The Plight of the parentified child

In our work with families affected by a child’s outright rejection of a parent, we look at the deep layers of maladapted behaviours in the family which cause this phenomenon to occur. In my experience, a child is induced to use psychological splitting in an environment in which they are left with no other option but to enter into this defence, the alternative being psychological disintegration. The defence of psychological splitting, is an infantile defence, meaning that the child who is induced to use it, suffers disruption to developmental processes. A child who regresses to a world in which everything is either good or bad, black or white, is a child who has lost perspective and who cannot do the work of normal development. Induced psychological splitting is the outcome of what can be a long process (chronic onset) or it can be an instantaneous outcome (acute onset). The difference in onset is, in my clinical experience, concerned with the capacity of the child to withstand the psychological pressure caused by a parent’s anxiety leakage, (covert) or direct instruction such as bad mouthing (overt). For some children, the pressure to align with a parent’s viewpoint is continuous but resisted until an event (what we call a trigger event) occurs. When the trigger event occurs (and this can be a seemingly innocuous event on the outside), the child enters into the defence of splitting which leads to complete rejection of a parent. This is the underlying pattern of behaviour which is seen when a child is experienced as being happy up to the point at which they leave a parent’s home, never to return.

Defensive splitting is the visible sign of underlying patterns of relationships in families which are themselves harmful to the child. These underlying patterns, like undercurrents in a river, are often present from birth and are the maladapted behaviours which are normalised in families. Children who suffer induced psychological splitting are often seen to have suffered early developmental trauma such as a prolonged absence from a parent in the first five years of life. Other scenarios which cause vulnerability to induced splitting are patterns of behaviours in families which corrupt the roles that parents play in their children’s lives.

Parentification is a behavioural pattern in families which was first noticed by Boszormenyi-Nagy, in which the child serves as a caregiver to a parent. This pattern of behaviour is one which is seen in many families where alienation of a child is present and it is vital that when we see it, we understand it and treat it. This is because parentification causes the chlid to eschew their own capacity to receive care from a parent in favour of hyper attentiveness to the needs of a parent. It is worth explaining just how damaging this is over the lifetime through examining parentification via a case study from work done by the Clinic with a parentified child over a period of 12 years.

Alyce is a twenty two year woman with a younger sister who is now aged eighteen. Alyce’s parents separated when she was eight years old, her sister at the time was four. Prior to the family separating, Alyce had been in the care of her maternal grandmother for eighteen months after her sister was born, when her mother suffered from post natal depression. Alyce returned to her mother and father’s care when she was five and half and from that point on, she appeared to be a highly competent child who did not make any demands upon her parents and who helped her mother to care for her sister as much as she could.

When her parents separated, Alyce became hyper vigilent and increased in her competence in caring for her mother and her sister. Alyce’s father would visit at first but very quickly after the separation, Alyce began to show signs of resisting his incoming care. Whilst at first she would interact with him when he visited at home, she soon refused to spend time with him and when it was suggested that she should go for trips out with him, she became at first angry and then extremely distressed. Her sister on the other hand, went off for day trips and then overnight trips with her father without complaint and was soon spending half of her holidays with her father. There were no obvious reasons why Alyce could not do the same, she had shown a strong bond with her father up until the family separated but she now increasingly resisted even being in the same room as him. Whilst she could tolerate her sister on a day to day basis, she avoided her on the days that she returned from her time with her father. Alyce’s mother could not understand why Alyce was reacting this way to her father and began to wonder whether he had done something to her to cause this.

On entry into working with this family, assessment showed the potential for early developmental trauma in Alyce with the separation from the care of her mother and father and her mother’s emotional absence after the birth of her sister. Whilst Alyce had enjoyed her time with her grandmother and spoke of feeling safe and happy in her care, she had very little memory of the period when she returned home to the care of her mother and father, other than an overwhelming sense that something might go wrong and that she must, at all times, take care of her sister and as much as she could, be good for her mother. Reports from her family about Alyce during this period were that she was a very good girl with a ‘wisdom beyond her years.’ She was reported to help her mother with housework and to keep her mother company during the times when she felt vulnerable, her mother said that Alyce was ‘a tower of strength’ who kept her going through difficult days.

Working with Alyce was difficult at first because of her defensive intellectual analysis of everything that was happening. Unfailingly polite in communication, it became apparent quite quickly that Alyce lived two lives, the life which was on display and the internal life which caused her to do unexpected things, like stealing small items and making things up which could not possibly be true. Observation of Alyce in her interactions with her family showed that she was very much in charge on a day to day basis and that her mother and her sister relied upon her to organise their lives in ways that kept the household running smoothly. At the age of almost nine, Alyce made breakfast for her sister and took her mother a cup of tea in the morning. She walked her sister to school and waited for her to come out of class to walk her home again. She made her sister’s packed lunch in the morning and helped her to get dressed. Alyce was always up early and always organised. Her mother said that she did not know how she would have managed without her when the family separated.

The plight of this parentified child was soon apparent. Alyce was the mother to her mother and sister, her need to care for them, instilled by separation anxiety during the period she was cared for by her grandmother at the age of four, was a defense against the fear of abandonment. As such, her parentification, demonstrated by her pseudo competence on the outside, disguising the emotionally immature self who signalled her presence by stealing (children who steal are showing that they do not have enough of something) and make up of stories (children who make things up are showing that they have a need to create an alternative reality that fits their internal felt sense of who they are). Alyce was rejecting her father because the relationship with him demanded that she leave her mother and leaving her mother to cope alone was not something that the parentified child could do. Just like when children suffer from school refusal, where the issue is not school but the relationship with the parent they have to leave behind to go to school, Alyce could not leave her mother for fear that she would not cope and/or, would not be there when she returned. Her separation anxiety, coupled with the maladapted attachment strategies, developed so that she could cope with the loss of her mother at a critical time in her life, led to the defence of parentification and the combination of this led to alienation from her father when the family separated.

Treating parentification is very difficult because the defence itself is designed to prevent adults from taking charge of the child’s internal world. The child who is parentified has experienced a sense that there is no-one else in the world to depend upon and so they must take charge of their own lives. Emerging from this experience is a super competence, in which the false persona appears to be capable of just about anything. Underlying this is a hyper analytical approach in which the child is constantly seeking to try and make sense of what other people are doing and why. This is in order that the child can predict the possibility of abandonment and the point at which they may have to rely completely upon their own selves for survival.

Alyce had pushed her father to the margins in her quest to keep herself safe by care taking her mother and her sister and she had also pushed her own self, her own needs and her own childhood to the outer reaches of her awareness in order to survive. Treating this child, meant enabling her to allow her father back into her life and helping her to allow his incoming care. It also meant assisting her mother to understand that Alyce’s super competence was a disguise for an emotionally and psychologically immature self who desperately needed nurture and protection.

Alyce eventually allowed her father back into her life and her mother and father worked hard together to provide for Alyce the high nurture she needed to drop the parentified self. Just as in school refusal, treatment of this problem did not involve allowing Alyce to continue to split off and deny her father, it created opportunities for a persistent and consistent pattern of supported engagement with him. When Alyce could experience her father consistently and return to her mother and know that her mother was still there and coping, she began to integrate the pseudo competent and emotionally immature child. The stealing and the make believe stopped and throughout her teenage years she became much more unconsciously engaged with her peers.

In her early twenties, Alyce is still competent and still at times, intellectually defended. She remains analytical in relationships, something she is working on in therapy so that she can experience relational space more unconsciously. Her need to predict the future however remains and one of the fantasies that she brings to therapy consistently, is that if necessary, she could create a home for herself in minutes, so long as she has a place to put her precious belongings (which are few and talismanic, meaning that they are bestowed with special meaning), she will feel safe. When I hear this I know, that Alyce’s trust in the world as a benign place, is still not fully repaired, I know that she suffers from that need for survival that only those whose trust is broken in childhood can experience.

The plight of the parentified child underpins many cases of alienation of children in divorce and separation and as such is another one of those dynamics which demands our attention in assessment and treatment.

Alienation of children in divorce and separation is a complex psychological issue which requires capacity to perform that finely attuned analysis which leads to the correct treatment route. Whilst it comes to light in the post divorce and separation landscape, it is the signal that something deeper is going on in the family system which requires attuned differention and naunced treatment routes.

Performing the archeological dig that Freud spoke of, in families affected by a child’s outright rejection of a parent in divorce and separation, brings help to children like Alyce whose needs have been long overlooked.

“I arrived at a procedure which I later developed into a regular method and employed deliberately. This procedure was one of clearing away the pathogenic psychical material layer by layer, and we liked to compare it with the technique of excavating a buried city.”

Sigmund Freud – Studies in Hysteria

Reference

Boszormenyi-Nagy, I., & Spark, G. (1973). Invisible loyalties: Reciprocity in intergenerational family therapy. Hagerstown, MD: Harper & Row.

5 comments

  1. You mentioned that prolonged absence from a parent in the first five years of life is one scenario that causes defensive splitting. Would you please provide some other scenarios which cause vulnerability to induced splitting patterns of behaviours in families which corrupt the roles that parents play in their children’s lives?

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  2. Julie, here’s my experience of parentification and lack of boundaries:

    My daughter was parentified by my husband from age 15 onwards. He declared her an adult (at 15) and perfectly entitled to her own opinions about me – he said that in front of both of us several times which gave her permission to speak to me however she wanted to. I didn’t see it coming – we were married and living together – and I didn’t see where it was leading.

    He had no boundaries – when I contacted Relate by email years after it all began (and still married), it was they who recognised the “unusual boundaries” at play :

    You say that:
    He has never held back from “telling the truth” ie calling me names/belittling me in front of our daughter (now 26) and allows her to do the same “she is an adult and entitled to her opinions”. Until three years ago – when he realised he’d gone too far – he was very verbally abusive. Now he just calls me names and lists all my character flaws which she repeats.

    Relate: This paragraph describes behaviour that Relate are quite clear about and it comes under the heading of “domestic abuse” Whatever the reasons, whatever the circumstances it is considered unacceptable. We would consider you to be a victim of domestic abuse, which may come as a strong statement, however when it is recognised that this is the case, steps can be taken to, at the very least , stop anything like it happening again. (it never stopped)

    When you write:
    I have made a decision and very calmly told them I will withdraw from going on holiday with them both but hope she will still ring. I am gambling but if my daughter chooses not to see me then I will have to be prepared for that. I am hoping that the faith I still have in her will prove right. (for seven years before I left him and she cut me out of her life, going on holiday with them both was a nightmare as he constantly belittled me, ignored me and went off with my daughter without warning, and picked fault until I reacted. I reacted, answered back, defended myself and he always made sure my daughter knew about it (and that it was MY behaviour spoiling all THEIR holidays)

    Relate : I am struck with the unusual boundaries of the family relationships. It is often difficult and complicated to establish parental roles and boundaries around children. To create and establish a healthy family system it is important that children (whatever age!) know that they can 1) have a relationship with each parent, 2) a relationship with both parents and 3) that the parents have a relationship with each other that excludes them. It might be that your daughter has not recognised that you and your husband have a relationship with each other (negative and/or positive) that excludes her. It might also be possible that in some way you or your husband have colluded to include her in aspects of your relationship that do not in any way concern her.

    Relate: I am wondering how she sees her role in the family. Does she see herself as Dad’s saviour? The one who saves him? Or does she fear his disapproval and therefore sides with him to get approval? (I didn’t recognise it then, but it looks as though Relate might have been on the right path with these questions! Didn’t help though.)

    Later I wrote in my journal:
    Boundaries: I am struck with the unusual boundaries of the family relationships: Relate 2007

    Until (daughter) was fifteen, other than objecting to ‘her food’ and ‘her clothes’, he didn’t involve himself with childcare and it was always me who did everything and took her everywhere. When he had his crisis after he took redundancy – she (daughter) was 15 at the time – there were no boundaries at all. He never wanted to tell her off so never involved himself. That meant, he never fell out with her. He treated her ‘like an adult’. A fully entitled adult. When she fell out with me or was cheeky to me, I asked him to support me and not to let her speak to me ‘like that’. He refused. He’d tell me, in front of her (daughter), that it had nothing to do with him, don’t involve him, it was between me and her. Then he started saying (again in front of my daughter) that she was an adult (she was 15) and she was entitled to her own opinions about me, and besides, he agreed with her. The boundaries were not only shifted, they were shot to pieces and destroyed.

    When she (daughter) was around fifteen I got home late after parent’s evening at work. Shrieks were coming from the lounge: “Yuk” “Disgusting” and more. When I went into the lounge, he and she (daughter) were wrapped round each other in mock hysteria watching TV. On screen, a woman was in the process of giving birth. The pair of them were acting like hysterical, shrieking teenagers at a horror movie. I stood there and told him ‘How do you think that makes me feel?’…. ‘Daughter’s birth was lovely” and then I walked out and made myself a drink. The next day I tried to tell (daughter) that there was nothing wrong with childbirth. It wasn’t something that was disgusting. Her birth was very special. But he had already told her that childbirth was disgusting and babies and young children were boring, just as he’d told me the very same thing after our first child’s birth (the child we lost at five) which, he said, had very nearly put him off sex for life…….. No father should have felt himself free to do what he did that night but he played to his audience and (daughter) was quickly becoming his best mate. By comparison I had no sense of humour, I was serious and I was boring……… (their words)

    I have often wondered if his actions that night, and the way he felt free to tell her (daughter) how disgusting childbirth is, had a part to play in her decision never to have children. In the early years she said she was going to adopt because she never wanted to be pregnant, but then she started saying she was never going to have children. (now, aged 39 and married, she still doesn’t want children)

    When (daughter) went shoplifting – nothing of any value but shop lifting all the same – with a friend from the local riding school (the friend who later became a drug addict) it was me who had to tell her off and threaten to take her to the shop to explain what she’d been doing. When I told her dad (in front of her) what she’d done – expecting him to give her a good telling off – he told me “You’ve dealt with it”, then he walked out of the room and did his usual trick of pretending nothing had happened. He never did speak to her about it. Neither did he speak to her when she’d been drinking underage in a pub and the police had rung to ask her to be a witness to a stabbing. He told me (again), “You’ve dealt with it” and that was it. He was very quick to row with me at the drop of a hat, but he would never tell (daughter) off or confront her about her behaviour let alone act like a normal father might.

    (until she became a teenager she was a really loving thoughtful girl)

    By the time I’d had enough and began making arrangements to leave, his job was complete. She was his best friend, his confident, his ally. He told her everything, involved her in everything. She protected him ( she believed she was protecting him from me because he was being treated so badly) and they backed one another up in everything. Whatever she said to me, he agreed with. On the one occasion (early on) she TRIED to apologise and he jumped right in before she could say the actual words, and in doing so, hammered home what an awful person I was which of course ended the ‘apology’ and reinforced her belief in him.

    By the time I left she was like a surrogate wife to him and wanted nothing to do with me. She told me to get out of her life. He shrugged and told me “Good, I won’t have to share her with you anymore”. After I left she sent me a hate filled email which was all about how badly her dad had been treated and how I had spoiled all their holidays with my awkward behaviour (even though I’d given up going away with them seven years previously!). Her email began with the words…………..

    “I find it extremely sad that you are so bitter towards dad and have shown absolutely no consideration for his feelings whatsoever. You threw away 40+ years together without a second thought and at no point have you made any effort to try and resolve things either with me or with dad.”

    The exact opposite of those words above was true. I had turned myself inside out and upside down trying, but she had swallowed everything he’d ever told her.

    What a mad world alienation is.

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    1. Willow…thank you for sharing your story. I too have had a similar experience with the parentification of my two sons. I was a loving, present and active mother. I volunteered at school and ensured they were involved in activities, had friends and lived happy lives. The minute I told my then husband that I had enough of his emotionally manipulative behavior, the underhanded campaign began to dismantle everything my boy’s held as safe and sacred in their lives. I was deemed a horrible person, their friends were horrible, my side of the family also horrible. Their father made them stop playing sports and they could no longer see friends or participate in any activity where there might be someone else of authority (like a coach or teacher). Each day they “willingly” stayed alone in their separate rooms until he came home from work at night and summoned them out. They rarely showered, would only eat food he gave them and would only wear the clothes he bought and selected for him. Even our family dog was labeled as my dog and they selected a new almost identical dog of their own. The only thing safe and certain for my boys became their father and the small world he created for them. He almost literally became the air that kept them alive.

      I tried to get help through the legal system, through child protection, through their school, even through local politicians. No one understood or could fathom a parent doing such horrible things to their child. There was no visible marks on their bodies. Surely I must have done something to deserve this kind of visceral response from my children. Some just shrugged and said it was the saddest case they had ever seen. A truly unfortunate family situations that was out of their scope or jurisdiction.

      No parent should have to watch a vibrant child wither away into a shadow of their former selves, only to proclaim to the world that their life is just as they want it to be and that they are better off without a loving parent. I never imagined that my right to parent my children would or could be taken away so brutally with absolutely no legal recourse, let alone by someone I used to love and who I thought loved me.

      My boys were both teenagers when their father went in for the kill. While not over the age of 18, the courts deemed they were old enough to make their own decisions and further that they they were too far gone to recover. I never hit, abused or abandoned my children. To the contrary, I continued to love them unconditionally even when they themselves were intolerably abusive toward me. Yet it wasn’t enough.

      I am not certain if I will have a chance to see big milestones in my boy’s lives (weddings, births, etc.) and I am forced to live with daily reminders of the ones I have already had to miss (proms, graduations, first days of college, etc.). I live every day with the reality that I may never see or speak to either of my boys again. Of course I continue to try, but so far it has been to no avail. I have not given up the fight, but I am realistic about the beast I am up against. Covert narcissism is a horrible mental illness.

      I send strength and love to any parent or extended family member going through this inexplicable pain. My heart aches for all of the children who are forced to abandon their childhood too soon and who are sadly lost in the abyss of alienation.

      Karen, I thank you for continuing to fight on behalf of children and families impacted by this devastating form of child and spousal abuse. Please continue to educate the world on this epidemic that truly does not discriminate. Please shine a light so bright that all of our children find their way back into the loving arms of their forgotten loved ones.

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  3. HI Karen,

    Is there also the opposite of parentification where the child is influenced to feel dependent on the alienator, eg that the other parent is incapable of meeting the child’s needs and only the alientor can?

    Thanks

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  4. “The child who is parentified has experienced a sense that there is no-one else in the world to depend upon and so they must take charge of their own lives.”

    This is the saddest thing for us – it looks like the young adult in our lives has broken away from the alienating parent, and now lives a way away, and has found new friends, and a new partner, and it looks like they are living a happy life. This brings both pain and pleasure, but now the deep fear deepens further, that ultra ‘self-reliance’ will mean the path back to the loving but lost parent is never sought nor trod.

    Like

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