What Happens When Kids Who Had To Grow Up Too Fast Become Parents

Photo: EkaterinaPichukova, AndreyPopov | Canva
Parentified mother- trying to be the perfect mother

Being forced to grow up too fast can happen when a parent, or parents, frequently rely on a child to take care of younger siblings, manage household affairs, be an emotional support person, or act as a mediator between the parents.

The child learns the art of nurturing and responsibility at an age when they should be exploring playgrounds - not parenting their parents or siblings.

Parentification can stem from various sources — an emotionally absent or overwhelmed parent, the sudden emergence of a family crisis, or the result of cultural or socioeconomic pressures. It doesn’t necessarily mean your parents were bad parents; but it does mean you shouldn’t have had to shoulder so much responsibility as a child.

"What’s wrong with giving kids some responsibility?" you might say, and the answer is "nothing".

Yet, when childhood responsibilities surpass what’s healthy or expected of children, it can infringe on development and have lasting effects into adulthood.

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What happens when a parentified child becomes a parent?

When yesterday's parentified children step into the role of being parents to their own children, the imprints of their past often show up in the way they parent. This can become both a super power and a pitfall.

1. Parentified children grow up with superpowers

Well-practiced empathy allows parentified children to tune in closely to the emotions and needs of others — including those of their children. They excel at nurturing because they’ve been doing it their whole lives.

These parents have also learned the art of sacrifice, responsibility, and resourcefulness. Many embrace parenthood with open arms because it’s a role they’re used to. They're the parents who instinctively place their children's needs at the forefront and who rarely falter when it comes to offering love, comfort, and care.

Parentified children might also have a strong drive to break the cycle and give their own children the childhoods they were never afforded.

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2. Grown parentified kids can get trapped in certain bad patterns

The very qualities that make parentified children great caregivers can also pose challenges when they become parents. They might struggle with setting appropriate boundaries with their own children out of a fear they'll repeat the cycle. of parentification. This fear of not doing enough can lead to an emotionally draining pursuit of perfectionism.

I’ve experienced this firsthand with my own son. As a former parentified child, I have made it my mission to break the cycle and show up for my child in all the ways I wasn’t shown up for. Although my intentions are noble, the pursuit of parenting perfection has been unattainable and exhausting.

Self-doubt creeps in easily for parentified children, especially when they feel the weight of their past responsibilities bearing down on them. The memories of being the dependable one can lead to unrealistic expectations—both from themselves and their families. The desire to be a super parent can become detrimental to well-being.

Parentified parents can find it difficult to ask for help or take a step back when necessary. They may struggle to delegate responsibilities and feel they must handle everything themselves. This cycle can lead to burnout, anxiety, and a sense of being overwhelmed.

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Four ways to navigate parenthood as someone who had to grow up too fast

Embracing parenthood as a former parentified child is often a path marked by resilience, self-discovery, and the quest to break generational patterns.

If this sounds familiar, and you have a history of being a parentified child, these tips can help.

1. Seek trusted support

It's okay to ask for help and support. Don't hesitate to reach out to friends, family, or support groups when needed. Building a network of trusted individuals can be invaluable; not only to your well-being, but also to your children. It takes a village, after all.

2. Set healthy boundaries

Recognize how setting boundaries with your own children is not only acceptable, but essential. Encourage their independence and self-reliance, while also nurturing their emotional well-being.

3. Prioritize self-care

Don't forget that taking care of yourself is not selfish; it's a prerequisite for being the best parent you can be. Prioritize self-care activities to replenish your energy and nurture your mental and emotional health.

4. Consider therapy for healing

Consider therapy or counseling to address any unresolved issues from your own upbringing. Healing from past wounds and gaining insights can be a transformative experience. It can help you break generational cycles and foster healthier relationships within your family.

Put simply - breaking the cycle of parentification requires you to unburden yourself. You've carried the weight of the world on your shoulders for a long time, and now, as a parent, you're not only shaping your children's lives but demonstrating the art of balance and self-care.

Children should never be burdened with becoming the emotional barometer, the go-to problem solver, or the primary caregiver for their own parents or siblings. While these responsibilities may mold them into dependable, empathetic, and caring individuals it is often at the expense of their own childhoods and their own emotional safety.

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Blair Nastasi is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT), CEO of an international PR agency, and proud San Diego resident. She is a freelance writer, and self-proclaimed force to be reckoned with.