My Story, My Family: Parentification and spousification

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

“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. ^_^

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16 Comments

  1. I’ve never actually looked into the term parentification before. While I didn’t have to mediate or raise siblings, I was very much left to my own devices. From the time I was 12(and began babysitting) I bought my own clothes, paid for my own hygiene care items (shampoo, soap, tampons, etc). I was making my own meals prior to that and putting myself to bed. I was raised in a home with a mother who worked nights and a disengaged, self absorbed alcholic father who drank his evenings away alone in the dining room. I called it neglect – is there a difference between neglect and parentification?

    Reply
    • Well, this is only my own reasoning, but I think that parentification is a sub-type of neglect; parentification is always neglect, but neglect does not always come in the form of parentification. There are so many terms intertwined when it comes to this topic, but perhaps you might consider your case ‘adultification’ rather than parentification?

      Reply
    • I bought my own clothes… i did that too. at age 12.
      This parentification thing has damages into adulthood.

      Reply
  2. Claire

     /  October 30, 2013

    This reply is for Connie. Your situation sounds like uninvolved parenting to me. I suffered this. Along with parentification and parental alienation also.

    Reply
  3. For years I’ve never understood why I actually couldn’t get along with my family and friends but I always wanted to be the one that protected us from harm’s way. .. Now that I’m married I can’t get along with my family and friends or my wife. After reading about parentified children I’ve come to see that this is what my parents did to me. …No mother but when she came home to sober up and my father was in and out of prison so I was forced to raise me and my siblings off of knowledge of a kid with no understanding of life. I’ve become angry,depressed and hateful towards my parents because I felt like I was deprived of my childhood to make one for my siblings. Now I must learn how to make myself available to understanding how to make a difference in my own kids lives so they won’t grow up to hate me. For robbing them of their childhood. ..

    Reply
    • Realizing is a great first step! It can be hard to get over the anger of being deprived a childhood; I recommend thinking of some of the more positive outcomes of parentification, like, I bet you’ve always been incredibly mature and independent! I’m sure you’ll manage to find a balance between allowing your children to be children while still ensuring they learn the independence they’ll need 🙂

      Reply
  4. I so can relate to this post, and to those of you who have suffered from parentification…
    I identify with so many of you who have commented on this site! I greatly appreciate this opportunity to share my experience in summary…
    I grew up as a very serious child. My parents had a very tumultuous relationship, and expressed their dislike for one another as long as I can remember… Dad wanted a partner to help him in his business) and understand him; Mom wanted someone to take care of her, let her get dressed up, and take her out on the town. At age five, I remember my father huffing and puffing on cigarettes, and telling me my mother didn’t understand him at all–he was angry–and I remember so well how helpless I felt. From the time I was eight years old, I worked with my father after school in his meat market. I was the only one of my three sisters to do so. My mother never worked outside the house. My father relied on me to help him with his accounts payable, wait on customers, and even do meat cutting after school. This transferred to the home, where I started to help with the finances. My mom had no interest in helping with the finances, and so my Dad “trained” me. As the eldest, I was a straight A student, and got into UCLA in 1980. I couldn’t live on campus, however, because I still worked in the family business and was responsible for my two sisters, moving them in and out of their dorms in their college. I worked all through college; my sisters didn’t. This was expected of me. Now, I am an educator myself, and at 52, I am caring evenings for my 88 and 82-year-old parents. They still fight daily and can’t stand each other. I feel great resentment that I am responsible for so much, and even provide a good deal for them financially, with all the stress they continually put me through. My mother only approves of me when I do whatever she wants and dotes on her. It’s like she has no conception of what I did growing up and even what I do for a living. She doesn’t seem to care. My Dad still complains day and night about my mom and how she doesn’t understand him. Today, he threw down his metal cane in frustration. My sisters stay away because they “can’t take it” and don’t want to hear about my stress in this situation. I am so filled with hurt and resentment. I feel so alone!! I also do all the paperwork for my parents and my disabled brother. He has been in and out of the psychiatric hospital numerous times, suffering from OCD which is exascerbated by all the fighting between my parents. I was told as a young adult in college that I had the potential to succeed in graduate school (very high ACT scores, straight As at UCLA); but I would have had to leave home, and I wasn’t “permitted” to do so. I am so hurt now at age 52 about all of this. I keep wondering how my life would have been different if I would have been a bit selfish and actually lived a childhood. I still have a hard time having fun; I don’t know how to play card or board games, or sports, or such pastimes children my age engaged in. I am prone to depression and anxiety. Thank you for listening– Perhaps someday, after my parents have passed on, I will finish my Master’s Degree in Psych (I was half-through) and study the healing of parentified children. I am burnt out and burdened.

    Reply
    • Hi Anna,
      Thanks for sharing your story; that sounds like quite the burden for a child and for an adult. Your feelings of hurt and resentment seem pretty justifiable to me. And I hope that one day you are able to finish your Master’s and help parentified children (what a good cause!)! Until then, remember to take care of yourself (and do try to have a bit of fun, if you are able) – you deserve it! 🙂
      -Michelle

      Reply
  5. Thank you, Michelle– It means a great deal to me that you took the time to reply…

    Reply
  6. Patricia

     /  January 11, 2016

    My husband thoroughly enjoys his spousification. I was diagnosed with depression when i was a teenager and through my mid twenties thought it had just left. Now that i am 30 years old depression has returned, due to being married and living together i see the extent of the spousification. My husband is on the phone with his mother literally all day long. She even calls him at work for stupid things. Something i would only do if there was an emergency. She interjects herself into the center of everything when she visits and he brings her up in nearly every conversation. They each think everything the other does is so amazing. When my husband and i are home in the evenigs he has nothing left to say about his day because its all been told to his mother. I feel like he is married to someone else, if that relationship were going on with anyone else but his mother it would be defined as emotional cheating and even he agrees emotional cheating is wrong. When we are out together he is on his phone texting her pictures of what we are doing. I feel like i don’t even have a husband thanks to spousification, i have a friend with benefits that i have to share money and a house with. I have tried to make the occassional subtle comment about how bizarre their relationship is, such as i cant believe she called you at work for that. But then he acts like i am being an outrageous witch. I can’t even express how it makes me feel without being told that i am crazy. I can’t afford a counselor, i can’t talk to the one person i am supposed to be able to talk to. Meanwhile his mommy calls and tells him all her marital problems. Guess i need to adopt a dog or a cat to talk to.

    Reply
    • That sounds quite frustrating to deal with. If you think it might be helpful, you might consider clearly explaining to him that you feel ignored and neglected. But, no matter what you decide to do, remember to take care of yourself – you deserve it! 🙂

      Reply
  7. Parentified child

     /  January 21, 2016

    I had the same reltionship with my dad. It really scarred the connection I had with my mother. I am still rlly angry at him for putting me in that position. I was so stressed and worried about my family I could not concentrate on school and was likee a ship without a rudder. It makes me really sad when I think about it cause I was a rlly bright student until my parents started living in the same house again. I feel like I was robbed of my childhood

    Reply
    • I know the feeling. It’s really hard to move past that sort of hurt, isn’t it? But I think we can do it 🙂 little steps at a time

      Reply
  8. To: Parentified Child
    I can relate so well to what you have said…I truly understand (I know you can tell by reading my post). Even at 89 years old, my father complains daily to me about my 82-year-old mother. The complaining is an anger that he has spent so many years married to her. He plays the victim so well. From age 5 on, I remember being told she did not understand him; I became the “confidant”. Yes, it does rob you of your childhood. This is a wound I have been trying to heal from ever since. The most healing thing I have done is to make a commitment to be the most supportive and loving parent ever to my children, and not burden them emotionally in an unhealthy way. I believe I achieved this, and only with this confidence am I able to enter into the forgiveness process. I do understand and wish you peace!!

    Reply
  9. Anonymous

     /  September 10, 2016

    I was reading your story and began crying. It reminded me so much of my child hood. I definitely would love to talk about it. I didn’t realize the things I went through affected me as much as it did but now being an adult and a single mother changes a lot but I have a lot to get through. I personally feel like I just need get away from the main person – my mom – and kind start my own family traditions etc. I believed I’ve been placed in parentification and adultification.

    Reply
  10. Anonymous

     /  February 2, 2017

    Do you expect them to provide for you emotionally in a reciprocal and even/respectful role?

    Reply

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