parentify \ parentification \ vb: A distortion of the parent/children relationship, where the child is made responsible for caretaking of parents or primary caregivers. Can be: 1) instrumental – child completes concrete functions to support of family (i.e., grocery shopping, paying bills); or 2) expressive – child attempts to fill family’s socio-emotional needs (i.e., protecting family members, serving as confidant, companion, or matelike figure, mediating conflicts, providing support, nurturance, comfort).
While in my doctoral program at MSP, I came across the phenomenon of parentification and a light bulb popped on with the power of a search light. In an instant I understood how my history of parentification groomed me for my newly-chosen career. I saw that what had seemed like an impulsive decision to return to graduate school was actually the realization of a career for which I was groomed from a very young age.
I presented on parentification in one of my classes and almost all of my cohort identified with being parentified in childhood. I was intrigued – does a history of childhood parentification influence career choice? I learned that parentified individuals may be over-represented in helping professions, and that psychotherapists show greater levels of parentification than physicists, engineers, art students, and social psychologists – sometimes 2 to 1 (Jurkovic, 1997).
I questioned how those of us who developed identities steeped in nurturing others could allow clients to take responsibility for their own growth and change.
And so my dissertation question became, “What is the parentified psychotherapist’s experience of the psychotherapeutic process?” What I learned was surprising, and important for budding psychologists to know.
Briefly, parentification occurs as a result of:
1) culture norms and gender roles
2) attachment style
3) destructively narcissistic parents
4) parental conflict/divorce/single parent households
5) parents/siblings with disability or chronic disease
6) parental substance abuse
It can be adaptive (when a child steps up temporarily in an emergency due to a parent being sick, newly single, traveling, or otherwise unavailable for a short time) or destructive (when the child’s responsibilities are excessive and developmentally inappropriate, represent the child’s primary source of identity, violate personal and family subsystem boundaries, and are neither culturally prescribed nor fairly assigned and maintained).
Parentification researchers Boszormenyi-Nagy & Sparks (1973) wrote:
“…Parentification is an “overtly exploitive maneuver. The exploitation of a child is of a double-binding type: He is expected to be obedient, yet behave in accordance with the ostensibly superior or senior position he is cast into. Although he is recognizable, at least covertly, as a willing victim and a source of strength for the family system, he pays for his assigned rank by his captive role. The great cost of such captivity is arrest of individual development and autonomy” (pp. 164-165)
In my review of existing literature, I uncovered several documented challenges for psychotherapist’s who have a childhood history of parentification, including:
1) Vicarious therapy for the psychotherapist: Those who have not yet worked through the consequences of their own parentification risk substituting clients for the parent who could never fully be rescued or satisfied.
2) Impaired effectiveness with clients: Miller (1983) described the potential consequences to the client if the parentified psychotherapist’s narcissistic needs are not resolved: “If we have never lived through this despair and the resulting narcissistic rage, and have therefore never been able to work through it, we can be in danger of transferring this situation, which then would have remained unconscious, onto our patients” (p. 23).
3) Over-functioning and boundary distortions: The very qualities that enable a parentified individual to excel as a psychotherapist (i.e., empathic capacity, relationship-building) may lead to burnout. Those who have learned through parentification to be highly attuned to the needs of others may have difficulty setting limits and boundaries with clients, including ending sessions on time, collecting unpaid fees, holding clients accountable for missed appointments, offering extra sessions, and doing clients’ interpretive work.
My own research with 13 parentified psychotherapists not only mirrored what I found in the existing research, but also identified several additional, and mostly positive, themes:
1) Passion for helping bordered on compulsive. Co-researchers displayed unfeigned passion for helping or fixing others and used words like “spiritual,” “sacred,” and “magical” to describe what they do.
2) Attuned to countertransference challenges. The same emotional sensitivity exhibited with clients also served co-researchers in moderating their own countertransference reactions. Also, countertransference effects were mitigated in those who participated in their own personal psychotherapy.
3) Exceptional awareness of limits of agency. Co-researchers held clients responsible for true change and growth. The recognition of their inability to fix their parents’ problems generalized to the therapeutic relationship.
4) Healthy capacity for self/other differentiation. Childhood prepared co-researchers to attend to others while maintaining appropriate distance in the therapeutic setting. This capacity was fostered in their parentified pasts, where co-researchers fought to maintain a sense of self while in danger of being subsumed by their parents.
5) Direct style of interacting with clients. Difficult material expressed with little hesitation; attributed to serious problem-solving responsibilities of childhood and being results-oriented at a young age.
The bottom line? A childhood history of parentification prepares us well for a career in psychotherapy as long as we are aware of the tendency to feel overly responsible for others, and work to resolve our own narcissistic wounds.
The research is compelling enough for each of us to ask ourselves: Was I a parentified child? If so, how does it affect my work with clients? To find more information on parentification, and take the Parentification Questionnaire, see Dr. Jurkovic’s book listed in the references below.
Boszormenyi-Nagy, I., & Spark, G. M. (1973). Invisible loyalties: Reciprocity in intergenerational family therapy. NY: Harper & Row.
Jurkovic, G.J. (1997). Lost childhoods: The plight of the parentified child. Brunner/Mazel, NY.
Miller, A. (1997). The drama of the gifted child: The search for the self. (R. Ward, Trans). NY: Basic Books. (Original work published 1983)