Parentizing children is perhaps the most common cause of adult co-dependency. This intergenerational phenomenon involves something known as the reversal process, in which parents and other caregiving adults unconsciously use children to meet their own emotional and psychological needs. Rather than the adults caring for their children, children learn to take care of the adults. Emotionally needy parents discourage their children from developing their own interests and identity and both subtly and overtly encourage them to stay close and become parental caretakers.
The parentizing process is particularly prevalent in parents and other adult caregivers who were emotionally and/or physically abandoned or neglected as children. While this theme is commonly discussed in alcoholic family systems, we believe that is characteristic of most family structures.
In a reversal situation, it’s quite common for parents to care for children until they are old enough to become self-sufficient. At this point, the nurturing energy stops flowing from parent to child and reverses, so that the children begin caring for their parents.
Children, sensing their parents emotionally unstable condition, may decide that the only way they can survive in this situation is to ignore their own needs and comply with their parents expectations. Children come to believe that if they take care of their parents needs, then the parents might be available again to care for their needs. Parentizing is very common in oldest children.
Another version of reversal happens when a parent looks into the eyes of his or her newborn baby and sees him or her not as a separate human being but as an extension of the parent. They project their own unfulfilled wishes and dreams on the child and expect him or her to become the successful doctor, lawyer, sports figure, musician, or other notable person the parent always wanted to be.
As a result, the parent focuses only on the child as an object of his or her own unfulfilled dreams and ambitions, and programs the child to live these dreams in order to earn the parent’s love. This is also known as conditional love.
Another way that parents engage in role reversal is by giving their children things that the parents wanted but didnt get. Parentized children also learn to perform and make their parents look good so that their parents will love them. The parents focus is on meeting their own emotional needs rather than meeting their children’s needs.
Because so few adults are aware of parentizing and role reversals, many parents traumatize their children with these patterns. The reversal process is very difficult to identify and heal, because parentized children look like well-behaved and dutiful children to outside observers. However, the children almost always know when parents are engaging in reversals with them.
Nonetheless, they often believe that if they dont sacrifice themselves for their parents, the parents will not or cannot take care of them and they might not survive. This co-dependent programming is rampant in a narcissistic culture such as the one that currently exists in the United States.
If the reversal process is not healed, it will be transferred into other adult relationships. If it is not healed there, it will show up when a couple has a family. If not healed at the family level, families will collectively imprint it on the functioning of organizations and even nation-states. Recognizing and healing the effects of this reversal process is essential to advance human evolution at all levels.
Vicarious traumatization can also be a factor in parentizing families. Older children are often traumatized when they witness their younger siblings being emotionally neglected by parents who are overwhelmed by their responsibilities. Witnessing their younger siblings subtle reactions to the loss of emotional synchronization with their parents often triggers the older children’s memories of this same experience of emotional disconnect they experienced earlier in life.
We have had many clients who report how this vicarious retraumatization unconsciously triggered them when they witnessed their younger siblings being neglected. This often activated a set of instinctive caretaking behaviors that caused them to step into surrogate parent roles to rescue their younger siblings from being emotionally neglected and abandoned.
The parentizing process can also involve children caretaking their overwhelmed parents by assuming some of their daily responsibilities in hopes that the overburdened adults will be able to take care of them. Parentized children may take over shopping for food, cooking for the family, and providing essential care for younger children. Parentized children who end up taking care of their parents rather than vice versa, often sacrifice their own childhoods and grow up to become professional caretakers such as teachers, therapists, and ministers.