Dear Gaone Please keep my identity anonymous. I am the eldest child in my family, I have two younger siblings who are now in their mid twenties. My mom died just after I entered adolescence. Subsequent to her death, my father whom we stayed with, turned into an alcoholic until he died two years later. As a result of my father’s alcoholism, I filled the leadership gap in our home by assuming the role of a parent to my little siblings. To date they still treat me as if I am their mom and dad despite the minimal age gap between us. Some of my relatives sing sky high praises of me for having parented and continuing to parent my siblings. Nonetheless, I mostly feel depressed. I feel that I have been robbed of my teenagehood. Even in my adult life, I find myself being the primary giver and caretaker in my relationships, never is the scale of reciprocity balanced in my life. Kindly advise.
From the rendition of your story, it is evident that you were parentified in your teenage years. Parentification/emotional incest is where the child ‘parents’ the parent; the roles here are reversed, the parent becomes the child and the child becomes the parent. This is where the parent turns to the minor to satisfy their emotional needs instead of relating with other age appropriate adults who can be there for the parent emotionally. Parentification is a form of child neglect that often has long-term debilitating effects on the child.
According to Section 11 (1) of the Children’s Act Cap 28, ‘any parent or guardian of a child or any person having the custody of a child who neglects, ill-treats or exploits the child or allows or causes him to be neglected, ill-treated or exploited shall be guilty of an offence’. Section 11 (2) (d) of the aforesaid Act postulates that ‘a child shall be deemed to be neglected if a parent or guardian having the custody of the child exposes the child to conditions or circumstances which are likely to cause him physical, mental or psychological distress or damage.
Families prone to parentification are; single parent families, divorced parents with kids, widowed parents with children, families with many kids, families where the other parent/only parent is severely depressed, marriages where the parties are consistently detached from each other emotionally, marriages where the other partner is consistently busy and rarely/never creates time for his/her partner, relationships where the other or only parent is a drug addict or mentally unstable. Parentification may also happen in large families where the eldest child consistently tends for the younger siblings and rarely have time to enjoy activities meant for a child their age.
On other occasions, the parentified child takes care of the emotional needs of both the parent and all the other members of the family. Oftentimes the parentified child fills the void of leadership created by the parent in the home. Empathetic, talented and sensitive kids are most likely to be parentified if there is leadership void in the home.
In attending the emotional needs of his/her parent and/or that of his/her siblings, the parentified child’s emotional wellbeing is neglected. Because of such neglect, parentified kids repress their emotions for the sake of the family and have a form of pseudo maturity. The greatest and secret cry of a parentified child or adult who has not bounced back from parentifiaction is ‘I take care of everyone, who is going to take care of me?’ If they do not recover from parentification in adulthood, parentified casualties mostly and consistently neglect their own wellbeing for the greater good of others.
In relationships, adults who were parentified as kids, tend to take the role of a primary caretaker in all aspects of their relationships, a pattern they have learnt from being neglected as a child. In assuming the role of a primary caretaker in all spheres of their relationships, they often feel resentful at their spouses/family/friends because they tend to over give in relationships with little to no reciprocation of their love. As a result, they may habitually feel drained and break down easily due to unprocessed childhood abuse. Such adults also never get to truly experience the joy of interdependence, co-partnership and receiving love in their relationships.
As a result of parentification, grown-ups who have not cured from such may over and over again neglect their own needs and wellbeing to tend for others and gain approval from them. Grown persons with a history of parentification are usually ‘empathy crazy’. They mostly feel responsible for the lives of others and have a tendency to rescue and not help others. In continuously rescuing and not helping others, the parentified victim, cripples others’ ability to learn and thrive from their mistakes. Acceptance of our pain and struggles is the elementary key that opens the door for our healing.
Without acceptance that you were parentified as a child or still being parentified as an adult, the door for healing can never open you. As mentioned in my previous articles, parentified casualties tend to over give in their relationships. Due to parentification their inner child was supressed and neglected as they tended for the emotional needs of their emotionally limping parent and siblings in some instances; a pattern which continues to replicate itself in their adult relationships if the monster of parentification still has a hold in them.
It is an irony that though such casualties parent others, they secretly long to be parented too. The unexpressed cry of their heart is usually ‘I take care of and sacrifice for everyone, who is going to do same for me in equal proportions?‘ It is vital for fatalities of parentification to learn how to parent their own emotions/inner child and do the things they wish could have been done for themselves in their childhood. Parenting one’s emotions comes with the realisation that we were born vested with an assortment of virtues such as peace, joy, self-control, healing and contentment within us. Whatever can be broken can be mended. If our spirits can be broken and tattered by abuse, they surely can be mended and be intact if we tap into the healing that lies dormant in us. The parentified victim habitually neglects themselves and over give in their relationships because they deem relationships as their ‘greatest source of joy’ and not ‘one of their sources of joy.’ They do this by over functioning and getting over involved in the lives of others when they feel the wind is out their sails instead of processing their emotions and looking within to find peace and contentment. For example, a married parentified victim who is stressed about work and displeased that their spouse is distant, may try to remedy that by over pursuing the spouse.
In playing the role of an intense pursuer, their spouse becomes more distant and their work stress mounts. By over functioning in the role of an extreme pursuer, their partner under functions and becomes more distant. However, if the casualty was to look within, find healthy ways to process their work-related stress with or without their sweetheart and also slow down on pursuing their partner or give them space, if need be, they would most likely find a viable solution for their problem and achieve more intimacy with their lover. Parentified victims rarely get to learn to tap into their inner and greatest joy - the inner joy that was fashioned to hold all the other joys in our lives (including the joy of relationships) and to exist independently from all these other joys. As long as parentified fatalities continue to over function in the lives of others in an effort to pacify anxiety, feeling drained and resentful will be inevitable. Having a clear sense of self is necessary to effect being one’s own chief caretaker and comforter. In every healthy relationship, there should be a balance between the ‘I’ within the ‘we’. If there is too much togetherness i.e., the ‘we’, the ‘I’ vanishes.
On the other hand, if there is an extreme ‘I’ within the relationship, the sense of togetherness and unity of purpose would be lost. On the other one hand, if there is healthy balance between the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ in the relationship, we will be able to do exploits together whilst actualising at an individual and collective level.
A clear sense of oneself requires that we unambiguously define who we are and what we stand for. It also calls for hale and hearty boundaries as to how far and how much we can be there for others without losing ourselves. As mentioned in the previous articles, parentification fatalities are prone to being emotionally enmeshed and drained in their relationships. A profound sense of self and healthy boundaries is therefore some of the ammunition that can assassinate emotional enmeshment and drain.
• Gaone Monau is an attorney and motivational speaker on the areas of confidence building, stress management, relationships, self-discovery and gender-based violence. For bookings, motivational talks, questions or comments on the aforesaid areas contact +26774542732 or [email protected] Her Facebook page is Be Motivated with Gaone.