Parentification: when the roles are reversed...

Following her doctoral research on parentification, Stéphanie Haxhe, a psychotherapist and lecturer at ULg, has published L'enfant parentifié et sa famille (1). This book examines the process of role reversal between parents and children in the family system, and is based on an import observation. Though professionals evoke the concept of parentification quite frequently, it is not well understood and is often applied either too hastily or too restrictively. In both cases, an inaccurate diagnosis is made and proper treatment is not provided. With the publication of this book, the researcher hopes to provide keys to understanding this psychopathology and suggests new avenues for better detection, as it is poorly identified all too often.

COVER enfant parentifieFrom the minute a child is born, their parents provide them with attention, tenderness, and love. Children absorb all these displays of affection like a sponge, but they also feel a very strong need to give and to return the affection. When they sense that a parent is unwell, children will do everything they can to help them. This mutual support is completely normal and serves as a balance point that contributes to family harmony. But in some cases the help that the parent unconsciously asks of their child exceeds reasonable limits and can take much more dangerous forms. The parent may tacitly emit distress signals so that their child will help and comfort them. The child feels obligated to put aside childhood activities, to hide their own suffering, and to suppress their own needs in order to respond to and take care of the parent's needs. In order to deal with this situation and assume responsibilities that shouldn't belong to them, the child grows up way too soon and becomes a parent to their own parent. The term parentification is used to describe this complex relationship of role reversals.

Better understanding for better identification

In L'enfant parentifié et sa famille, Stéphanie Haxhe, a lecturer at the University of Liège (Department of Systemic Clinical Medicine and Relational Psychopathology) and psychotherapist (ULg's CPLU- Psychological and Speech Therapy Consultation Centre and SVAG - Verviers Support and Counselling Centre), doesn't claim to provide an exhaustive definition of parentification. The context in which this complex organisational process appears cannot be established and defined with certainty, and then used as a framework applicable to all the family structures affected by this psychopathology. On the contrary, parentification appears in a specific context and as result of a combination of multiple factors. "The first and most important factor is the parent's need. The second relates to the child's sensitivity," explains Stéphanie Haxhe. Indeed, when the parent has unmet expectations, deep emotional deficiencies, a need for recognition that has gone unmet since childhood (particularly following the premature death of a parent), or has faced physical or emotional abuse or even neglect within a large family, they will transfer the weight of this trauma onto their child in the hope the child will fill their emotional void. 

The researcher has redefined this slippery term that is still too often confused with other similar concepts such as parentalisation. As opposed to the parentified child, the parentalised child doesn't take the parent's place but rather plays an auxiliary role in the family dynamic. For example, the oldest child in a large family may have to take care of their brothers and sisters. They take on specific parental responsibilities in a given context, but don't constantly have to give up their own individual needs to devote themselves entirely to their parent, as parentified children do.

(1) Stéphanie Haxhe, L’enfant parentifié et sa famille, Toulouse, coll.« Relations », Erès, 2013.

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