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Our childhood experience, whether consciously or unconsciously, can shape our lives today. It affects our personalities, ways of relating to others and even levels of career success. 

The Burden Of Emotional Parentification

 We all play a particular role in our family system. Some of us are the ‘golden boys/ girls’, some of us are crowned the title as ‘the brainy one’, or ‘the trouble maker’. Some of us are treated like the little princess/ princesses at home, while some of us become the one everyone leans on.  

Due to their deep empathy, intuition, and high level of interpersonal intelligence, many sensitive children are subject to a phenomenon known as ’emotional parentification’. Parentification is when the roles between parents and child are reversed, and the child has to step up and take on adult responsibilities too early, too soon. In particular, Emotional Parentification is when a young child is forced to meet the emotional needs of his or her parents, most commonly by being the confidant, the listener, the counsellor. 

Most of the time, the parents do not maliciously try to harm their child, but they may be immature, depressed, or preoccupied. Childish and emotionally under-developed parents are so overwhelmed and preoccupied that they cannot be an anchor to their sensitive child. Instead, they inadvertently burden the empathic and highly responsive nature of their child. 

If you are highly sensitive, you are by nature keenly aware of other people’s moods and nuances in your environments. You see, hear and sense things others miss, and therefore you are likely the one who was there by your parent’s side even when no one else was. Even only unconsciously, your parents have relied on your empathic presence for healing and soothing. 

In some cases, ’emotional incest’ could be present. This is if you had become a’ surrogate partner’ to one or both of your parents. Perhaps your parents shared too many intimate details about their lives with you, or they turn to you for comfort when they were disappointed or frustrated in their marriage. They may use spending time with you as an excuse to not deal with real problems in their lives. Seeing your parents’ vulnerabilities, you naturally felt it was your responsibility to fix the situation, to comfort them, and to make them happy again. 

The Cost of Parentification

 The consequences of having been parentified are physical, emotional and spiritual. 

In parentification, It is the invisible pain that hurts the most. 

  • It is not what was said, but what was not said — the applause, the reassurance, the positive mirroring. 
  • It is not what was there, but what was not there — quality playtime, meaningful exchange, intellectual stimulation.

Parentification occurred in the first place because it was not safe for you to be a carefree child.  

  • If you were to bring your needy, playful self out, you might be hurt.
  • If you were to tell the truth of how burdened you felt, you might be punished. 
  • You might have been sad, but the only way to move on then was to suppress it. 
  • You might have been angry, but the only solution then was to turn it against yourself.

It was not a conscious choice we made, but the only thing you could do. 

As a result, you have learned that your needs and wants did not matter, or have internalised the message that other people’s unhappiness was your fault. You might have tried to suppress the memories andd burden of an unhappy childhood via denial, addictions, or emotional numbness.

Coping Mechanisms For The Burden Of Parentification

To survive a difficult childhood, you could employ one or more survival strategies. These coping mechanism does not just go away; they become a part of your personality. 

Some of us used laughter to diffuse the situation, and we became the ‘class clown’. Even as grown-ups, we don’t know how to connect with others without disguising our vulnerability. 

Some of us became the ‘little good boy/ girl’, hoping that by way of compliance, we could get the love we wanted. Later in life, we become people-pleasers, get trapped in co-dependent relationships, or struggle with assertiveness. 

Some of us felt we were exiled from our own home, while carrying the name of the ‘black sheep’, or the ‘irresponsible rebel’. 

Some of us are used to being the caretaker of all things, that we become hyper-vigilant and perfectionistic adults, even when it costs us our health and wellbeing. 

Reclaiming your authentic self means un-peeling these layers of survival mechanisms, kindly and with self-compassion. Your survival selves have been honourable attempts to help you. 

Instead of condemning them, you can bow to them, respect them, and have gratitude towards them. You may say to the defensive soldiers in you: “It has been so hard, my dear one. You are tired of all the fighting. I am grown up now, and I know how to protect myself. You can relax now, and I will be okay. “

The Breakthrough

Despite its impact, bouncing back from parentification is possible. If you can channel your sensitivity, empathy and intuition to the right places, you can become a gifted parent to yourself.

The first step to such integration is to acknowledge the truth of what happened. You have spent your life protecting the feelings of those around you. You may not recall memories of your childhood, or you feel guilty when you speak negatively about your family. After having carried the burden for so many years, denial and numbness have become your ‘normal’, and therefore, expressing your truth could be the hardest first step.  

You can tell your honest story to someone you trust, lay it down in a journal, or express your feelings in a piece of artwork or music. While you cannot change what happened, you have the choice to not carry a psychological burden with you for the rest of your life.

As someone who has ‘brought himself/ herself up’, you might be incredibly self-reliant. That sometimes makes it difficult for you to seek help from or reveal vulnerabilities to others. Relying on no one but yourself might have been the only choice you had, but it is no longer the case. If you could open your heart’s door to those who care for you, you might be surprised by what you find. 

Self-compassion is essential in this process, especially if you were to extend compassion and forgiveness for others. As a parentified child, you may have a harsh inner-critic in your mind, who continually says in your mind that you are not doing enough, or that when bad things happen, it is your fault. You may have internalized shame and guilt from not being able to fulfill the impossible demands and burdens that were put on you. But you must realize that it was not your fault your parents are not happier, healthier, or more fulfilled in their lives. You were a completely innocent child, and you deserved an innocent and carefree childhood. 

If you have little experience of being loved in life, you may imagine what you would say to a person or a child you love. Then, feel into the tender feelings in your heart, and direct those sentiments towards yourself. 

In many spiritual traditions, it is believed that in all of us, there is an innermost core, sometimes known as the ‘Self.’ Despite what happens in the external world, this part of us remains untethered. It is always wise, compassionate and loving. Even if you cannot seek counsel from someone else, you can tap into this precious resource that resides within you through introspection and meditation. 

What has happened was not fair, and you have the right to be angry. Being angry does not equal endless blaming, or resentment, it merely means you are allowing feelings that are natural and legitimate to pass through. Your truth needs to be heard, even only by your soul. You may want to experiment with writing a letter to express how you feel, even when you don’t send it.

The impact of parentification is painful, but it is entirely possible to bounce back from it. With a process of healing and integration, you will become a stronger, more resilient and loving person. This time, instead of acting as a parent to others, you are the best parent to yourself. 

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About Imi Lo

Imi Lo is an award-winning psychotherapist, a published author, teacher and podcast host. Her book, Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity (Hodder and Stoughton, 2018), is available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi is a qualified Clinical Psychotherapist, Art Therapist, Social Worker, Certified Schema Therapist (ISST), Mentalisation-based Therapy Practitioner, EMDR Therapist, and Mindfulness Teacher. She works holistically, synthesising East and Western philosophies and spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Japanese Psychology, the Enneagram and Existential philosophy. She is a Clinical Supervisor and Trainer and delivers workshops and lectures to psychotherapists and trainees. Imi was received numerous awards for her commitment and contributions to social changes: the Endeavour Award by the Australian Government and the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA) . She has been interviewed as a thought leader for major publications such as The Psychologies Magazine, Marie Claire, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, and TalkRadio. Combining her life-long passion and clinical expertise, she founded Eggshell Therapy and Coaching, where she works with intense people across the world.You can connect with her there.

1 Comment

  1. All sensitive people who have had too much and inappropriate responsibility at a young age.   https://sensitiveevolution.com/were-you-burdened-with-too-much-too-soon/