What is destructive parentification?

Destructive parentification is a pattern of behavior that psychologists refer to as emotional abuse or neglect in which a child takes on the role of caregiver for their parent or sibling as a result of emotional abuse or neglect. Increasingly, researchers are discovering that, in addition to upending a child’s development, this role reversal can leave deep emotional scars that can last well into adulthood. 103 Many people suffer from severe anxiety, depression, and psychological distress due to their situation. Those who have suffered from eating disorders and substance abuse have also reported their experiences.

In Lisa M. Hooper, a professor at the University of Louisville and a prominent parentification researcher, “the symptoms look similar to some extent, from the cradle to the grave.” She explains that some of these behaviors begin in childhood and worsen as people grow up.

According to Gregory Jurkovic, author of Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child, “Children’s distrust of their interpersonal world is one of the most destructive consequences of such a process.”

Even though a large body of literature focuses on the neglect that children experience from their parents, there is less attention paid to how this neglect causes children to take on the role of parent to one another. In addition, there has been little empirical research into how this affects the dynamics of relationships later in life, whether they are with siblings or with others. Several scholars have agreed that there are research gaps in sibling relationships, particularly an incomplete understanding of how abusive family environments affect these relationships and their respective roles. Hooper noted that “the literature in this field is minimal.”

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