Parentification: The Type of Emotional Abuse We Don't Talk About
I was forced to grow up too soon.
This is for any of you out there who are victims of “parentification.” Those of you who had to “be the parent” instead of having a parent. The ones who had to take on way more responsibility than you should have ever had to at such a young age. Whose childhood was unfairly stolen from them.
For those of you that haven’t experienced this, in some ways I’m envious of you. I know none of us get to choose our childhoods, it’s just life. You get what you get. And over time, you learn to live with it, because there really isn’t any other option.
Parentification is a distortion of the parent/child relationship, when the child becomes a caregiver for the parents or primary caregivers. This can mean fulfilling concrete functioning of family life like grocery shopping and paying bills, or meeting emotional needs of the family by being a confidant, companion or conflict mediator.
My experience of parentification was the product of growing up with a parent with mental illness. Combine that with an emotionally absent alcoholic father, as well as a physical and verbally abusive alcoholic stepfather, and the end result isn’t pretty. In some cases, it’s downright catastrophic.
Wow. This is actually much harder for me to write about than I anticipated. My chest is heavy, and my stomach is in knots. I’m pretty sure this is partly due to the fact that I just discovered there is a word that describes what happened to me growing up.
My childhood was stolen from me.
Before today, I had no idea that the word “parentification” even existed, much less what the definition would describe.
You see, I didn’t have much of a childhood. From a very young age, starting at around 5 years old, I was already showing the signs of being a parentified child. It started off innocently enough, following my younger brother around in preschool, tying his shoes, zipping up his jacket, watching over him to make sure he was OK.
It escalated very rapidly from there. My mom has several mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder and PTSD. She has leaned on me emotionally, very heavily, for most of my life, starting in my childhood years. I think I was “chosen” because I was her only daughter.
I have always been aware of the role reversal in our relationship, but I had no idea there was a name for it. Nor did I have any idea how damaging this actually was to me. The effects have caused me a lifetime of grief.
My mom talked to me about her problems, asked for my advice and would often have emotional breakdowns in front of me. She would beg me to help her, saying she didn’t know what to do when things would go wrong. Both my older and younger brothers leaned on me as well, I became their “mom” too. If she couldn’t handle a situation, and had a meltdown, I had to take over. Once I had to take over driving her car — I was 13.
I watched my mom and stepdad scream at each other, I watched them fight physically and often tried to intervene. Things would sometimes get thrown and broken. There were many times the police were called to our house, which as a child, was pretty scary. We would come home from school and wonder what the evening was going to be like, because we never knew.
She also talked about my dad regularly. She would tell me stories of things he used to do, talk about what a horrible person he was, and how much she hated him. Things I should never have been told, especially as a child. This was really tough for me.
And then there were the times my mom would snap and take her anger out on me. She would get in my face and scream at me, call me names and blame me for her problems. There were also the regular reminders from her about how she would have been better off without kids. I would usually just stand there and take it.
Sometimes when she would get really bad, she would hurt herself, act really erratic and strange and mumble incoherently under her breath. As I got into my teenage years, there were a few times that we fought physically, when I just couldn’t take anymore. My stepdad and I had our moments as well. There is so much more… enough to fill a book… but you get the idea. It was my own personal hell, and there was no way to escape.
I never truly had a “mom.” There was no one to guide me and teach me things moms are supposed to teach their daughters. There was never anyone there to listen or care about my own problems, no one to help me through the transition into my teenage years. No one to be there through the struggle of becoming an adult.
The only person that has ever truly been there for me, is me. I am my own support, my own confidant, my own strength. I learned never to rely on anyone, and I learned how little I could survive on if necessary.
Over the years, I have continued to feel obligated to take care of my mom, deal with her emotional breakdowns and even her hurtful words and temper tantrums. I’ve also tried my best to be there for my brothers, and help them with their problems. I have always felt like all of them were my responsibility.
This has affected friendships, relationships and my own health and well-being. I was a doormat, and was trampled on regularly by just about everyone in my life. Everyone else’s wants and needs have always been put above my own, and I often feel guilty if I do something for myself. My self-esteem has never been too great.
I have finally come to realize the unhealthy relationship between my mom and I, and I now limit my time with her. My older brother has finally gotten to a good place in his life. Unfortunately, my younger brother and I do not have a relationship with each other anymore.
I have worked hard on myself, and have learned how to better understand and control my anxiety and depression. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve come a very long way from the person I used to be. I am learning better and healthier coping skills, and working on how to better express myself. I’m also learning how to love and accept myself for who I am.
This has been a long and difficult road for me, but I am finally making progress. I’m not sure exactly how I managed to make it through some of the things I have, but all things considered I feel pretty lucky. There are some effects of parentification that will probably remain with me for the rest of my life, but I’ve been working on making peace with that.
When I think about the devastating emotional effects that parentification has caused, and is capable of causing, it makes me realize something really important.
I am stronger than I ever imagined I could be.
This story originally appeared on Jess Is a Mess.
Getty Images photo via Dreya Novak