The Parentified Child
November 27, 2017 10:56 PM   Subscribe

 
I saw this during my years working in child protection. It’s awful. Foster families would have to work so hard to get parentifed children to be children, to be child-like. It’s very hard.
posted by kerf at 11:29 PM on November 27 [9 favorites]


Oh God, all of that hit a little too close to home.

It wasn't ever as bad as the interviewees, but it still hits me on a regular basis that I'm not taking care of people, that something is going to go wrong if I'm not on top of everything, that when something does go wrong, it's my fault, because I was supposed to keep track of things.

My family likes to make jokes that I'm the daughter they never had to worry about, I'm the one who never gave them any trouble. And I bite my tongue and don't say a word about how I never got a chance.
posted by Katemonkey at 1:14 AM on November 28 [109 favorites]


My grades suffered. I did this and don't resent it. There was no other option. Mom had to work or we were not going to make it. I can get the strangest child to talk. They have much to say.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:45 AM on November 28 [9 favorites]


How does someone learn that becoming self-reliant is safer than trusting others? Nakazawa believes that in destructive parentification, “you don’t have a reliable adult to turn to.” And if a child’s early experiences at home consisted of making sure everyone else’s needs were met, then the “child doesn’t feel seen.”

This sense of responsibility and compulsive caretaking can follow them into future relationships as well. “You tend to project it onto other people in your life,” Rosenfeld says.


This explains a lot. Jesus.
posted by sio42 at 3:16 AM on November 28 [29 favorites]


I did this and I *do* resent it. Children should be allowed to be kids and not have to act as stand-ins for parents or husbands or whatever. A seven year old should not be responsible for getting her mother out bed, getting her dressed, feeding her breakfast, and giving her pep talks to get her out to the door and on the way to work. However, unlike the kids in the article, in adulthood I shot the other way and now refuse to take care of anyone.
posted by Stonkle at 3:44 AM on November 28 [45 favorites]


This is why families with huge numbers of siblings like the Duggars piss me off. No one person is capable of handling the needs of so many young children, so it's the older children who are handed most of the thankless acts of parenting. No time for a social life or free time or sports -- you've got to diaper and bathe and feed and cuddle all the younger ones while Mom and Dad get busy making baby number 13. It's incredibly cruel and fucked up.
posted by jfwlucy at 4:22 AM on November 28 [128 favorites]


Oh god, this hits really close to home for me too. Right down to the al-anon (why are you here when there are no alcoholics in your life?), migraines and other maladies (hello inexplicable gluten intolerance!). The thing is, you don't need siblings or obvious signs of parental neglect (alcoholism, etc.) for this to manifest. My brother left when I was really young (he was much older anyway) and my parents don't have any diagnosed or otherwise apparent addictions or illnesses. But oh how hard this hits, all of it. So I parented myself all the way to England, through my doctorate, a couple houses and businesses and hopelessly co-dependent relationships and on and on and on…
posted by iamkimiam at 4:37 AM on November 28 [14 favorites]


I went through this with my older kids, and it was hilariously weird, nothing like the dry list in the foster-adoption books. Like watching years melt away and a toddler re-appear in flashes to rage and play and then quickly grow up and settle back into a kid.

I grew up relatively wealthy, but this still happened to me. We got given food and enrolled in schools and bought clothes, but there was no attention past that. When you got sick, you went to the doctor by yourself once you were old enough to manage, you figured out your own homework and school problems, you sorted everything out yourself, and most importantly, you didn't bother the parents. You kept out of their way, and you solved your own damn problems. If you needed money, you waited till a parent was in a good mood and asked, and then you sorted things out. I can't remember ever having an expectation that my parents would turn up to a school event or a hospitalisation or a significant life event afterwards. And mostly, they didn't.

I was very very lucky to have two years aged 10-12 living part-time with my best friend's family who were warm and kind and basically took in a feral child and taught me family skills. Mrs L, I think of you every Mother's Day since.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:40 AM on November 28 [70 favorites]


Every year the BBC's primary charity telethons, Children in Need and Red Nose Day, run segments normalising the use of children as carers (your money can fund Johnny going to a youth club for half an hour a week!) and it infuriates me.

An eight year old I know is on the social services care plan for her parent, meaning that the school, social services, health services etc are all aware. Basically any adult that should be looking out for her interests is turning a blind eye to her providing personal care,and it's a total disgrace.
posted by threetwentytwo at 5:08 AM on November 28 [14 favorites]


Part of my "social capital WPA" pony dream is a system of high-quality, professional day care and after-school care for children of all ages. It wouldn't solve the parentified child problem, but it would give those poor kids some sort of respite and knowledge that other adults cared for them. And I'd have psychiatric care, therapy, and rehab for adults, too. Oh, and free birth control, big glass jars of condoms beside the tip jar in every cafe and on the counter in every corner store and quickie mart, and affordable, accessible abortions. As I said, pony dreams...

There's something else that I see contributing to the parentified-child phenomenon, and I wish it would go away because it damages so many kids: the idea that someone whose life is a mess should Have A Child! It will give you something to live for and make you responsible! Have A Child! It will change your life! These poor kids come into the world with a big fucking job already waiting for them. They have to give their parent(s) the loving nurturing that the parents never had, plus be nurse, therapist, and rehab. That's a job for a whole team of professionals, not one tiny helpless child.

I'm Team Childfree and always have been, and wish fewer people would have children - not because OMG overpopulation! or OMG Idiocracy!, but because so many children are born with jobs, and are not properly loved and cared for and allowed to be children. At least I wish people would realize that their children were not born to fix them. Whatever you think of Dr. Phil, he's absolutely right when he says that no child should be born with a job.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:27 AM on November 28 [76 favorites]


I would bet this type of emotional abuse is far, far more common than people realize. I would read about the term trans-generational in regards to certain populations and I never fully understood it until I looked hard at my own family. My grandmother, who passed away last year at 93, was the oldest sibling who was ostensibly in charge of her three younger siblings while her parents worked. How my mother and her siblings were raised was no doubt a repetition of this cycle - as the middle child, my mother was put upon to look after my aunt. Add into that family traumas that were never fully resolved and a whole lot makes sense about my family. Granny was always put upon to look after people and I understand now why she swayed between caring and angry. She had to raise my cousins when she should have been retired. You get so tired of caring and being self-reliant and now I understand what was coldness was probably just self-preservation.

I would bet that others just don't know it has a name too. Your family can have addiction problems or it may not. You may know your family wasn't normal or just think it was normal. There are lots of good resources online if you have doubts after reading this article.
posted by Calzephyr at 6:12 AM on November 28 [23 favorites]


I know that my family is wierd in the amount of time my father spent making sure we didn't take care of each other, from messages of hopelessness, to diciplining us siblings seperately, to purposefully undermining attachnent with my mom.

Of course, I'm a disorangized attachment mess, ( or i was). The fact I attach and care at all is a goddamn maricle.

I did have to act like my own parent, and it came out in strict discipline , self sufficent never ever ask for help ever kind of way. An over achiever who didn't listen to my limits, ignored my body and just kept going until i broke. I made sure to punish myself, to over regulate and navigate things alone.

I thankfully got tons of therapy. Not that it's solved every issue, but i am so so much better than i would be otherwise.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:14 AM on November 28 [11 favorites]


"...their path to well-being must take into account the way in which trauma changed their story,” she explains, “And once they’re able to do that, they can also see how resiliency is also important in their story.”

This has been really important to me. Also, about a decade ago, I apologized to my brother for leaving him there, in their house. He was only 10 when I left and he is pretty fucked up as a result of living with them for so long, but it was really healing for both of us at the time to acknowledge how sorry I was. Unfortunately, we are now estranged because of some of his issues, but I'm still glad I was able to talk to him about leaving him.
posted by Sophie1 at 6:42 AM on November 28 [5 favorites]




What I got was my surviving parent treating me like the adult interlocutor she needed, talking to me endlessly about problems with her dissertation advisor and dating. It took me a long time to understand how harmful this was for me; I didn't need to know or be concerned about any of that stuff. I basically had a graduate student roommate, not a mother, after age 7. This wasn't as extreme as the actual parenting by children described in the article, but that doesn't mean it was OK.
posted by thelonius at 7:05 AM on November 28 [33 favorites]


it me

I remember hiding my brother from my father's rages.

I don't think it really clicked to what extent I was buffering that system until my brother said, in family therapy, "well all the men in our family have been in crisis for the last twelve years." It didn't click until afterwards but I was 30 at the time - meaning he didn't observe it as crisis until I left home.

I still can feel that weird mix of horror at realizing that it was as bad as I remembered, shame at abandoning him, and a fucked up sense of pride that I had shielded him, that I ate the poison on his behalf for so long.

I also remember the aggrieved pride in my father's voice a couple of weeks after when he said that of course he expected me to take care of my brother and grandmother while he was depressed in bed and my mother was working.
posted by PMdixon at 7:09 AM on November 28 [13 favorites]


I thought every six year old could wake up, make food, eat, get dressed, and get to school without assistance. It's still weird to me that I know kids that can't. I thought the whole parents waking the kid up, making breakfast, and helping with homework was something people did on TV.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 7:26 AM on November 28 [57 favorites]


Obligatory chime in to say that was me too, no alcoholics in my family - just a deeply unstable mother who treated me like her therapist/caretaker and an absent father.

One of the weird effects of this type of childhood is that I don't know how to play. I have children of my own now, elementary aged ones, and **I don't know how to play with them.** I've transcended every other adverse effect of my childhood (at least the ones I'm aware of) but this one is so stubborn. I never played when I was a child.

My ex, the kids' dad, comes up with fun little games on the fly, like, oh, the kids piled into our bed on Sunday morning at an ungodly hour? Well, let's make up a game called "cottonball" (who knows why it's called that) where the person at the bottom of the pile has to get out from under everyone else. I can't do it. I can play boardgames, I love reading to the kids, I can teach them things and cook with them etc. But If my kid brings me a pile of dolls and trucks, I can't start up a pretend-play with them. I totally lack that brain-part.
posted by MiraK at 7:26 AM on November 28 [49 favorites]


It's so painful to read this thread.

I want to hug every one of you.
posted by runcifex at 7:38 AM on November 28 [37 favorites]


Me too.
posted by asavage at 7:41 AM on November 28 [35 favorites]


Thanks for posting this, stoneweaver. It confirms many things I've suspected and read over the years. And it's validating and edifiying to see Parentification be given a name and called out as emotional abuse.

I would bet this type of emotional abuse is far, far more common than people realize. I would read about the term trans-generational in regards to certain populations and I never fully understood it until I looked hard at my own family.

I learned so much about my own behavior and that of my parents and grandparents once I started to view their home life this way. Things my grandfather did, my mother picked up on as a learned behavior and then passed on to me. Secrecy within the home -- down to keeping the shades and windows closed so neighbors wouldn't know what was happening inside. Enabling abusive behavior. Rationalizing or excusing the inexcusable. Requiring children to be more mature than their parents in myriad ways. It becomes a cycle carried from parent to child, that can only be broken if someone becomes aware and works very hard to change things.

I've written about ACOA and their "traits list" in several mefi threads over the years. My parents were not alcoholics or substance abuse addicts, but they were physically and emotionally abusive. And they themselves grew up in homes where they were emotionally and physically abused.

An alcoholic (or addicted, or abusive) parent often creates an environment, with or without the help of their spouse, in which a veil of secrecy, privacy and shame are drawn over the entire household. Often, the other spouse or eldest child in the house will try to keep the other family members from discussing things that go on inside the home with outsiders. Out of shame, embarrassment, intimidation, etc. The family becomes isolated. This is extremely common, and becomes a pattern of behavior that can be passed down through generations of family members, even when neither parent is an alcoholic in the current family structure.

What this means is that one alcoholic or addictive or abusive parent can quite literally create a cycle of trust issues with the outside world that a family, and subsequent generations of that family, believe are perfectly natural, but are not. It also means that people within the household become what might possibly be referred to as unconscious enablers. They don't trust outsiders, are afraid of the consequences that might befall them and the other members of their family if they speak out. So they perpetuate the cycle.

This often also applies to those of us who lived with an abusive adult as a child, because similar dynamics are created.

The good news is, it's possible to break those dynamics. The bad news is, we are often ill-suited to recognize them in ourselves.

The ACOA Laundry List of traits is for Adult Children of Alcoholics, but people who have dealt with abuse often find it reflects them as well. If like me, you see yourself reflected in a majority of these, further investigation may be helpful or even healing.

Traits List for Adult Children of Alcoholics

Situations - those states over which we have no control:
We were raised in alcoholic, emotionally abusive households. Consequently, each of us has many issues to resolve. One issue is that we acted as parents to our parents, and took responsibility for our siblings. As a result, we need to explore our sense of never having had a childhood.

Attitudes - reactions to self-perceptions:
1) We judge ourselves harshly
2) We take ourselves seriously and have difficulty having fun
3) We are approval-seekers and fear personal criticism
4) We feel isolated, different from other people
5) We focus on others rather than look honestly at ourselves
6) We are attracted to people who are rarely there emotionally for us
7) We guess at what normal is
8) We live from the viewpoint of victims

Character Traits - defenses developed as a result of having been raised in an alcoholic household:
1) We are overly responsible
2) We are frightened by angry people and authority figures
3) We need intimacy, yet have difficulty with intimate relationships
4) We fear abandonment
5) We have an exaggerated need to control
6) We have strong guilt feelings
7) We are overly reactive
8) We are loyal to others even though that loyalty may be undeserved
9) We stuff our feelings, unable to either feel or express them
10) Our impulsivity leads to anger, self-hate and loss of control
11) We tend to look for immediate rather than deferred gratification
12) We are angry people
13) We find it easier to give in to others than to stand up for ourselves
14) We are addicted to excitement
15) We often confuse love and pity
16) We have a tendancy toward procrastination
17) We have difficulty trusting both ourselves and others
18) We have problems with self-esteem
19) We are anxious people, often dwelling on our past and future fears
20) We have the potential for, and tendency towards, becoming alcoholics and/or marrying them

There are other Laundry Lists here, along with "Flip Side" lists that may be helpful.

I first read this list in 2004 and matched up to most of the 28 traits listed. Especially #7 under Attitudes: We guess at what normal is. Because I had been struggling to understand what "normal" was my entire life and had never quite been able to figure it out. Not socially and especially not in relationships. When you are a child and become the adult caregiver in your own home, that will happen.

This is what I mean by we're ill-suited to recognize certain dynamics. When you have difficulty determining what is and isn't normal, it can be harder to make changes.

Recognizing myself in the list was a starting point that has given me a way to work toward changing things in my life. Being aware that we have endured abuse and that it has affected us is step one. Learning that some behavioral reactions are unhealthy and that we can change them can then become a path to healing.
posted by zarq at 7:42 AM on November 28 [69 favorites]


Foster families would have to work so hard to get parentifed children to be children, to be child-like. It’s very hard.

100% this. We have two sisters placed with us now. The younger one came and settled in relatively normally (well, as normal as foster care can be). But it took 7 or 8 months for the older one to really let her guard down and be a kid and show us who she was. She's hilarious and fun and creative and nice when she does, but as we caught those glimpses they were almost shocking. Because we had to carefully work (and/or wait) through all the layers of defensiveness, and anger, and trauma, and anxiety. We'd discover new and unexpected triggers along the way, and have to invent and reinvent ways of helping her cope and feel comfortable.

She is only two years older than her sister, and definitely no better equipped to take on the weight of what she had to, but she did. She stood at the front and absorbed all that stuff. And even though she's so much better already she'll carry it with her for the rest of her life. It's heartbreaking.

That piece of it - knowing that these kids have experienced awful things that have in some ways irreversibly changed them no matter what you can do and how you can care for them - is for me the hardest part of foster care. We can deal with the everyday part of parenting, and we can deal with the anger and resentment and outbursts and disruption, but sometimes it's hard to deal with the reality that due to all this stuff beyond their control the best case scenario for most of these kids comes up a little short. You have to tell yourself over and over again that you are wrong. And you have to believe it even if you know you don't.
posted by AgentRocket at 8:00 AM on November 28 [24 favorites]



Foster families would have to work so hard to get parentifed children to be children, to be child-like.


much of this this is inapplicable to me in various ways but I do have a few typical lingering reflexes, such as the apoplectic rage upon hearing how observing adults get to decide that you are not acting out "childhood" appropriately. they are judge, jury, and executioner, and you actually are a child with a child's emotions and intellect whether they recognize and put their seal of approval on it or not, so you can't express to them how emotionally damaging it is to be told that you are not "being" a child, when there is literally nothing else that you either are or are capable of being. your very existence and all your social reflexes are a failure, and the harder you try (because it is important to do things correctly and live up to adult expectations of you! everything depends on you!) the sadder it is and the more knowing glances will pass between them.

one of the effects of being a child who learns to interact with adult emotion expressions at a very early age is that you can tell when outsider adults think there is something wrong with you. since children are not supposed to be perceptive in this way, they don't often trouble to hide it in the way they would for other adults, as a basic courtesy. seeing how much of an effort someone else is making, to fix you, that they "work so hard" on you. they often do not or will not believe that just as the adult social role is an artificially acquired and practiced role for a child, their idea of proper child functioning is just as artificial; it is a foreign cultural artifact to a child who was not trained into it at the appropriate age and assuming it for the viewing pleasure of these adults is not 'being themselves,' it is acting.

but they mean well!
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:20 AM on November 28 [51 favorites]


I was excited about this but I hated reading several of the case studies because many of the parentified children were noble, good caretakers. I was a shitty 9-year-old parent. I did not rise to the occasion. I was the opposite of noble. I remain so. If I were a painter and lost the use of my arms, I would not take up a paintbrush with my teeth and make beautiful inspiring improvements to the world. I'd lie flat on my back watching Netflix and sucking down rum-laced milkshakes until I died.

queenofbithynia, do you mean the thing where they try to get you excited about horrible ersatz food? And they think you're supposed to like stupid pandering books and movies?
posted by Don Pepino at 8:33 AM on November 28 [29 favorites]


Nthing that it doesn't have to be a substance abuse problem, it can be just garden variety anxiety and depression. In fact, when I describe my mother's behavior to people, they are surprised that she is not an alcoholic. I can relate to what dorothyisunderwood said; poverty was not the driving issue, it was just plain old neglect and the emotional abuse that came with it.

I was reading my own school take-home notices from the time I was four. When I was eleven, I had to bike five miles in heavy, hilly traffic (from West Cambridge to Brookline, over the Mass Pike and into Coolidge Corner) to my orthodontist appointments after school, because the orthodontist was connected to the practice where my mother grew up and that was much safer to her than trying to find one near our house. And hey, if my athletic older sister could do it, I could too. I took it upon myself to figure out how to take the subway instead (one bus and two trains), and when I informed everyone of this plan, was met with a shrug. Listening to my co-workers gripe about how they have to pick up their 16-year-olds after school to drive them to dance class and then deposit their babysitting paychecks is infuriating to me.

But, the message given to me was, hey, there's no drugs or alcohol, so what's the problem? Buck up.
posted by sockerpup at 8:48 AM on November 28 [26 favorites]


I don't have any experience of needing to act as an adult during my childhood, but I saw it happen enough in other families that I always felt a deep sympathy for the character Saffron "Saffy" Monsoon on the British tv comedic series Absolutely Fabulous. The first episode ends with Saffy having to help her mother Edina into the house because Edina is too drunk to be upright, much less work the door.
posted by King Sky Prawn at 8:56 AM on November 28 [17 favorites]



queenofbithynia, do you mean the thing where they try to get you excited about horrible ersatz food? And they think you're supposed to like stupid pandering books and movies?


yeah, and running around and screaming because that must be your natural impulse if you would just let go of your inhibitions...and "dancing," kids just naturally flobble around to the beat of terrible kiddie music if you let them, it's a natural impulse, like knowing the rules of team sports, nobody could be unsure what you were asking of them unless they had been tragically repressed (and in fact I had been, but I did then and still do now find my inhibitions a lot more pleasant than the wholly artificial ideal of naturalness that I was compared to.)

adults just don't think about what they're saying and whether it makes any sense, is my experience. letting go and being myself didn't look fun or familiar to them so they could not believe it was what I was doing. the American idea of natural childhood is, like the ideal of natural womanhood, a highly studied and artificial production. but for people who are inducted into it early enough, this is hard to see or believe. if you miss learning it because your parents didn't know to do it or didn't believe in it, it's very clear.

basically being urged to be free and un-self-conscious while all the while being watched and scrutinized and discussed is not a good way to get a kid to relax. if one of your problems is over-awareness of adult needs, you can't not notice. though you can pretend not to, if you must in order to make them stop it.

in my case it is difficult to sort out what was parentification versus anxiety versus my general difficult and contrary nature versus my natural inborn preferences. but whatever the cause of your child-failures, even if it is trauma, being exhorted to act more like a child is being forced to work when you're off the clock, or ought to be.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:02 AM on November 28 [54 favorites]


MiraK - I totally relate to this - One of the weird effects of this type of childhood is that I don't know how to play.

My niece and I spend a lot of time together and have since she was born, but the "playing" part is so weird and uncomfortable for me. I always have activities to do, but I'm so bad at playing. It's not all bad, though. With Auntie Sophie, she has learned how to collect chicken eggs, pick up chickens, how to cook, how to drill holes in wood, how to create sculpture with monster mud, how to paint beehives and tons of other fun and not "caretaking" artistic stuff. So we have fun, just in kind of different Aunt Sophie ways...
posted by Sophie1 at 9:11 AM on November 28 [20 favorites]


I don't have any experience of needing to act as an adult during my childhood, but I saw it happen enough in other families that I always felt a deep sympathy for the character Saffron "Saffy" Monsoon on the British tv comedic series Absolutely Fabulous. The first episode ends with Saffy having to help her mother Edina into the house because Edina is too drunk to be upright, much less work the door.

Wow. That show always made me uncomfortable but I never realized why until just now.
posted by Automocar at 9:34 AM on November 28 [10 favorites]


My parents made some poor choices as young parents and were in a job far from their home and communities. They were really struggling but trying to make it and my mom says that when she saw my oldest sister (3 yrs old) comforting and caring for my other sister (infant) without seeming to expect my mom to do it, she realized she was in way too deep. They pulled the plug on their project and returned to easier territory.

My oldest sister is still very much an emotional caretaker, always looking out for others and trying to make them feel good. I wonder if the things in this article would ring true for her. I know she babysat me while still a child because my middle sister was so troublesome. So my mom was there, but fully occupied.

And we're a pretty healthy family. <3 to all of you who made it through with so much less.
posted by Emmy Rae at 9:50 AM on November 28 [7 favorites]


While there is a large body of literature that focuses on the neglect children experience from their parents, there’s less examination of how this neglect puts kids in roles of parenting each other. And there is virtually no empirical research on how this affects relationship dynamics later in life—both with siblings and others.

So there isn't any real evidence for the conclusions drawn in the article about the effect that being a caregiver specifically has on a child. I don't know why the author feels confident that, given all the horrible things the people profiled endured, there is a direct line from their experience as caregivers and later psychological problems.

I recognize thank link is the conclusion of some of the individuals who share their stories in the article, and I don't have any difficulty accepting their account of what happened to them, or similar accounts shared by people posting here. But I don't think that it's useful to conclude that this is applies broadly to children who have the experience of providing care for a loved one, especially when it happens for reasons other than the severe pathology of a parent, as seems to be the case of the cases included.

This also seems to broaden the definition of parentification in ways that don't seem particularly helpful. I am familiar with it describing child specifically taking care of a parent but not to a child caring for a sibling. No doubt both carry the potential for enormous stress, but it seems there are important differences being glossed over in the Atlantic piece.
posted by layceepee at 10:14 AM on November 28 [5 favorites]


Along with AbFab, I just cannot handle Shameless. I have to leave the room.
posted by PMdixon at 10:15 AM on November 28 [7 favorites]


Throughout history, older kids have helped care for younger kids. That's not "parenting;" it's being part of a family. It doesn't step into "parenting" until the tasks are beyond what they can reasonably manage, the parents aren't there for support, or the kids are expected to provide those services for their parents.

The problem isn't "child provides support for younger children;" it's "parents are not providing support to any of the children." (Cue: rant about evils of nuclear family structure and lack of community providing additional adult support.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:41 AM on November 28 [15 favorites]


This article is sad. What is wrong that so many have to live though this? Why do adults dump so much on children? And it's not like no one knows this is wrong, but there seems to be such resistance to change. The commenters below the article seem to be willfully misreading what the article is about and I wanted to smack so many of them.

I had to parent my aunt. It was horrible. I was placed with her due to the massive abuse that the social workers of the state I was living in discovered I had suffered in her sister's house from 0-3. This aunt had even outright refused to listen when I tried to tell her what had gone on there, and then proceeded to abuse me in a like fashion. She made sure that I was isolated, and had expected me to stay and take care of her for life. We no longer speak. I've been in therapy for some years to undo all the damage.

I may not have had to care for younger siblings, but having to do this sort of parentification for an adult is much worse, I think. Much. I was a child and needed nurturing, which I didn't get. I was put to work early, and for all of my childhood and adolescence, taking care of all my aunt's needs. While I do feel terrible about how my aunt didn't get the emotional and mental help she truly needed, I can't and won't excuse her abuse, or her using me as maid, cook, valet, secretary, therapist, and, and, and.

The movie Precious triggered the hell out of me, in that I was roiling with anger for weeks afterward. Mo'nique on screen was the cinematic equivalent of my aunt, and it made me realize that my aunt didn't see me as a child who needed care, or even as a human being with my own thoughts and feelings, but as an object to control and use.

I'm in therapy to get my unconscious to learn that the world and its people are not my aunt, and that most people are not going to treat me like she did. I'm glad it's finally sinking in, because I've run for years from relationships and from deepening friendships and from seeking out awesome jobs simply because I didn't want what I thought the overwhelming responsibility would be, and I didn't want to set myself up to be "inevitably" let down by grasping emotional vampires.
posted by droplet at 10:45 AM on November 28 [26 favorites]


This also seems to broaden the definition of parentification in ways that don't seem particularly helpful. I am familiar with it describing child specifically taking care of a parent but not to a child caring for a sibling.

how about splitting the difference, when you're expected to take on a co-parent role for a sibling who is older than you, not younger? very common for girls, though not as common as it used to be. and there are plenty of reasons older siblings might require such care other than being boys (and sometimes it is actual care, not unwilling and unfair servitude.) I find it fairly alienating to read about sibling so-called parentification when the assumption is that this only happens when you're the oldest, because you're the oldest.

but whether older or younger, the reason I think it applies, or at the very least is strongly related, is because if you're doing a good enough job of looking after a sibling, your real parent will naturally slide into relating to you as a peer on that topic, or an effective co-parent. especially if they are a single parent and there is a vacancy for you to fill. that is if they respect you enough to value what you're doing and don't just treat it as one of your many chores. both can be harmful, but the former is seductive because many children love promotions and respect and being consulted, even when it is not good for them.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:46 AM on November 28 [6 favorites]


Yeah - parentification is possibly a misleading word. The core dynamic is an adult who should be in a caregiver role to a child instead treating that child as a peer, in some sense, with the reduced level of responsibility thereby incurred on the adult's part forcing the child to take on responsibilities they aren't set up for. As queenofbithynia says above, at the time this can even make the child feel special because they're more 'mature.'
posted by PMdixon at 11:03 AM on November 28 [8 favorites]


I thought every six year old could wake up, make food, eat, get dressed, and get to school without assistance

Well, yeah, they should if they are able, and if not able, teach them. I mean, cripes, that's K or 1st grade. We've taught our kids those things at K/1st (though we do walk 'em to the bus stop). But they get up on their own, get dressed when asked/told to, and more or less get their own breakfast and make their own lunches, pour their brinks etc. (and have learned to get a paper towel to clean up their messes). They might screw it up (getting better) and be slow as molasses, but they are doing it on their own. That is one way to avoid getting to:

Listening to my co-workers gripe about how they have to pick up their 16-year-olds after school to drive them to dance class and then deposit their babysitting paychecks is infuriating to me.
posted by k5.user at 11:25 AM on November 28 [5 favorites]


It's funny (not in an amusing way, but an odd way) that the parent I ended up parentifying was not the alcoholic. The alcoholic was high functioning and made sure that their drinking never effected me. The other parent, that was mostly twenty minutes of being an impromptu therapist every time I was picked up from school. I have ADHD so I was seeing a psychiatrist at the time. I hauled my parent in and had the psychiatrist point blank tell my parent to stop. It lessened and gave me a way to halt it if I could do so in time- I would bring up that this was not appropriate and that we were not having this conversation while they were slagging on my other parent.

This was when I was twelve and looking back, I think I managed to cut it back after 5 or 6 months. And yet I find myself thinking of the brief period of parentification rather than the extended emotional abuse when I think about the problems I have from childhood. The emotional abuse is just one blur of crying in the passenger seat of the car while being screamed at, being the target for a mass of unconnected rage. The parentification was taking care of someone's emotional needs at an age where I was still trying to learn what emotional needs were. Even as I got older, pushing my parent to find a friend, a therapist to talk to about things and not have me be the emotional anchor has been something I've had to keep reminding them of.
posted by Hactar at 11:36 AM on November 28 [16 favorites]


That is one way to avoid getting to:

A terrible way yeah. Some kids are ok with that level of autonomy and some aren't, and this article is about the ones that aren't but have to anyways.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:39 AM on November 28 [9 favorites]


Reading that list of traits I'm wondering if it also applies to children of a parent with an undiagnosed mental illness.

My evil grandmother was definitely not an alcoholic but she was certainly.... Something.

I'm almost 40 and just in the last year or so really finally coming to grips with the fuckery she did to my head.
posted by sio42 at 11:43 AM on November 28 [14 favorites]


holy shit

I just realized how many of my mom's "adorable" stories about my childhood are effectively stories about how I felt overly responsible for my siblings and how it spilled over into all of my friendships as well.

I mean it wasn't due to alcoholism or mental illness or any shortcomings on her part (or my dad's) as a parent. Like Mr Yuck's description above, the folks both had to work because we had to eat. And they scrambled for caretaking situations but we couldn't afford anything safe and I was decently smart and responsible, so that was that.

Now that I am a decently-employed adult with a savings account and a partner and everything it's becoming clear to me how there's just some shit I don't know how to do correctly. And when my partner is like, "why on earth do you [insert bizarre household habit]" I realize it's because I taught myself to do it at age 6 or whatever, and never learned another way.

Jury's still out on the effects of never being shielded from Adult Worries. Sometimes I'm a little bitter about it but honestly, I think if they hadn't kept me in the loop I'd now feel really gaslighted and weird.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:50 AM on November 28 [17 favorites]


LOL see also the AskMe that I posted JUST before reading this FPP, in which I try to figure out how to hire a person to clean my mother's house because I'm just worried she won't get around to it and really I should just go there and clean it myself but it's quite far and WORRY WORRY WORRY.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:53 AM on November 28 [14 favorites]


King Sky Prawn, I similarly hate Gilmore Girls which few can seem to understand that Rory is parenting Lorelei ALL THE TIME.
posted by raccoon409 at 12:01 PM on November 28 [21 favorites]


Reading that list of traits I'm wondering if it also applies to children of a parent with an undiagnosed mental illness.

My evil grandmother was definitely not an alcoholic but she was certainly.... Something.

I'm almost 40 and just in the last year or so really finally coming to grips with the fuckery she did to my head.
posted by sio42 at 11:43 AM on November 28


Yup.

My maternal grandmother had 5 kids, who produced 14 grandchildren. She and probably four of her daughters all had/have borderline personality disorder or something like it. The oldest in each of those 5 families (including myself) are all obviously parentified. In general, the great-grandchildren are fine and get to be kids, mostly because their parents are not the parentified siblings.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 12:12 PM on November 28 [3 favorites]


Reading that list of traits I'm wondering if it also applies to children of a parent with an undiagnosed mental illness

12- step folks have a long history of assimilating every dysfunction under the sun into the concept of alcoholism; because of that, I wouldn't take the list very seriously, tbh.
posted by thelonius at 12:21 PM on November 28 [5 favorites]


The core dynamic is an adult who should be in a caregiver role to a child instead treating that child as a peer, in some sense, with the reduced level of responsibility thereby incurred on the adult's part forcing the child to take on responsibilities they aren't set up for

I'm really conflicted about this topic, as a parent who often struggles with where to draw the line - how much independence and responsibility is appropriate, to enable the learning of skills to ensure strong, confident, adults.

Like, I know I've talked in other threads about boys who aren't taught how to accomplish chores, and how it makes for horrible adults that young women then find themselves parenting because they are so utterly incapable of adulting. But one of the dynamics that lends itself to that is things like "cooking every meal, every time, waking them up, doing their laundry, cleaning their things, etc".

So by the nature of preparing kids for adulthood, I think you do have to give them responsibility, and also back off that responsibility yourself, or you're not actually giving it to them, just delegating, and that doesn't really teach them much. Like - I did my daughter's laundry for the first twelve years of her life and still occasionally nag her when it gets bad, but for the most part she has taken on the responsibility of doing her own laundry and I have taken a reduced role there.

I think as long as you're not leaning on the kid - like, you have the larger share of responsibility - it's actually really, really good for kids to learn how to relate to the world as adults. And in some cases, I think giving kids chances to practice responsibility and empathy are good. And I don't think, in non-neglectful situations, there's really a great clear line there.
posted by corb at 12:30 PM on November 28 [12 favorites]


There was no substance abuse in my family, but holy cow yes the cycle perpetuates across generations. My maternal grandma was a compulsive caretaker her whole life. My mom grew up caretaking for her younger siblings. I grew up managing my younger brothers and some household responsibilities, especially since my mom spent a fair amount of my childhood profoundly depressed.

Once I hit middle school, I was "old enough" to babysit and my youngest brother was old enough to be babysat, so my mom went back to work and I started caretaking for my two younger brothers for a few hours between school and my parents' return from work.

What does a 10-year-old's idea of caretaking look like? Something like a bag of popcorn every day but also stay in the house so the neighbors don't tell my parents what we do. Plus, of course, a 10-year-old's lack of knowing how to get my brother to get started on homework without yelling (so we'd be done by the time my parents got home and they wouldn't have to manage homework in the evening) - what kind of authority does a 10-year-old have over 7- and 4-year olds to go with her explicitly-or-implicitly assigned responsibilities, anyway?

I definitely see the article's point about the resulting drive for self-sufficiency. I was proud that I was fiercely independent, growing up. I am so self-sufficient it hurts: for me because don't think to ask for help, plus my husband feels like I don't want his help. At work, I execute with what resources I have and it doesn't occur to me to request more personnel/resources. Why would I bother asking? I grew up expecting no chance that my requests would (or could) be fulfilled with a bonus side helping of being responsible for everything. So instead I do what I can with what I have and burn myself out in the process.

I've been getting better - my secret is therapy. I have a fantastic therapist and she's amazing at catching those insights and working to reframe my boundaries away from compulsive helpfulness/cheerfulness.
posted by bookdragoness at 12:33 PM on November 28 [21 favorites]


So by the nature of preparing kids for adulthood, I think you do have to give them responsibility, and also back off that responsibility yourself

Yes, definitely. In nurturing settings, the parent is monitoring what the child is learning and how they're managing, and is ready to help. (In overprotective settings, the parent swoops in and takes over at the first sign of problems or just inefficiency.) In neglect, there is no option for additional support.

And those differences are impossible to define clearly from the outside. They vary by personality, by ability level, by local community, and so on. What matters is: does the child feel safe, in the sense of knowing that there's help if they need it, and does the child have the confidence to explore their own abilities?

A six-year-old can get dressed and make their own lunch. Parental support means checking the weather report to say, "you'll want an umbrella because it's likely to rain later" - which is outside the range of awareness a child should have. Parental support means someone taking the lid off the jar if it's too tight, and making sure there's actually enough food to make the lunch.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:53 PM on November 28 [18 favorites]


> how much independence and responsibility is appropriate, to enable the learning of skills to ensure strong, confident, adults.

I think monitoring for age-appropriateness is key, here. Each kid is going to vary in what responsibilities they can handle at what age. Being comfortable isn't key, but being graspable is. Knowing you have someone you can go to for help is key to being comfortable in asking for help.

For instance, consider the popcorn example above. An adult might point out that popcorn is better as an occasional snack food than to eat anentire bag of popcorn by yourself every weekday. An unattended 10-year-old learns that she can eat whatever she wants as long as nobody is looking, and now a woman in her 30s is still dealing with food-hiding impulses, even though her husband isn't judgemental about it like her parents were.

I completely agree that giving children responsibilities (and ceding them yourself) is important and should scale as they get older and more capable. There will be a progression over time.
posted by bookdragoness at 1:00 PM on November 28 [5 favorites]


I assess kids for abuse as a part if my job, and when I started I really had to figure out how *young* kids are. I truthfully hadn't worked with kids much before I took the job. And there are just things kids developmentally aren't ready for. Skills beyond their years are absolutely red flag, though parentification isn't dectectible as other things.

It's great if your six year old can wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast and walk to the school bus on their own, but that doesn't mean parent should sleep through a kid going to school in the morning. The handling of the cognative load, the routine and the responsibility, the consistency of required self regulation for a 6 year old is way too much. They should be exploring through play, and experimenting. They should be able to handle each task individually but the big part should be creating identity, expressing opinions, learning different roles, establishing who they are. They should be learning emotional regulation and expression through supervised challenges. They are learning so many important social skills at that age! Part of that is asking for help, and having honesty.

Even older kids (we assess up to 17yo for child abuse, but then it just shifts to DV assesments and i do those too) need parenting! I get teens all the time who need some compassionate parenting.

Because I work in a hospital, in general I'm seeing kids in unfamiliar, scary situations after traumatic events (be it a head injury, car crash, gun shot, actual abuse etc).

I spend lots of time modeling to paniced parents to show compassion to their kids. I sort of think as the ER as the crazy little home I'm welcoming kids into. They need context, orientation, guidance and reassurance. All of them. So do their parents lots of the time!
posted by AlexiaSky at 1:06 PM on November 28 [40 favorites]


I always feel weirdly bad about resonating with these pieces because (join the chorus).... I didn't have it that bad, at least when I was young. My parents split up when I was 15 and in many ways I was treated as, and took on being 'an adult', at least in terms of my own emotional and intellectual choices, from then on out. And of course a 15 year old thinks they're close enough to being an adult. I look back now and think how sad and alone it was to feel like all of my desires and problems post-15, I buried down because I was old enough to handle it myself and I didn't want to bother anyone else with them. Up to and including the fact that no adult in my life ever had a meaningful talk with me about how shitty, weird, and difficult the messy and estranging divorce was.
posted by nakedmolerats at 1:11 PM on November 28 [16 favorites]


I think there’s a pretty clear difference between your child taking on age-appropriate responsibilities under your general supervision, and them having to figure it out for themselves because nobody else will help them.

So with the hypothetical six year old getting themselves ready for school: they might have an alarm, but the parent would check they had set it the night before, and call up the stairs to check the child was out of bed if you didn’t hear them moving around. The child might dress themselves, but the parent would ensure they had clean clothes available. The child might make breakfast, but under supervision, with the parent in the room eating their own breakfast. The parent would provide the food. The child will be waved off to school (actually in the UK six year olds don’t get themselves to school - we don’t have school buses so it would be either a parent, friend or wraparound childminder dropping them at the gate. A child walking themselves to school aged six would ring serious alarm bells. They wouldn’t be allowed to go home from school on their own either).

The neglectful situations are not like that. If the alarm doesn’t go off, nobody notices and the child is late for school. There are no clean clothes unless the child is old enough to do their own laundry (so they end up wearing soiled clothes). Breakfast is whatever is in the fridge, or is missed altogether (which is why Breakfast Clubs exist in so many schools, and why Free School Meals are a thing). The child lets themselves out of the house to go to school. The parent may remain in bed throughout all of this, or may not be in the house at all. They certainly aren’t supervising. If the neglect is due to disability, the child may have to do all of the above and also get their parent out of bed, provide personal care and provide the parent with breakfast. It’s a completely different situation.
posted by tinkletown at 1:22 PM on November 28 [19 favorites]


I've been my mother's de-facto therapist since I was old enough to comprehend sentences. I turned 47 this year and just a couple weeks ago, after she started in AGAIN about how she can't handle my dad and how awful he is and how miserable she is (he *is* awful), I told her I couldn't do it anymore. I told her that I cannot be her therapist, I don't have the skills (she actually interrupted me and said that she thinks I *do* have those skills and I should have continued in graduate school to get my counseling degree...I just...really? REALLY?), and I told her that I was setting down boundaries (better late than never) here and now and it had to stop. I was as gentle as I could be, given how utterly sick I am of being her only "friend" (ffs, I am not her friend, I am her daughter but she has always treated me like a friend and that is fucked up), and I felt TERRIBLE doing it but OMG it felt amazing and freeing and I will 100% reinforce as needed.

Baby steps, I guess. And this is just my mother. My father is a whole other, awful, story.
posted by cooker girl at 1:26 PM on November 28 [42 favorites]


This is also reminding me that once I went to college and came home for breaks, my mom always wanted me to sit with her at bedtime, rub her back, essentially "put her to bed" like you would a child. And got kind of pissy if I didn't want to do it because I was 'never home'. I always felt shitty and guilty for not wanting to do it, because it didn't seem inappropriate on its face. Even though she never did it to me and I wouldn't have wanted her to. Again, it's something that doesn't reach its full wtf-ness until later in life..
posted by nakedmolerats at 1:35 PM on November 28 [7 favorites]


My home economics teacher in the 6th grade was, I now realize, burnt out and miserable. She yelled all the time and made examples of people, and as a result she was universally loathed and her house got egged every Halloween. I hated the class but was getting along in it okay by staying invisible, until we got to sewing. I failed to master sewing--I mean, there was no incentive, since the reward for successfully finishing an ugly tote bag was to be given the opportunity to make an uglier apron out of the same state-prison-blue poly-cotton broadcloth. I tried to keep my head down and follow instructions, but one day while sewing and sewing and sewing on the endless totebag, I ran over a pin. As an obsessive directions follower, I had made sure to stick them all in perpendicular to the seam as instructed, so that the needle would hop over the pins or slip off harmlessly: it must've been a fluke, one-in-a-million dead-on needlestrike, because the needle snapped. I had to raise my hand and call attention to the whole shameful scene. Mrs. Rogers, yelling all the way, secured a new needle and installed it and then did her loud, all-eyes-on-the-culprit this is how to thread a sewing machine performance for probably the fiftieth time that week. (Somebody broke a needle almost every day, but it was usually one of the bad kids who were always being counseled that they should "listen." Not me: I always listened.) I was paralyzed with guilt and fear over having broken school property, plus despite my father's efforts, I never did learn to function well while being screamed at, so I couldn't follow Mrs. Rogers's instructions being delivered inches from my filthy little ear at a volume designed to benefit the whole class, and Mrs. Rogers finally snatched the thread away from me and did it herself. Mrs. Rogers's default explanation when anyone failed to follow instructions was, "You must not have any responsibilities at home." She said it to me when I broke the needle. This is 38 years ago and I remember the disdain, the near loathing, of Mrs. Rogers when against her will she had to notice me for a minute. "Don't they give you any responsibilities at home?" Had she looked at me, she would have seen that I had plenty of responsibilities at home. Had she not been burnt out, she might have looked and she might have seen and she might have saved my brother.
posted by Don Pepino at 1:44 PM on November 28 [24 favorites]


In the context of teaching one of several pieces dramatising the lives of working class children (probably 70% of us) my secondary school English teacher told the story about one pupil she once had who would always be late on a certain day of the week. On further investigation it turned out that that day was payday and the pupil had to go to work with her father first to take his wages from him to prevent him drinking them all. That story sticks with me more than whatever we were studying.

I offer that in lieu of my own pallid anecdotes. I appreciate everyone sharing their own experiences above, even if you have had me in tears (mostly for my younger self, I suck at empathy). Paraphrasing, but I do also endorse sio42's suggestion about undiagnosed mental illness being as much a vector for parentification as dependency issues.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 2:41 PM on November 28 [7 favorites]


-- Reading that list of traits I'm wondering if it also applies to children of a parent with an undiagnosed mental illness

-- 12- step folks have a long history of assimilating every dysfunction under the sun into the concept of alcoholism; because of that, I wouldn't take the list very seriously, tbh.

Respectfully, "every dysfunction under the sun" is often self-medicated with alcohol, and alcohol addiction usually exacerbates the condition. The list resonates because there's so much overlap.

My dad's a recovering alcoholic, and the impact that has had on my immediate family cannot be overstated. But as bad as I had it growing up, a cousin had it much, much worse: her dad was an alcoholic, with other addictions, for a longer period of time, and her mom had that undiagnosed mental illness. After raising her younger brothers, this cousin went on to have kids of her own. During a family visit years ago, her eldest daughter bopped into a living room full of reminiscing adults to offer to change a fussing, younger sibling's diaper. "I want to help, and you're busy!" she said. My cousin said, "I know you do, and I thank you for it, but I'm not too busy. You know I'll ask for your help, I have before. But I'm the mommy, and I love being the mommy. I love being your mommy, and regular diaper duty is above your pay grade."

Her daughter went off to play, and I excused myself to cry in the bathroom.
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:46 PM on November 28 [33 favorites]


Re: AbFab, Gilmore Girls -- one of my problems with Stranger Things is the way Joyce makes Jonathan co-parent Will with her. It's a dynamic present from the jump, before Will's imperiled. It is perfectly true to the time period, and well-depicted, but it still makes me queasy.
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:54 PM on November 28 [14 favorites]


I want to echo the thanks to those of you who are sharing your stories. Your comments (especially about sibling relationships) have been on my mind all day, casting new light on what I know about my own parents' and grandparents' childhoods.

Both of my parents are from enormous families with complex transgenerational dynamics that have become more and more fraught as everyone has aged. My mother grew up with her aunts and uncles - literally, sharing a bedroom with an aunt just five years older than her - who came to live with my grandparents after my great-grandmother died and my great-grandfather wouldn't care for them. (My grandparents actually took him to court and were awarded child support.) Later, she became the primary caregiver for my brother and I after my parents' divorce, while my mom was working. She died rather young from a combination of causes that my mother and uncle agree was probably exacerbated by her nonstop caring work. The combination of guilt (on my mom's part) and resentment (on my uncle's part, and that of my great aunts-and -uncles) has more or less estranged them from one another. They are in their seventies and eighties now, and it breaks my heart to think of the pain that they are carrying around, that they were all just children when these dynamics emerged.

My dad is the oldest of nine children, and while he was seemingly exempt from the parenting responsibilities that fell upon his sisters (because: boy, because: oldest), since his mother passed away, his relationships with all but his youngest siblings have slowly faded. I don't blame them at all; I love my dad but I can see the ways that he got off lightly compared to them and can only imagine how much hurt and anger have accumulated after decades of picking up the slack for my grandmother's Golden Boy. I wish he could see it, too, but he can't - or won't.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how their lives could have been different if they had access to the kinds of frameworks for thinking about these kinds of issues - to information, to community - of the kind that Metafilter adds to my own life.

My parents and my brother live 2,500 miles and a couple of time zones away, but I think that I am going to call them on my way home from work this evening.
posted by Anita Bath at 6:01 PM on November 28 [10 favorites]


Thank you everyone, for your comments. Does anyone know if there are resources on what people who are not parents but are in a position of influence (aunts, uncles, teachers, etc) can do to help kids who they suspect might be parentified?
posted by triggerfinger at 8:39 PM on November 28 [4 favorites]


It’s good to read everyone’s stories. I’m 36 and still so angry. “Always waiting for julie“ is something my father would sing when I couldn’t find my shoes. I was around 8. His behavior would become increasingly passive aggressive the more I tried to have friends or engage in after school activities, especially as I got older.. “you just want to be miserable” he would say to depressed teenager me. Envious of acquaintances who grew up in healthy homes.
posted by superior julie at 10:01 PM on November 28 [7 favorites]


It's taken me a couple of days to decide whether or not to even comment on this thread because it's brought up a lot of things for me. I may still regret commenting. I never talk about this stuff. Ever. The handful of therapists I've seen over the years have only heard bits, and even Mrs. Example only knows facets. (She encouraged me to post this, actually.)

I don't know if it really comes under the heading of being "parentified", really, but I had to take care of myself a lot. See, my mother was mentally ill. Deeply, profoundly mentally ill. I don't know if she was ever fully diagnosed, but she definitely had full-on bipolar disorder with comorbid schizoaffective disorder (auditory hallucinations and paranoia). She was all right when I was first growing up--she taught me to read when I was three, for example, for which I'm forever grateful--but then her condition got exponentially worse in her early thirties.

I wasn't ten years old yet.

She didn't get adequate treatment until I was well into my early twenties. My father, who was emotionally distant at best, was either unwilling or unable to do what she needed until then for whatever reason.

I'll spare you the full details of those ten-plus years, not least because I don't like thinking about it all and because even in therapy, it feels like "Here is a pile of my most horrible shit; please take a good long steamy look at it". The parts I haven't suppressed I remember vividly, though. The staying up nights trying to talk Mom out of her latest bout of paranoia. Mom barricading herself in her bedroom because she would intermittently think we were out to get her. The utter goddamned squalor we lived in because Mom was too sick to keep the place up, Dad didn't seem to care all that much, and we kids were too young to do a good enough job of it. The hospitalizations. The suicide attempts. The death threats. The things thrown at me. The infrequent but memorable beatings that finally stopped when I got big enough to make it clear I'd hit back. The screaming. The deep and abiding sense of shame. Never, ever being able to have anyone over. The despair. The relentless low-level fear and stress coming from never knowing how Mom was going to be on any particular day.

It all took its toll, and even now in my late forties I'm still...not quite right. I can barely handle even the most constructive criticism. I'm so nonconfrontational that even, say, complaining to a store manager will get my heart pounding, and a woman speaking angrily--or worse, shouting--in just the right register will set me to shaking and wanting to curl up in a corner. I still have a reflexive fear and agitation and shame at the idea of anyone coming into my house, even if it's a close friend. I have to take a daily antidepressant just to fucking function.

Things did get better. Mom finally found a combination of medication and therapy that settled her down to something approximating normal for most of the rest of her life. I grew up, moved out, got married, and eventually moved four and a half thousand miles away from that whole environment. I only saw Mom face-to-face maybe three times in the last ten years, but our relationship had improved, and we talked on the phone regularly.

After her condition improved, she always maintained that it wasn't her who did all those things in my late childhood and adolescence; it was her illness, and she couldn't really be blamed for everything that had happened. And you know, I get that. I'm sympathetic. On a rational level, I know she was sick.

But you know what I wanted just once? I wanted her to acknowledge the emotional hurt. I wanted her to say just once that while, yes, she wasn't fully to blame for what she did, that she knew she still hurt me, and that she was sorry.

She's been dead for three years, three months, and fifteen days. I never got that apology and I never will. Insert your own joke about "closure" here--I had one, but not the energy to make it.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:49 AM on November 29 [37 favorites]


Mr. Bad Example - I hear you and I know it is tempting to just try to deal with the pile of steamy horrible shit on your own because you had to deal with everything else on your own and shouldn't you have to deal with this too, I mean, it's your shit isn't it and showing the shit to someone else is just giving them the shit, and how is that fair? I know. I have the shit too... But share it. Leave it in a giant steaming pile in your therapist's office. That's what you're paying him/her for. Also, you may want to consider EMDR. I have a problem with memory loss from my childhood as well and the parts that I do remember are pretty traumatic. I've just started EMDR and I have to say, I'm seriously encouraged by the initial results. I am also in my late 40s and I have just started to really feel the inklings of hope. Best of all worlds to you.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:13 AM on November 29 [10 favorites]


Mr. Bad Example, it's really great that after a terrifying childhood, you still managed to sustain a years-long good relationship with your mother. It is also really great and does not take away from those good years at all if today you remember your life and your mother accurately and react to that memory with perfectly rational and reasonable rage. Her refusal to acknowledge that she injured you and apologize for it denied you a small comfort she could have given you. It was more important to her to avoid pain herself than to comfort you. That is a perfectly normal and predictable human response and not something you can ascribe to mental illness. It was simple selfishness, and the rational response to it is anger. You can still love her and honor her memory and be angry at her.

Everybody dies unfinished. It's likely that she, like you, was still ruminating on this stuff. You know how you're thinking "I'm in my late 40s; I should be done with this shit!"? Well, maybe even though in front of you her first priority was to not admit culpability, in her head she was working it out, all the while telling herself, "I'm pushing 70! Why haven't I figured this out?" Maybe, given a few more years, she'd've gotten there. Also, had she actually apologized, the sky would not have split open and showered down petals and godlight and harp music. It would've felt unsatisfying, I predict, because there is no apologizing for that level of life-blighting abuse. And then you'd be dealing with: "Your poor, sainted white-haired parent! She said she was sorry, why can't you forgive her?" And you'd have to make a show of trying, and that would be tiresome because it's impossible, because there is no forgiving that level of life-blighting abuse. There is no apologizing, there is no forgiveness, but you can still love the person, and you did love the person, purely and well. Anger can be part of love.

Finally, your story is not a steaming pile. It is useful and comforting to all who hear it who have similar life stories.

Still more finally, Mrs. Example sounds excellent. I'm glad she encouraged you to post this.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:30 AM on November 29 [17 favorites]


Oh, yeah. Never having any friends over. I forgot about that. Dad would say, "Why do you always go to so-and-so's house and they never come here?" Oh, I don't know, dad, maybe because I never know which version of you is going to come out at any given time? The nice dad? The fun dad? The dad who screams and yells and hits because the towels aren't hung up properly or the door is open a smidge too much? The dad who says I'm worth nothing? The dad who says that if he had to do it all over again he'd stop after the first kid (I'm the 6th)?

Oh and guess what? None of that gets better with age. Or after "beating" cancer. He's worse now than he's ever been. Just last night he was re-writing history telling my brother that he used to take me out to dinner, just the two of us, every couple of weeks because he traveled so much. Yeah. ONE TIME DAD. You did that ONE TIME. And you decided what I would eat and how I would eat it.

I think it's time to go back to therapy.
posted by cooker girl at 8:40 AM on November 29 [12 favorites]


*hugs and toasts cooker girl, who is my age* You go, girl!! Pro tip: Metafilter is better than therapy, in most cases.

Much of this comes down to I'M THE KID! YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE PARENTING ME!!, and the fact that, as mentioned above, selfish people don't change. Thanks to Metafilter, <3 I have learned to set good boundaries with my mother. No, I will not help you rewrite your letter to the local newspaper editor for the thousandth time. No, I will not attend something that wildly interests you but not me. I'm sorry you're unhappy that I don't like the exact same things as you do.

I am much healthier for setting these boundaries, but it still doesn't stop her from trying. It never ends: this Thanksgiving, she went on and on about her awful childhood, how her brother makes her feel unsafe because they don't agree on politics (he also gives her money), how she misses my father. I have long perfected the Blank Stare, because I have repeated the real answers (my childhood sucked too because you let my sister torment me; I wish I had a brother who gave me money; at least you found a husband) so many times that it's exhausting and the Blank Stare is all I can muster these days.

And I want to shout, you know what?? We all have problems! Life is problems! I'm your daughter, not your analyst! How about taking care of me, for a change?? But people don't change, she will never be capable of looking past her own belly button, so all I can do is settle into the Blank Stare and then go home and eat a bag of Doritos.
posted by sockerpup at 9:22 AM on November 29 [6 favorites]


I think those traits posted above re people raised by alcoholics are common amongst those who had unstable people for caregivers. My mother is/was mentally ill and abusive, but not an alcoholic. But I never knew what her mood or mode was going to be from one hour to the next. Sometimes she seemed caring, sometimes she was helpless, and sometimes she was explosively angry. And she could switch moods in seconds.

Above I said that I run from looking after people, but that's not entirely true. I looked after and protected my little sister for years. I learned to make fried eggs and tuna sandwiches at a very young age so we could eat, beat up anyone who messed with her, and helped her change when she peed her pants for the millionth time. I moved to this city in case she needs help, as she has a disabling chronic illness, and she's staying with me in my tiny apartment while she deals with a marital crisis. So I guess there is one person I will look after. Sometimes she gets mad at me for mothering her and trying to get her to take her vitamins etc.
posted by Stonkle at 12:17 PM on November 29 [6 favorites]


Metafilter: better than therapy, in most cases.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:28 PM on November 29 [3 favorites]


Hey all,

This is my first comment on metafilter! I made an account because I appreciate the thoughtfulness that goes into the discussion here. I'd like to thank everyone for sharing their stories. It's saddening and validating at the same time.
I want to share this, When Shame Feels Mothering: The Tragedy of Parentified Daughters
posted by petrichorkiss at 5:33 PM on November 29 [15 favorites]


Re: AbFab, Shameless, media depictions etc.- from the goofy comicbook series The Flash / Legends of Tomorrow, a character pair that's nonetheless really resonated has been antihero Leonard Snart and his sister Lisa, whom he basically raised; their father was an abusive alcoholic.
posted by nicebookrack at 6:38 PM on November 29


Welcome, petrichorkiss!
posted by harriet vane at 3:09 AM on November 30 [1 favorite]


Welcome to MetaFilter petrichorkiss! Great article. One quote that really stuck out to me was:

"As a parentified daughter, the mother-bond (love, comfort and safety) was forged in an environment of self-suppression. (Being small = being loved)
Thus, there's a subconscious link between mother-love and self-attenuation.
While your conscious mind may want success, happiness, love and confidence--the subconscious mind remembers the dangers of early childhood in which being big, spontaneous or authentic caused painful rejection from the mother."
posted by Sophie1 at 7:10 AM on November 30 [5 favorites]


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