Parentification a Global Concern with Common Themes

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Parentification a Global Concern with Common Themes  

Jim Windell


            Parents should always take care of and protect their children – both physically and emotionally. But what if they can’t? What if the roles are reversed?

            When children are forced into a role where they are caring for their parents this is called parentification. That’s when kids assume responsibility far beyond what is appropriate for their age.

           Of course, this isn’t fair. And it comes with consequences for children. But what are those consequences? And are they always negative?

            These were questions posed by researchers who reviewed 95 papers from 19 different countries. Results of their study were recently published in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

            Just the fact that the reviewed papers came from 19 countries across six continents reveals one of the findings: Parentification is a global problem. Furthermore, estimates of how common the phenomenon is range from a few percent to over 30% of youth. The estimate of 30 % of children experiencing parentification comes from a study in Poland that focused on consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic in Poland, many families experienced illness, death, or job loss, and children often had to take care of their own education.

           The researchers identified several common themes from the studies, finding that parentification can lead to a multitude of serious problems.

           According to Jacinda K. Dariotis, professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and Director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, “There is a potential for dropping out of school if children have to work or help care for their parents and siblings. Lack of education has long-term consequences for employment and income, which in turn affects health status. They may also lose their friend network if they don’t have time to socialize, and they may resent missing out on childhood.”

           Young people who are parentified are more likely to engage in unhealthy coping strategies such as risky sexual behaviors and substance use. They may have difficulties in developing long-term deep relationships because they lack trust or feel overly responsible for the wellbeing of others. The study furthermore reveals that they may continue the pattern with their own children, so the problem becomes intergenerational.

           Dariotis, who was lead author of the study, went on to say that “Parentification is more than increasing independence or additional household chores, it’s taking on activities that adults should be doing. The earlier it starts and the longer it lasts, the more negative the outcomes will be for the children if they don’t have an adequate support system.”

            It was found that there are many different reasons why parents experience stressors and trauma in different environments. In some countries it may be war and displacement; in the U.S., parents may be suffering from serious illness, mental health problems, substance use, or domestic violence. The sources of parentification vary, but the result is that sometimes families are so overtaxed that major responsibilities shift to the children. Thus, a parentified child may become a household earner, self-carer, language and cultural broker, self-educator, counselor, confidant, caregiver, or emotional supporter for parents or siblings.

            Dariotis points out that most parents truly want what is best for their children, and they are not actively trying to parentify them. “Parents should not be stigmatized; they are not doing this on purpose,” Dariotis said. “Regardless of the source of parentification, we have to accept it’s happening and figure out ways to help families and children get on a more positive trajectory. Families need instrumental support, but social support is a basic human need as well, and it could make a huge difference in these young people's lives.”

           Finally, it was noted that although studied outcomes are mostly negative, in some cases parentification can lead to positive effects. Taking on adult responsibilities can help youth develop resilience, strength, and maturity, especially if they feel their efforts are appreciated, they regard their role in the family as fair, and there is a social network in place to support them. Parentification can also lead to stronger sibling bonds and promote empathy, understanding, and acceptance of others. The researchers conclude that additional research is needed to explore how and when parentification is linked to positive outcomes.

            To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Dariotis, J.K., Chen, F.R., Park, Y.R., Nowak, M.K., French, K.M. & Codamon, K.M. (2023). Parentification vulnerability, reactivity, resilience, and thriving: A mixed methods systematic literature review, The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph20136197.




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