A few months ago, a friend and colleague brought up the word parentification in our weekly accountability meeting. “What’s that?” I asked.

(Keep scrolling for the video version of this post.)

When he explained what it is and how he experienced it as a child, I said, “That sounds like emotional incest and how my childhood was like, too.”

I’ll talk more about emotional incest later but in this post, I wanted to go into parentification. In a nutshell, it’s having been forced to be an adult (usually playing a parent/caretaker role) as a child.

If you didn’t have a childhood or had to grow up too quickly, you might have been parentified.

According to studies quoted by parentification researcher Dr. Lisa M. Hooper in “Defining and Understanding Parentification: Implications for All Counselors”, the “effects of childhood parentification can be long-lasting, multigenerational, and deleterious” and “children who are parentified have significantly more ‘caretaker characteristics’ in adulthood than do those children who are not parentified”. Some of those adverse effects include . . .

. . . “people pleasing” and “often [relating] to others in problematic, overfunctioning, caretaking ways”.

Those effects describe me perfectly. I wish I’d known years ago when I started my therapy journey that my people pleasing thing came from––or partially came from––having been a second mother to my 8 younger siblings, prior to escaping at age 15.

It’s more common than not for Amish children, especially the oldest girl and boy, to be forced to be the second mother and second father. I was saddled with so many adult responsibilities from a very young age that I didn’t have a childhood. I started learning how to change my baby sibling’s diapers when I was around 4 years old. At 6 years old, I was required to be fully responsible for my two younger siblings in the afternoons while my mother took hours-long naps.

I describe what happened during one of those afternoons in a chapter for my memoir, Amish Girl in Manhattan. While the mother slept, the children wandered off the farm and could have been kidnapped . . . .

14 Signs of Parentification according to Goodman

My friend pointed me to an article by a licensed psychotherapist, Whitney Goodman, that listed more specific examples of parentification:

  • Grew up feeling like you had to be responsible
  • Trouble with play or “letting loose”
  • Like to feel in control
  • Pulled into arguments or issues between caregivers
  • Felt like you were given responsibilities that were not appropriate for someone your age
  • Often compliments for being “so good” and “so responsible”
  • May feel that being self-reliant is better that trying to trust others
  • Don’t really remember “being a kid”
  • Parents had trouble caring for themselves or others and placed the responsibility on you
  • Often find yourself becoming a caregiver for others
  • Being a caretaker feels good, even when you are sacrificing parts of yourself
  • Heightened sense of empathy and an ability to more closely connect with others
  • Feel like you need to be the peacemaker
  • May feel like your efforts aren’t appreciated

Definition of Parentification

While the above examples are helpful, if you’re like me, you’ll want an academic source and clinical definition of parentification to sift through such scenarios a bit more critically. According to Jennifer A. Engelhardt, in a paper “The Developmental Implications of Parentification: Effects on Childhood Attachment” for Teachers College, Columbia University’s Graduate Student Journal of Psychology in the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology:

"Parentification refers to the process through which children are assigned the role of an adult, taking on both emotional and functional responsibilities that typically are performed by the parent. The parent, in turn, takes the dependent position of the child in the parent-child relationship. Although a small degree of parentification can be beneficial to child development, this process can become pathological when the tasks become too burdensome or when the child feels obligated to take on the role of adult."

2 Types of Parentification: Instrumental and Emotional

Engelhardt also points out that there are two subtypes of parentification and gives examples for each:

1.Instrumental parentification is when a child is required to take on “functional responsibilities, such as shopping, paying bills, cooking meals for the family, and taking care of the general logistics of running a household”.

In other words, child labor. That includes taking care of younger siblings, taking oneself to the doctor, and being responsible for getting to school on time.

2. Emotional parentification is when a child is required to “fulfill specific emotional and/or psychological needs of a parent”, such as “[gauging] and [responding] to the emotional needs of the parent, [serving] as confidante and an unwavering source of support, and [providing] crisis intervention during times of psychological distress”.

In other words, the child is forced to play the role of their parent or guardian’s intimate partner, which is emotional incest.

Situations Leading to Parentification according to Lo

Another resource my friend pointed me to is mental health professional Imi Lo’s site, which includes a page on parentification. Lo lists events or situations that can lead to parentification:

  • Divorce 
  • Death of a parent or sibling
  • Alcoholism or drug addition of one or both parents
  • Chronic disease or disability of one or both parents, or a sibling
  • Mental illness in a parent/parents or sibling
  • Physically abusive relationship between parents
  • Physically or sexually abusive parent/child relationship  
  • Having immature, emotionally unavailable or depressed parents 

I highly recommend that you read Lo’s entire page if you’d like to learn more about parentification in lay language (as opposed to academic speak). Lo goes in depth on the topic and makes a connection with the concept of “poisonous pedagogy”, a term coined by Swiss psychologist Alice Miller. Poisonous pedagogy is about the list of doctrines that some families use to maintain power and normalize a dysfunctional homelife (or way of living). And it gets passed down from generation to generation.

I’ll cover poisonous pedagogy in another post. For now, I’ll just say that I was shocked when I read it. Everything on that list is Amish Church doctrine. It’s precisely how practicing Amish society views children (their roles and worth, etc.).

Origins of Parentification

I thought parentification was a new term or concept, because I hadn’t heard of it throughout my 10+ years of therapy and other work on my extreme childhood traumas. It turns out that parentification was utilized extensively by prominent psychiatrist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy and his colleague Geraldine M. Spark all the way back in 1973, in their book Invisible Loyalties: Reciprocity in Intergenerational Family Therapy. Even earlier, in the 1960s, the concept was coined by Salvador Minuchin (one of the founders of family therapy) and colleagues.

Amish Parentification Example

I picked the above image to go with this post because it visually demonstrates Amish parentification so well. Two little boys sit by a roadside stand selling horseshoes, “real horseshoes” for $3 each. Non-Amish adult customers are approaching the stand and the boys. But no Amish adult is in sight.

It could very well be that the parent/guardian is just outside the camera’s shot, but the fact that said adult isn’t visible makes the child labor element (a form of parentification) of this scene so obvious. What we don’t see in this photo––the presence of nurturing parent(s)/guardian(s)––is actually what is all too often absent in the day-to-day life of too many Amish children.

I’m not opposed to teaching children how to be responsible. The problem is that Amish children are exploited for labor and forced to carry out adult responsibilities and often without adult supervision, particularly the oldest siblings in the house. This is child abuse. The Amish religion demands it and non-Amish tourists and self-proclaimed academic experts on us Amish approve of it.

Amish kiddos selling Amish goods? “How adorable!” they gush. “How cute!” Or “The world would be so much better if the non-Amish taught their kids to work like this.”

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To education and children’s rights,
Executive Director, Amish Heritage Foundation – www.AmishHeritage.org
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