The Death of One’s Childhood
The almost inevitable byproduct of parentification is losing one’s own childhood. In destructive parentification, the child in question takes on excessive responsibility in the family. However, it’s a thankless job. By adopting the role of parental caregiver, the child loses their real place in the family unit. They also often feel lonely and unsure. In extreme instances, there may be what has been called a kind of disembodiment. It’s a narcissistic wound that threatens one’s basic self-identity.
Physical Effects of Losing One’s Childhood
Unpredictable childhood trauma has long-lasting effects on the brain. Studies have shown that people with adverse childhood experiences are more likely to suffer from mental and physical health disorders. This experience causes a chronic state of high-stress reactivity. One study found that children exposed to ongoing stress released a hormone that shrank the size of their hippocampus. It’s an area of the brain that processes memory, emotion, and stress management. More importantly, individuals who have experienced emotional or physical neglect by a parent are also at a greater risk of suffering from chronic illness as adults.
Moreover, Donna Jackson Nakazawa, the author of Childhood Disrupted and a science journalist, who focuses on the intersection of neuroscience and immunology, wrote: “Chronic, unpredictable stress is toxic when there’s no reliable adult.”
Nakazawa has conducted extensive research on the body-brain connection, focusing on studies initiated by physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda. These individuals can experience four categories of childhood adversity—neglect and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. As a result, they are twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer and depression as adults.
As adults, parentified children often experience anxiety over abandonment and loss and demonstrate difficulty handling rejection and disappointment within interpersonal relationships. More links have been found between childhood stressors and adult heart disease, diabetes, migraines, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Resiliency and Self-Efficacy as a Gift
Despite negative outcomes associated with parentification, there is a silver lining. People who have been parentified as children may possess a greater capacity for resiliency and self-efficacy. A common thread in people with these shared childhood experiences is a heightened sense of empathy and an ability to connect closely to others.
When neglect forces kids to become adults, this trauma can result in greater psychological resilience, more individuation, a clearer sense of self, and more secure attachment styles during adulthood. Moreover, the person had to adapt to changes and take on responsibilities.
Paula M. Reeves, in Nancy D. Chase, Burdened Children (1999) p. 171.
Margaret A. Sheridan, Nathan A. Fox, Charles H. Zeanah, Katie A. McLaughlin, and Charles A. Nelson III, Variation in neural development as a result of exposure to institutionalization early in childhood, PNAS August 7, 2012, 109 (32) 12927-12932; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1200041109 (accessed 15 Sep 2019).
Katz, Petracca; J., Rabinowitz (2009). “A retrospective study of daughters’ emotional role reversal with parents, attachment anxiety, excessive reassurance-seeking, and depressive symptoms.” The American Journal of Family Therapy. 37: 185-195.