Let that sink in for a moment, a CHILD is not having their needs, not wants, NEEDS met. A child needs love, support, acknowledgement of their accomplishments, bonding time with their family, as much as they need a roof over their head, food, water, and clothes on their backs. Without having their basic psychological needs met, a child cannot grow to become a psychologically healthy adult.
The major issue with parentified children though is that they may appear to be psychologically healthy because they often appear to be incredibly capable, functional, hard-working, driven, career-driven, organized, compassionate, helpful, industrious, punctual, and all the things an employer might want in a quality employee. They are go-getters, they never say “no” to a project, they take every task head on without fear, and they get things done.
They appear highly capable and functional but they are also deeply wounded. Their drive to please the boss, their co-workers, and customers comes from a deep need to feel loved and accepted because they missed out on that in childhood. They need approval but at the same time they fear rejection.
The flip side of this competence is that they often must take control of everything themselves. They can’t rely on others because others have let them down too often. They will not say no to projects, so they can take on too much, without giving enough away or delegating, all while keeping control over every project and managing it all themselves. At some point, something must break, and it will probably be the “parentified child” now turned adult.
Underneath all this competence is a deep layer of depression, anxiety, inappropriate guilt, anger outbursts, and deep loneliness. Parentified children want someone to rescue them, to pick up the pieces, to help them with their burdens, but at the same time they can’t trust that anyone else can do the job as well as they can. They’ve been let down too often to trust that anyone can. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy because their standards are impossibly high.
This is me. I’m the parentified child. This is my life and it sucks.
Even knowing these things about myself, I can’t stop the cycle. I can recognize it but I can’t stop it, I’ve tried and am still trying.
I still feel hurt that my mother didn’t protect me from my abusers (her husbands), that my teachers did nothing even though they knew about it, that my father never called CPS when he learned about it, that no one did anything when they witnessed how we were treated, that my abusers thought it was okay to treat their step-children the way they did while treating their own children like royalty, that my childhood was STOLEN from me, that I never knew if my abuser was going to beat me or come in to my room at night and pull me out of bed to attack me over something that happened during the day, that I couldn’t sleep until I could hear him snoring, that my grades suffered and I thought I was stupid my entire childhood because of my abuse, that I was conned into believing I was sexually abused by a charlatan of a counselor practicing hypnotherapy out of the scope of her practice, that I was sexually assaulted and harassed throughout High School as a result of those false recovered memories and my belief that I “deserved” it, that I was taunted throughout High School by other children because of my low self-esteem, that I feared for my life almost every day of my life as a child, that we moved every year of my life until High School so I never had a single friend I could confide in and never learned how to trust anyone but myself, that I worried every day of my senior year that I would be thrown out at age 18 because that’s what my mother’s husband said he would do, that I had to join the Army to get more FREEDOM than I had in my childhood home, and that I still TODAY suffer from the effects of my childhood trauma.
Despite all the above, there are many, many children out there that suffered worse than I ever did. They have trust issues worse than mine and are still appearing to “function” in society.
As a result of the abuse, as a result of my abandonment, as a result of being forced to give up my childhood and stepping up to be the “parentified child” I suffer from anxiety. It doesn’t look like what people usually think of as anxiety. It looks like success, achievement, perfectionism, constant activity and an incredibly busy schedule. I must be busy, if I’m not active, I feel guilty for sitting and enjoying my life, even for five minutes.
As a result of the abuse, as a result of my abandonment, as a result of being forced to give up my childhood and stepping up to be the “parentified child” I suffer from depression and feelings of unworthiness. I feel that I deserve the things that happened to me. Maybe I just wasn’t “good enough” or if I’d been a better daughter they’d have loved me more and stopped the violence. Maybe they would have saved me. Maybe they would have at least apologized to me for not doing the right thing, for their own weakness, for their failure as parents. They haven’t, so I must have deserved it. I must have been a bad kid and maybe I’m still a bad daughter and deserve to be ignored and left out of everything. I deserve to not have a relationship with them. I’m not worthy of family ties or connections, because I suck. Yes, I do think this, even though I know I’m probably not these things, I don’t know what they think because they’ve never told me and I rarely hear the words “I love you.” I think I can count the times I’ve heard those words in my lifetime from my mother on both my hands.
As a result of the abuse, as a result of my abandonment, as a result of being forced to give up my childhood and stepping up to be the “parentified child” I suffer from PTSD and Insomnia. I lay awake at night reliving pivotal moments that could have been done differently. I wake in the middle of the night in sweats because of dreams more real than reality. I startle at noises that remind me of “him” and the “other him,” like slamming doors and stomping feet. I respond to people that remind me of both of them in negative ways and expect most men to behave the way that they did. I don’t trust most men to behave like decent human beings because they are the only male role models I ever really had any experience with. I no longer startle at loud male voices but welcome the chance to fight back. At the same time, I worry one day I will fight back with the wrong male and my family will suffer the consequences.
Because adults didn’t step up and be adults, because my childhood was stolen, because I was beaten and abused, I chose to wait to have children. I worried that I might do the same to my own children. That I might not protect them, or that I might not let them be children, or, worse, that I might even abuse them. THIS was my greatest fear of all. ABOVE ALL MY OTHER FEARS. I feared that I would turn into my abusers or their enablers. That I would ruin the lives of other children, MY CHILDREN. Thankfully, that is not the case. I took my time, I studied psychology, I saw a counselor weekly for over 20 years, I read countless books on parenting and breaking free of these cycles, I took classes, and I learned to control my anger. I do not know what would have happened if I’d become a parent when I was younger but I’m glad that I waited. I might not have ever had my children if I had not done all those things to prepare myself though, there was too much risk. I had too much anger.
These are the side effects of Parentification. Having a smart, capable, little copy of yourself might seem cute and it might save you time in folding laundry. It might appear that you are being a “good parent” teaching your child to manage life skills and to some extent you may be right. Children need to learn age-appropriate chores. The key phrase there is “age-appropriate.” There are many online resources to tell you what are appropriate chores at what age.
Children grow up too fast as it is. Let them be children, let them explore their world, let them do what children do, let them run and play, LET THEM BE CHILDREN! You get to be the adult and that’s how it is supposed to be.