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Lost childhood: When children and parents reverse roles

This story is based on true events. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

A common occurrence that I have lately encountered in my therapeutic sessions is parentified children and teenagers. Parentification, a word that might come across as big-sounding, is basically the role reversal between a parent and their child. Children are made to act as the emotional or practical caregiver for their parent(s). One negative effect that immediately impacts the parentified children is the loss of their childhood. Not only that, but such traumatic events have longer-lasting repercussions, where grudges, bitter disappointment and depression are buried into the psyche of the child, only for them to come to the surface in unexpected ways later on in life, when they are fully-grown adults.

One client, by the name of Lucia, during one of her sessions has recently come to terms with being robbed of her childhood. She mentioned that, for a blissful yet brief period of her childhood, she had felt truly carefree. This was when she was placed in the custody of relatives by her mother, who wanted her space to pursue a business interest. During that time Lucia blossomed, as she describes it. However, within a year her mother’s business failed and despite protesting loudly and expressing her reluctance to her relatives, Lucia was sent back home, right in the middle of the school year. From then onwards, her role was to take care of her mother and she has felt miserable ever since.

Another story echoing the same sentiment, that is reoccurring in other families I have come in contact with, was told to me by a teenage boy by the name of Luca. Luca came to his first session accompanied by his father. I remember him sitting unusually still in the waiting room. The father had decided to bring Luca in for a session because, for the past months, he had been acting quite oddly at home. The boy often retreated to his darkened room for long periods of time or else sat hunched over in one corner of his bedroom, wearing a hooded jacket and a mask to cover his face.

After a number of sessions, Luca made little progress and resorted back to the same old habits. I suspected more to the story than what the father had presented. Later on, after having gained my trust, Luca asked me discreetly whether he could see me alone. I accepted his request and arranged a session with just the two of us. He initially struggled to make eye contact and spoke very little. Eventually, he mustered the confidence and provided me with a remarkably detailed account of his family situation. During the session, I constantly reminded myself that this was a 13-year-old kid, but hearing him talk was jarring as he sounded very mature beyond his tender age.

He disclosed that his parents did not have a good relationship, even though they were still living together under the same roof. His parents had grown so distant from one another that they were even unable to share the same bed. So much so, that at night his father would sleep in Lucas’s room, while Luca slept next to his mother. The fact that his privacy was being neglected like this made him uncomfortable.

He went on to elaborate that on top of that, he also had to take care of his parents, including nursing them when they are ill, providing money for the family and acting as their confidant. Sometimes he would have to get involved in their arguments and deescalate the friction, thus assuming the role of a mediator or referee even. This role was burdening him with a lot of age-inappropriate expectations, while his needs as an adolescent were being pushed to the side. As a result, his identity as a teenager, which was still transitioning into adulthood, was suffering. When situations like these are not resolved during childhood or adolescence, it affects future relationships with romantic partners and children.

On the other hand, when children experience fairness, where everyone’s perspectives and needs are taken into consideration, they carry with them those same healthy expectations into their adult relationships. Nevertheless, if an individual is neglected by his or her parents during childhood and/or adolescence, the individual might expect their partner to compensate for that neglect and may have distorted expectations of what romantic love is supposed to be like.

Let’s go back to Luca’s story. Luca was neglected emotionally, while he was expected to take care of both his parents’ emotional needs. Therefore, if Luca feels that he is still owed the love and affection he never got as a child, there is a high probability that in the next generation he would want his partner and children to provide that for him.

How can we break these cycles?

  • Set clear boundaries and define the roles of the parent and the children.
  • Reflect upon your previous generations. Understanding parents and grandparents, and the way they behaved and how this might have affected us as individuals.
Maria Mifsud

About Maria Mifsud

Maria graduated with a Bachelor of Psychology (Hons) in 2008, then went on to read for a Masters in Probation Services at the University of Malta. After years of being part of the Government workforce, she realised that to better understand her clients and be more equipped, she had to further her studies by enrolling in a Masters in Systemic and Family Psychotherapy with IFT-Malta. Some years later, she continued to pursue her studies in Clinical Supervision with IFT-Malta. Maria is also a qualified Victim Offender Mediator.

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