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

enfant2Other manifestations of the pathology are more latent and thus harder to detect. This is often the case for the "perfect child," who tries to be as admirable as possible to feed their parent's narcissism and their own sense of self-denigration. The "perfect child" generally goes unnoticed because they don't seem to have any problems, even though they are inwardly quite anxious and suffer from extreme nervousness.  The child as "scapegoat" is another form of parentification. According to Stéphanie Haxhe,"we never talk about this type, even though family therapists see these kinds of kids quite often in the clinic.  The scapegoat generally has a parent who has suffered serious trauma such as sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.  The parent will unconsciously expect their child to repair their vision of the world, give them a reason to live again, and erase all the horrors they went through." This relationship is extremely psychologically destructive, since the child will be overwhelmed with guilt.  They will try everything to restore their parent's sense of hope, but this is an arduous if not impossible task, no matter what they do.

Negative outcomes in adulthood

Suppressing their desires and putting themselves aside in order to satisfy their parent can impact the child's psychological development. This is generally manifested in adolescence or adulthood through obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression, profound anxiety, doubts about one's identity, and even suicide in extreme cases. Stéphanie Haxhe also claims that there is a risk of developing an incestuous relationship:  "If a child plays a parental role, they will unconsciously be seen as a parent. The risk is then that they will be seen as an adult, with a level of maturity and abilities far greater than those of a child." Indeed, if the parent is not able to establish clear boundaries since they were never established in their own childhood, and their partner is either not present or not paying attention, then the affection the parent seeks from the child can take a sexualised form such as seduction or even a sexual act.

Preventing parentification

The presence of a partner upon which the "parentifying" parent can lean on and confide in could be beneficial to the child and help protect them from parentification. The affection, attention, and support that the adult receives from their partner can help prevent them from focusing all their needs on the child. Unfortunately, Stéphanie Haxhe has noticed that the "parentifying" parent often unconsciously repeats the pattern they are caught up in, and chooses a partner who also suffered from a lack of affection as a child. Despite the support they provide each other, they won't be able to compensate for all their deficiencies and an emotional chasm will always come between them. In this case, there is a strong chance that this emptiness will be transferred onto their child.

In addition to family therapy, which the researcher recommends for young children and/or adolescents, she also suggests sibling therapy to improve treatment of parentification when there are several children involved, rather than individual therapy focused on each of them.  Brothers and sisters who have been through the same thing could share their experiences in sibling therapy, in order to express their feelings and compare their points of view. This could put an end to their isolation and help them overcome feelings of loneliness. Stéphanie Haxhe believes that this kind of therapy is a good means of preventing children from reproducing the same process as adults and becoming "parentifying" parents themselves.

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