What is Parentification?

Parentification is often defined as a type of role reversal, boundary distortion, and inverted hierarchy between parents and other family members in which children or adolescents assume developmentally inappropriate levels of responsibility in the family of origin that go unrecognized, unsupported, and unrewarded.

In the parentification phenomenon, the overarching role of the parentified youth can be described as that of caregiver-caring for others at the expense of caring for self. It is often clinically observed and empirically examined along two dimensions: instrumental parentification and emotional parentification.

  • Instrumental parentification¬†primarily involves completing physical tasks for the family such as taking care of relatives with serious medical conditions, grocery shopping, paying bills, or ensuring that a younger sibling attends and does well in school.
  • Emotional parentification¬†often involves a child or adolescent taking on the role and responsibilities of confidant, secret keeper, or emotional healer for family members.

Similar to differences in the predictability of instrumental and emotional parentification, parent-focused parentification and sibling-focused parentification may predict different outcomes. More recently, researchers are exploring to what extent to whom the caregiving roles and responsibilities are directed

  • Parent-focused parentification reflects caregiving roles and responsibilities (instrumental and/or emotional) that are directed to the parent or primary caregiver.
  • Sibling-focused parentification describes¬†caregiving roles and responsibilities (instrumental and/or emotional) that are directed to a sibling or siblings.

Parentification is often observed in families where the parent or caregiver has experienced a serious medical condition or mental health disorder. Parental alcohol use and abuse also is common in families where parentification exists. More recently, parentification is often evidenced in families where children must serve as a translator (e.g., language broker) for parents and family members.

Many other circumstances can engender inappropriate levels of parentification (e.g., temporal or continuous familial financial hardship, divorce, sibling illness, and cultural settings which promote early childhood responsibility and autonomy). Excessive levels of parentification in the family of origin, often, but not always result in negative outcomes. More recently, empirical literature is beginning to accumulate on differential outcomes, negative and positive, related to parentification.

  • Our studies examine possible moderators and mediators that are associated with differential or bimodal outcomes of parentification with a particular focus on cultural factors and cultural contexts in which parentification takes place.
  • Our studies explore the unique effects of instrumental parentification and emotional parentification.
  • Our studies explore the unique effects of parent-focused parentification and sibling-focused parentification.
  • Our studies evaluate the cultural and scalar equivalence of measures that assess for parentification.