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Parentification and MAAME by Jessica George

Maddie takes care of everyone. Her mom, who spends every other year living away from the family in Ghana, frequently needs financial help and Maddie sends her money. Her dad has Parkinson’s and needs round-the-clock care, so Maddie spent college and young professional years living at home providing care, rather than moving into her own apartment. It’s similar at work; Maddie picks up the pieces when her boss has emotional breakdowns.

Maddie needs a break from bending over backward for others. And, it wouldn’t hurt if someone cared for her, too.

How did we get here? And how does Maddie move forward?

Today we’re discussing parentification. In healthy parent/child relationships, parents generally give support, and children typically receive it. Parentification is when a parent abdicates logistical and/or emotional responsibilities and passes these obligations onto their children. In these unhealthy role reversals, the child becomes the caretaker responsible for meeting the parent’s needs. The child is generally too young to handle the tasks thrust upon them and receives neither guidance nor validation for their immense burden.

The emotional impact on the parentified child can be quite significant. They struggle with emotional regulation, experience high anxiety levels, fail to set appropriate boundaries in romantic relationships, don’t know how to form secure attachments, and cannot trust others.

Suppose you are an adult who recognizes you were parentified as a child. In that case, there are several things you can do to reverse the negative impacts of this experience:

  • Learn about healthy relationships. This can be fun. Watch movies or read books that depict loving, trusting, and balanced relationships. If you know someone in what appears to be a healthy relationship, talk to them about it and learn more about what that feels like and the specific things they do to maintain positivity.

  • Let go of burdens or tasks that are not yours to carry. Set (and sometimes learn more, grow more, and re-set) healthy boundaries This means learning to say no, and occasionally disappointing people who have grown accustomed to relying on you. Work through any associated regret or shame that arises as you transition out of being everyone’s helper.

  • Examine the circumstances of your childhood and, when you truly have your hands around the reasons you were parentified, the expectations you fulfilled, any acknowledgment received, etc., also try to see the situation from your parent’s perspective. Why? Because our goal is to understand and (when possible) accept, not villainize — which can be a tricky line to walk.

If Maddie learned these skills, she might not have spent so many formative years helping everyone but herself and therefore been able to individuate and create healthier adult relationships. It would not have been an easy process. But, it would have been ultimately beneficial and fulfilling.

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