This pattern is what psychologists refer to as destructive parentification—a form of emotional abuse or neglect where a child becomes the caregiver to their parent or sibling. Moreover, researchers are increasingly finding that in addition to upending a child’s development, this role reversal can leave deep emotional scars well into adulthood. Many experience severe anxiety, depression, and psychological distress. Others report succumbing to eating disorders and substance abuse.
“The symptoms look similar to some extent, from the cradle to the grave,” said Lisa M. Hooper, a professor at the University of Louisville and prominent parentification researcher. Some of these behaviors start in childhood and become exacerbated in adulthood, she explains.
“Children’s distrust of their interpersonal world is one of the most destructive consequences of such a process,” writes Gregory Jurkovic in his book Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child.
The Trauma of Being Sibling Parents
On the other hand, research focus on the neglect children experiences from their parents. However, neglect also puts kids in roles of parenting each other. Meanwhile, there is virtually no empirical research on how this affects relationship dynamics later in life—both with siblings and others. Scholars agree that there are gaps in sibling research. There is primarily an incomplete understanding of how these relationships and roles are affected by abusive family environments. Hooper noted that “the literature is very scarce in this area.”
Parentified siblings often forge symbiotic relationships, where they meet each other’s needs for guardians in a lot of different ways.
“We know that siblings can buffer each other from the impacts of stressful relationships with parents,” said Amy K. Nuttall, an assistant professor in human development and family studies at Michigan State University. Certainly, this may account for why some parentified siblings who come from abusive homes end up maintaining close, albeit complex, bonds into adulthood. In addition, some “continuing to attempt to fill parental needs at the expense of their own.” Still, others may distance themselves from their families all together to escape the role.