Parentification: when the roles are reversed...
4/23/13

The book also describes the most important criteria for identification so that anyone who might encounter or need to deal with this family psychopathology (such as educators, social workers, psychologists, etc.) will have a better understanding of the problem. As the intended goal is to relieve the child's burden without brutally tearing them away from the role their father or mother assigned to them, the transition must be gradual.  Yet if social services find out that a child is being parentified, they might immediately seek to remove the child from their family. But instead of helping the child, removal could have even more disastrous consequences. If the child knows that no other alternative measures have been taken, they will constantly be worried and their anxiety will increase tenfold. They will only feel better once they are sure that someone is taking care of their parent, that someone has taken over their responsibility. According to the young researcher, it is therefore essential to work with other family members and set up a network of caregivers.

Stéphanie Haxhe's research is original in that it then focuses on observations of both clinical cases where there was a request for therapy, and non-clinical cases in which the family didn't exhibit any problems and never sought out therapy. The researcher was therefore able to study families in which the process of parentification was already present and recognized (even going back several generations), as well as families that were a "blank slate," in order to understand the factors that determine whether or not the pathology appears, and when it is reproduced.

The situations she observed also allowed her to qualify certain frequently espoused claims, such as the idea that only one child is parentified, and always the eldest. "The literature generally states that only one child is parentified, but that's not the case," says the researcher. "When the parents have extensive needs, they spread them out amongst their children. Each child offers something to their parent in their own way and according to their level of sensitivity." Such is the case for a mother who was neglected by her own parents, as her two daughters will react in diametrically opposed ways. One strives to succeed so that her mother can obtain the approval that she never received as a child. The other becomes a "problem child" to give her mother the opportunity to show that she is competent and will fight to help her daughter overcome her difficulties.

Several forms of parentification

enfant1If parentification is not detected and treated as quickly as possible, it can take deep roots in the family and perpetuate itself for several generations. However, recognising parentification is not easy since it takes a variety of different forms. Some are easier to identify since they are more obvious.  Stéphanie Haxhe provides several examples in her book based on her clinical experience, while being careful to reframe and redefine some models that haven't often been addressed in the scientific literature. The "caregiver" child who gives up their studies to stay home with an alcoholic or depressed parent is one example. They are often identified by educators or teachers, who then notify the school's health and welfare centre.

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