Are you a Parentified Child?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Children working

Parentified child.
Photo courtesy of pixabay

If you are a Parentified Child how do you ever finish growing up?

Some children grow up way too young. Are you one of those people?  Did you take on roles that were far too adult for your age? Parentified children begin to act like adults before they ever have the chance to be kids. This causes them problems later in life.

If you came from a dysfunctional home, and there are lots of different types of dysfunctional homes, you may have been cast in the role of parent for your mother or father. They played the child role; you tried to be the responsible adult. You made their food, cleaned the house, and may have cared for your siblings. You may have had to call their bosses or make excuses for them when they were not able to function as an adult.

If you had to be a surrogate parent before you were able to be a child, how did you learn what to do as an adult, and when do you ever get to be a child? Parentified children, grown into adults who never had a childhood become either super responsible or irresponsible to the max.

We often see this in families where a parent is an alcoholic or an addict. They are so debilitated much of the time that a child steps in and takes care of the parent and fills the parent’s other roles also. This parentified child becomes so used to being the responsible, caregiving one, that they all too often end up in dysfunctional relationships hooked up with an immature adult that needs a caregiver rather than a partner.

The little girl who goes to school, say in the third grade, but then goes home to fix dinner for her younger siblings, is acting like a parentified child. She may have to do the laundry or even feed and change the baby. She becomes the parent for her siblings. What happens to this child when they grow up?

One result of being too mature too soon is the unresolved need to be a child and play. These Parentified children are quick to jump into sexual relationships. They go straight from being a child-mother to their brothers, sisters, and parent, to being a partner and mother or father themselves. There is never a time to get their needs met.

These Parentified children are at high risk to abuse substances themselves to cope with the too early assumed responsibilities of being a parent. They are also at risk at some point in their life to veer off and go through a period of irresponsible behavior, trying to learn to play and have fun. What they may not have learned is how to have fun without indulging in drugs, alcohol, or other risky behavior.

They are also at risk to never really learn functional ways to parent. Having had to be adults at a young age they expect their own children to start taking on that role before those children are ready. This results in a lot of family dysfunction.

If you grew up in a home where you had to take on too many adult responsibilities at a very young age you may not have had good role models for the ways in which you need to behave. You have had to make the rules up as you go along. Often you have paid the price of having to learn how functional people behave by trial and error.

One major challenge for the parentified child is to learn about developmental milestones, what should you have learned and how should you have behaved at eight, at eighteen, and at twenty-eight. Many parentified children need to take parenting classes so they can parent themselves as well as parent their children.

Did you become a parentified child? Do you now have to learn how to play, have fun, and go through the process of growing up all over again?

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Seven David Joel Miller Books are available now!

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Baldwin struggles to survive life in a post-apocalyptic world where the government controls everything.

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27 thoughts on “Are you a Parentified Child?

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  3. I was a parentified teenager to my father. It was a very difficult time in my parent’s marriage. At first I was happy to ‘help’ cause I was naive, stupid and thought it would be a temporary problem before I could go back to being a teenager.

    It ended up going on from 16-25. During which time I became very depressed, anxious and had falling outs with other important members of my family because he would rope me into ‘wars’ with them. It was a very emotionally distressing time for me, and I had to quit university + had to shut away my own needs, wants and opportunities to ‘care’ for him.

    It was a very heavy burden and I wish my dad had acted like a dad instead of a child. I wish he had placed my needs above his own. However, he was very selfish and I felt like I was the parent rescuing him from his recklessness; financial irresponsibilities, job difficulties (he got fired/ quit many times), family fights, businesses, fights with colleagues. I had to help him with all of that. He would rant and rave at me, use pity party techniques and temper tantrums to get what he wanted. And I had no one to turn.

    I wish that he had learnt to sort out his problems himself and was more responsible. I missed out on a lot and now at the age of 25 have to relearn/ get in the habit of being responsible. After many years of listening to him bad mouthing, blaming everyone, running late, being financially irresponsible.

    I have since drawn the line with him and wont let him pull on my heartstrings any longer. Once I am more career/ financially settled I do my duty as a daughter and help him with living expenses.

    However I will not help him/ be manipulated by his pity parties, sulking sessions or emotional blackmail. (Its like taking care of a teenager who never grows up). I will not help with credit card bills, if he breaks the law or any business dealings.

    Before anyone accuses me of being an ungrateful daughter. I think family works both ways. It is the duty of the PARENT to care and nurture the child until they are grown and establish. Then once the parents are older and unable to look after themselves, the children help. During my childhood, it was my mother who raised me, nurtured me and taught me. My father only came into my life when I was 16, and since then he has given me more trouble than good. It feels as though he only too notice of me once he could use me.

    The main things I have learnt from him is how NOT to behave. I wish this was not true, but I have given him chance after chance and all he does is recklessly spend my money, instigate bad blood between me and my mother and siblings, and use us as mini-slaves. The worst part, is that he does not care about our opinion or feelings or how his actions impact our lives.

    Me, my brother and mother helped my father with his failing business (which we warned him was too good to be true but he did not listen). We worked from 4am everyday on top of juggling other commitments such as school and paid work. I would be out helping him until midnight everyday to make sure he got home safe and he was okay. This put us in an enormous financial, and health strain. The money gotten from the business was miniscule and it would be foolish to pursue it further. However, he just kept on going and expected us to foot all the bills he could not take.

    The worst part was that he would bully and take advantage of our help. He would run our finances dry (thankfully, after many years experience with him – I know he is very selfish and kept some stashed away), not be appreciative of our efforts and lug us down with more work.

    Eventhough the business was making no money. And then wants us to give him more money to start another labour intensive business!

    Then when we dont give him money, he would try and turn us against one another. As a father I think that is a very bad way to behave. You should be thinking about your family not just yourself.

    We give and give, help and help. Always think about him. Never asking for anything but he does not extend the same courtesy back to us.

    If you dont nurture and treat your children well when they are young and vulnerable, then how can you expect them to treat you well when you are old? If you only think of yourself…then why should you expect others to think of you?

    Am I suppose to be Jesus? Guan Yin? Buddha?

    As a parent, and as the older person, the responsibility should be on you to set the tone of the relationship. If the older people dont practice respect and compassion first then how can you expect the younger generation to? Treat others the way you want to be treated.

    Fortunately, I have a very strong, good and caring mother who takes her responsibility seriously. Or else I would have ran away from home and be in an abusive relationship, on drugs, or on alcohol. God knows.

    There is a saying that goes ‘Your face is your destiny’ and because I resemble him. I am thinking of getting plastic surgery to look more like my mother because I dont want to treat my family like him. My mum doesnt like me saying that though, so I might reconsider it. Hopefully it will just be a phase.


    • Sounds like you have had a very rough time. I hope you get the help you need. No matter what your face looks like what is on the inside shows through. Looking like someone does not make you them. My suggestion is that you work on making you the best person possible. Best wishes.


  4. I have recently come to the conclusion that I was an emotionally parentified child. It explains so many issues that I struggle with. My mother was mentally-ill. In addition to all the troubles that being raised by a mentally ill parent brings, my parents also adopted a child as a baby that was taken back when he was 4 (I was 6) due to abuse and we literally just dropped him off and no one ever really ever talked about it again. And then my parents moved constantly. My dad would fix up a house and sell it. We moved in kindergarten, 4th grade, 5th grade, 7th grade. So I was pretty much isolated and with all the moves had never developed any deep friendships to help me through all my parents’ “stuff”. In addition, when I was in college one of my sisters and my dad died in a car accident. It seemed like every time I tried to get myself together, some other event would happen to just push me off track again.

    From being raised this way, I have no confidence and so work wise don’t ever go after what I am truly capable of, I have no ability to make lasting connections with anyone, and I have no interests or hobbies and can’t seem to figure out how to “get” these.

    How can you go back in time and reach the milestones you missed in life? Milestones you need to be “right.” I know I missed some things that are deeply affecting me now. And I really question if there is any way to fix it. No one is going to mother a 40 year old woman, hell I couldn’t get people to do it when I was a child.


    • I would suggest you go for therapy. One approach is to work on your “parenting skills” and teach you how to parent yourself. You can recover from this but it takes work and the willingness to face the past and the present.


  5. I was a parentified child. Now, as an adult, one of my younger brothers that I cared for from his birth until his preteen years has taken his own life. I am finding that the parental part of my grief is hard to deal with. I have guilt from bailing too quickly and completely when I became an adult, and not being there for him longer or in the way hindsight tells me he must have needed. He was an adult when to left us, but his late teenage years seemed to have set his course. Multiple counselors have responded to my feelings of maternal grief by basically saying I shouldn’t feel that way. That is not helpful. My parents are still alive and all the understanding of parental grief is directed at them by family and friends. I am working through it but I do wish I had a resource for this scenario. Looking all over the Internet about parental grief for a parentified child has yielded nothing.


    • Must be difficult for you. I have not seen anything on that kind of grief. You probably need to talk with a counselor or friend about your feelings. You are likely to be going through some serious grief. Take care of yourself.


    • Hi Jacqueline,
      I had what might be a similar experience. My father had a severe stroke when I was just two and a half years old. The stroke left him bed ridden. Basically he became unable to move his legs and one of his arms(along with other harsh side effects). Any, since that happened, I had taken it upon myself to heal him, and throughout my life felt immensely guilty for his condition, like I was to blame because I allow it to continue. That also made my self esteem and feeling of competence virtually non existent.
      Six years ago he died. And I experienced it as my ultimate failure. Keeping him as well as possible was my life’s mission.
      Gradually, and with a lot of help, I think I am overcoming those extremely harsh emotions.
      So, although our circumstances were different, I think I can relate to your feelings of grief and guilt.
      I know that your grief is REAL. I know how guilty you feel. I think that the first thing you should do is to validate your feelings, you have every right to feel them. Even though your brother’s death was NOT your fault. You are in no way shape or form accountable for what happened. Your EMOTION of guilt is real, your accountability isn’t.
      Even if you think you could have handled the situation better, acknowledge that no body is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, even when stakes are high. Allow yourself to be human.
      Hope that helped somewhat 🙂


  6. I was a parentified child. I had to take care of myself and of my mother. She was emotionally unstable and poured her problems onto me. She treated me like I was her mother and had to listen to her problems and shit. I broke up with her because I couldn’t take it anymore. Ever since, I’m much happier as an adult.


  7. I was a parentified child; I took responsibility for raising my siblings since I was 8. My mother is a parentified child in that her mother was a raging alcoholic. Now that my mother is older, she makes horrible choices and is not responsible for her behavior. She says things like “I’ve dropped everything and been there for you, more than once!” It was VERY liberating when I replied to her, “That’s what parents are SUPPOSED to do for their children.” Some where in her mind, I’m not her daughter, but an annoying ex of some sort. Thank you for this article. I wish there was more about this subject. I’m 48 and just now figuring out what my problem is.


    • Hi there Bjo on,
      I was a parentified child myself. And my mother probably was one to. She is also not self sufficient this days. I read a wonderful quote on the subject which deemed parentified children as: “Resourceful children, vulnerable adults.”
      There actually is material on the subject. Some of it is a bit dry, academic read and some of it is meant for the lay reader. I’ll begin with the “layman” material . My personal favorite is Alice Miller’s: “The Drama of Being a Child”, another one is: “Toxic parents”, there is also: “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents” and “Running on empty”. Not all of them are about parentification per se, but they do corolate with the subjec,The best “dry” book on the subject(in my opinion) is “Lost Childhoods: The Plight Of The Parentified Child”, another great book is:”Burdened Children: Theory, Research, and Treatment of Parentification” ,there is also: “Implications of Parent-Child Boundary Dissolution for Developmental Psychopathology: “Who Is the Parent and Who Is the Child?”.
      A great layman guide for healing is: “Homecoming: Reclaiming and Healing Your Inner Child”.
      So don’t be discouraged, there is a plethora of material on the subject, it’s just not very easy to find.


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  13. Never seen an article like this before. A nice piece. I am a parentified child as I lost my mum when I was 10 years and had to stand in as a mum for all my siblings. Now I want to play because I feel there has always been too much to do since I was young. That makes me feel work is stressful many times. How does one strike a balance?


    • Thanks for the comment.
      This is a real challenge for anyone who grew up to young and to fast. The things I suggest are:
      1. Learn how to have fun and play.
      2. Go back and learn the things that you should have learned at each developmental stage but missed out on because you were having to care for others
      3. Do all this without ending up abusing or addicted to drugs, alcohol or risky sexual behavior.
      It is possible to have fun and care for yourself without doing things that will self harm.
      Keeping things in balance, that is the challenge.
      Best wishes.

      Liked by 1 person

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