guilt I felt over not being able to support or fix my family, because it wasn’t my responsibility to do either of those things. While it did lead to some anger towards my parents for putting me in that position, I figure the anger is healthy so long as it doesn’t hold me back, and I assume that one day I will be able to forgive them for allowing me to take on more than I could handle as a child/teen. Part of my healing process is just treating myself well and taking care of myself first (something I didn’t do when I was younger). My mother, my father, my brother – they’re all adults and they can take care of themselves. There are always going to be times where they might need some help, and if I can give them help without it straining me mentally, emotionally, financially, etc., then I would love to help them, but my first priority is taking care of myself.
If any readers have questions or want to talk about their own experience concerning these topics, I’d be more than happy to talk to them! You don’t even need a WordPress account to comment below. If you prefer to talk through email, leave a comment to that effect and I’ll reply with my email address so you can write to me. ^_^