Burdened Children: Theory, Research, and Treatment of Parentification


Edited by: Nancy D. Chase

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    For Dixie

    This book is dedicated to the intricate, constant, and profoundly healing nature of friendship.


    On the cover of an issue of Time magazine (April, 1996) is the picture of a seven-year-old girl, Jessica, who died in the crash of her small plane while attempting to set a record as the youngest pilot to fly across the United States. The caption below the young girl's photograph raises questions about who should claim responsibility for her death and for the expectations under which she lived. Implicated in the feature article are her parents, but not because they neglected or abused Jessica in any traditional sense. On the contrary, these parents encouraged Jessica to pursue her dreams and fear nothing. Yet, questions remain about whose dream it really was to fly cross-country. Was this a seven-year-old's dream? Or projections of parental ambition run wild? Is it true, as Jessica's mother claims, that children are fearless unless taught to be afraid? Or is it possible that children silence their fears and push on bravely when no adult is near to comfort them in their childhood anxiety and doubt? The story of Jessica and her parents drew national attention, however superficially and briefly, to fundamental questions about the lengths to which parents will go to promote their kids and the extent to which children comply in meeting needs and wishes of their parents. Jessica's story, no doubt, is extreme. It illustrates, however, a phenomenon that often remains invisible unless manifested in dire and tragic consequences: a parent's needs and narcissism overriding a child's well-being. As a society, we are shocked and disdainful of the gross and overt expressions of parental narcissism and abuse of power. Meanwhile, subtler aspects of such phenomena as they occur in day-to-day interactions and in assumptions transmitted across generations are less understood, even though terms such as parental child, parentification, hero-child, overachiever, under-achiever, hurried child, and the more popularly used phrase adult-child have appeared in academic, professional scholarship and lay literature for many years.

    Parentified children, in effect, are parents to their parents, and fulfill this role at the expense of their own developmentally appropriate needs and pursuits. With uncanny sensibilities, these children are attuned to their parents’ moods, wishes, vulnerabilities, and nuances. I've heard many children and adolescents say with great yearning and insight, “I just want my mom to be happy,” “I worry about my dad—he doesn't take care of himself,” “My mom gets a kind of look and I know she's really depressed, she's checking out,” and, in the words of one reflective eight-year-old, “I don't think my mom can take it, she's not strong enough—it's embarrassing.” Children are aware of their parents’ stresses about money, about love, and about health, and these children bear a passionate hope, to the point of being overwhelmed, that they can be of use: saviors, of sorts. Yet, parents often remain blind to their child's efforts. The grief-struck and overworked father of a young adolescent in a family that had suffered multiple losses and changes in a short period of time complained that his son was too stoic, withdrawn, and at times angry. “What's wrong with this boy?,” he asked. The boy loved his mother (who had divorced the father, leaving the son in his custody several months prior). “I don't know how we're gonna live…. I don't know anything …”, he said, then began to cry. The father seemed completely baffled when I suggested that perhaps the son was “acting strong to help” while the father fell apart. “Well,” said the father, “if he [the son] really wants to reassure me he should….” At this point, I suggested that it was also the father's place to reassure his son, to which the father responded, “Hmmm…. I don't know, I'll think about that.”

    Parentification is more complex than simply the logistical “filling in” in the absence of the parent. When the child is parentified in covert or emotional ways, the long-term effects are considered to be more insidious and of greater threat to a child's well-being and development. A parentified child may present in clinical settings as infantilized, rebellious, or cooperative and highly achieving. The mother of a 10-year-old who behaved very “babyishly” or very oppositionally admitted that her daughter's misbehavior served to distract her (the mother) from her own depression. “When Molly throws a tantrum, I get out of bed and get more organized,” the mother stated. A parentified child may also appear as overindulged, overparented, and highly achieving, especially when the child is expected to carry and live out the unfulfilled accomplishments and dreams of the parent, but with little acknowledgment of the child's own inclinations, needs, or wishes. A competent child can be a great comfort to an anxious or overwhelmed parent. According to one father, “After the divorce from her mother I was so devastated I wanted to die. My little girl was the only reason I lived …she was always so bright, talkative, and happy. Now that she's 14 she's changed and doesn't want to do things with me. What's wrong with her? Are her peers corrupting her?”

    A comprehensive study of parentification in the family must explore the complexity and multifaceted nature of these phenomena as well as immediate and long-term developmental consequences. This volume is a compilation of theoretical and clinical topics, and it represents the wide variety of voice and perspective. Chapters in this book are grouped according to their emphasis into two sections: theory and research, and clinical and broader contextual perspectives. Topics include research related to parentification and gender, work addiction, families with a disabled or chronically ill child, and assessment for clinical or research purposes. Chapters having a more clinical focus address varied interventions and theoretical orientations in working with adults who have a history of childhood parentification, and with children and their parents suffering the immediate stress of such dynamics. Finally, parentification is examined in the context of broader cultural and ethnic considerations, and from a Jungian orientation. The last chapter presents an archetypal understanding of these phenomena with clinical implications.

    Each chapter stands on its own as an examination of particular aspects of the parentified child's experience. Although each chapter emphasizes different aspects, orientations, and clinical presentations, the cohesiveness of the book will be ensured if the reader reflects on the following themes or assumptions in addressing this topic, and more generally, in describing effective clinical practice:

    • Parentification is a construct describing behaviors that occur in the context of ever-widening systems of influence and meaning involving individual, interpersonal, family, institutional, cultural, and historical issues.
    • Parentification describes behaviors transmitted across generations and involving assumptions of what children and parents are obliged to give and receive from each other.
    • Parentification disrupts appropriate developmental stages involving early attachment, and later stages of individuation-separation.
    • Parentification functions in a context of cultural and societal determinants (related to assumption 1).
    • There are healthy, as well as unhealthy, dimensions to parentification that require clarification for effective clinical intervention.
    • Parentification has been investigated and documented empirically and qualitatively. This research must be disseminated to inform clinical practice and to determine directions for continued investigation of this topic.

    Each chapter included in the volume substantiates and elaborates one or more of the above assumptions. In doing so, this text offer readers the first comprehensive picture, in an accessible format of an edited volume, of what happens to parentified children and how clinicians can treat immediate and long-term problems related to parentification.


    I owe much appreciation to so many people for the completion of this book. The contributors to this volume worked with great willingness, enthusiasm, and perseverance in conceptualizing and writing their chapters. You each shared with me not only your ideas and the texts you authored, but also your belief that an edited volume on parentified children was an important and timely undertaking. I would especially like to thank Helen W. Coale at Atlanta Area Child Guidance Clinic, Gregory J. Jurkovic at Georgia State University, and Katherine Thompson at The University of Georgia for their encouragement, suggestions, and insights, especially at the early stages of this project, when our conversations truly shaped the direction and content of this book.

    Likewise, a very special thank you is owed to Bryan E. Robinson at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for his insightful inspiration and invaluable practical advice.

    I also want to thank the faculty and staff in the Department of Academic Foundations at Georgia State University, and Margaret Zusky and Jim Nageotte of Sage Publications. I am most appreciative of the technical assistance Glenda Haliburton and Jarvis Dixon offered in preparation of this manuscript.

    Finally, I will always be grateful for the good humor and loving support of great friends, especially Dixie Card, Linda Melrose, and Mia Mundale—thank you. And to Kalyani Luckhardt—your happy, gentle company is a blessing, and your wisdom keeps me remembering what is really important.

  • About the Authors

    Louis P. Anderson, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. His research interests focus on developing a culturally based approach to the study of mechanisms of stress and coping among African Americans. His publications deal with advancing an ethnocultural perspective in psychology. He serves on the editorial boards of The Journal of Black Psychology and The Journal of Gender, Culture, and Health.

    Nancy D. Chase, Ph.D., M.S.W., is Associate Professor in the Department of Academic Foundations and the Department of English at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. She is also a licensed social worker in clinical practice at Atlanta Area Child Guidance Clinic, where she works primarily with adolescents and adults. She has published numerous articles on variables affecting students’ adjustment to college, including family alcoholism, literacy tasks and experiences, and reader responses to text. Her work has been published in Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, The American Journal of Family Therapy, Journal of Reading Behavior, and The Journal of Developmental Education.

    Helen W. Coale, M.S.W., is a clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist, and is the Director of Atlanta Area Child Guidance Clinic in Atlanta, Georgia. She has been in clinical practice in the Atlanta area since 1969. As a clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist, she speaks and publishes extensively on child and family mental health, divorce, stepfamilies, child abuse, humor in psychotherapy, and cultural, contextual, and ethical aspects of psychotherapy. She has recently published The Vulnerable Therapist: Practicing Psychotherapy in an Age of Anxiety.

    Deborah Jacobvitz, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin in the Department of Human Ecology, Child Development, and Family Relations, and is the current president of the Southwest Society for Research in Human Development. She is well known for her extensive work on boundary disturbances across multiple generations and the development of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in young children. She has published papers on family systems, the intergenerational transmission of attachment, identity development in young adults, and relationship violence. Her research has appeared in Child Development, Developmental Psychology, Development and Psychopathology, Human Development, and The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and her work has been featured in The Atlantic Monthly and in Parenting.

    Elizabeth Johnson is a doctoral student in Child Development and Family Relationships at the University of Texas at Austin. She specializes in the study of parenting and marriage. Her dissertation is a study of first-time parents’ decision-making about employment and child care. Her research on the development of parental preferences about the division of child care has been published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

    Rebecca Jones, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Director of Practicum Training at the Georgia School of Professional Psychology in Atlanta, Georgia. She leads seminars in psychotherapy and family therapy, teaches introductory family therapy, and writes and conducts workshops in the areas of childhood parentification, adult children of divorce, integrative psychotherapy, and women's issues. She maintains a private psychotherapy practice for adults and couples in Atlanta.

    Gregory J. Jurkovic, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. He also has a part-time private practice, is an approved supervisor in the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, and is known internationally for his research on parentified children. He is author of Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child, and has published extensively in the areas of clinical child and family psychology.

    Bruce Lackie, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in private practice in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a faculty member in the doctoral clinical social work program of Walden University, a distance learning institution (WaldenU@edu). He is known for his extensive study of parentification in the family histories of 1,500 professional social workers.

    Suzanne Lamorey, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and Early Childhood Education at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Her expertise and research focus is on special education and children with developmental disabilities.

    Richard Morrell, J.D., is Vice President of the Meridian Educational Resource Group, Inc., a nonprofit community-based outreach program for children and families in Atlanta, Georgia. He is also pursuing a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Georgia State University and is currently researching children's responses to interparental conflict.

    Paula M. Reeves, Ph.D., is a Jungian psychotherapist in private practice in Atlanta, Georgia. She investigates and writes about the mind-body connection in the psychotherapeutic process, and is the author of the forthcoming Women's Intuition: Unlocking the Wisdom of the Body.

    Shelley Riggs, M.A., is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She has conducted research in the areas of gifted and talented education, family systems, and sibling relationships. She is currently exploring the clinical implications of adult attachment, and loss and trauma.

    Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D., is Professor of Counseling, Special Education, and Child Development in the College of Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He also maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has authored numerous books and research publications on family functioning. He is distinguished for his ground-breaking research on work addiction and its impact on the family. His latest book is Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them.

    Alison Thirkield, M.A., a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at Georgia State University, is currently completing her predoctoral internship at the Center for Preventive Psychiatry, White Plains, New York. Her research has focused on designing and evaluating measures of child and adult parentification.

    Maroiyn Wells, Ph.D., is Director of Training and an Associate Professor at Georgia State University's Counseling Center. She holds a joint appointment with the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University. In addition, she maintains a part-time private psychotherapy practice in Atlanta, Georgia, and has published more than 20 articles and two books, including Object Relations Therapy: An Interactive and Individualized Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment.

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