Optimize Your Life

Episode #35: Reverse Your Role as a Parentified Child

Show Notes:

Hey everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Optimize Your Life and today I have a really special episode for you. It was inspired by a video that I created 3 years ago on my YouTube channel that went semi-viral. This video was about how to  reverse your role as a parentified child and to this day, I have people writing to me and sharing their struggles with their family members. So I really felt pulled to create a podcast episode about this topic to shed more light on the subject.

Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term let me just start by explaining what is a parentified child. So it is a child — like if you were growing up and you had a parent that wasn’t consistently available to you, they didn’t meet their responsibilities as your parent, they weren’t really stepping up to the plate, then it could have created a role reversal. It sometimes it happens by default like when you have a parent who has a health condition or even a mental health condition, if they’re an alcoholic — things like that, then it creates a scenario where somebody has to step in and perhaps you took that on by default. 

But in other situations it’s when they actually expect you to step into their shoes and it could be because you have a single parent who is out there trying to make some money to support the family and you have younger siblings and so by default because you are the oldest, there’s an expectation that you’re going to take care of your younger siblings, that you were going to help with the household chores. And what that does is — well it seems rational, it make sense and it’s logical that, you know, this parent would need help in that you’re there to help them. You know, sometimes they look to you as an adult and they forget that you’re a child or they just are trying to get by and they feel like they don’t have any other options and so they rely very heavily on you to fill in that gap. And what that does is it create a scenario where by you are now living in a lot of responsibility and you don’t really get to experience your own childhood. 

Sometimes it could be because you have a parent who is just really critical and they’re very negative. They might have some codependent tendencies and so there is a relationship there trying to create with you to fill in the gap in their life. So for a variety of reasons, you might have developed into a parentified child and now that you’re an adult it could be an interesting phenomenon of like how this continues in your life. 

So if you had a parent that had some sort of illness, mental or physical, and that’s why you stepped up it could be that now as an adult, you worry about them incessantly. So maybe it’s that you call them every day and you worry about what will happen to them if you don’t call. It could be that you’re constantly taking care of them and cleaning up their mess and making sure that they’re okay because you have anxiety about what will happen to them if you’re not stepping up to the plate. And that again is taking a lot of responsibility on your shoulders and certainly that can feel very burdensome, not just in the actions that you have to take and the time that it fills up in your calendar but also the mental stress and anguish/ all these catastrophic ideas that come up.

If your parent though was more negative and continues to be so at this point in time, then that can have a whole other effect on you as well. I’m going to share with you in this episode some of the stories that people have written to me about their lives that have watched my YouTube video because I think it’s important for you to put this into contacts cuz sometimes people have had those circumstances where they’ve been this parentified child but they may not have the terminology for it. They may not realize that it’s a thing and I want to first put that out there, to help you understand what’s happening and from that place help you figure out what you can do as a next step.

Let’s take a look at some of the effects that being a parentified child can have on you. Here’s what you might experience. You might see your parents as emotionally fragile when in reality they are just overly reliant on you because they’re not taking care of themselves, they’re not taking responsibility and, you know, you stepping into that role is obviously very kind and generous but it can also be perpetuating the pattern. 

I had one person write in that said that they see their parents as emotionally fragile yet in reality “she is delusional, selfish, abusive, and a narcissistic tyrant.” Now this may not be the case for you, but sometimes there is this exchange between somebody who is very empathic and somebody who’s narcissistic who is currently focusing on what they need. There’s some sort of magnetic pull between the two where you as the empathic person are happy to share and to do and to give and the person whose narcissistic is happy to receive and take and demand. And so that can work off each other but it only can go so far because you feel depleted and resentful for not being appreciated, for not having your needs met and so that can lead to some other effects. 

Other things you might experience is that you feel depressed. I’ve had people say they’ve even been suicidal. It can lead to low self-esteem. When you focus on having your own needs met you might feel excessive guilt. You might feel burdened by your parents’ needs and feel like you’re a burden to other people because you have needs. So it becomes part of your programming to see yourself as a burden and that perpetuates this pattern where you don’t ask to have your needs met. You don’t expect much from other people. In fact, what you do expect is to constantly be doing for others and I’ve seen way too many times where you have people who grew up with parents who are overly demanding and then as the child grows up into an adult, they then attract somebody into their romantic relationship that is also overly demanding. And it can be somebody who’s abusive, who’s narcissistic, who just doesn’t really care about your needs, who puts themselves first all the time. And it feeds into that program. 

You might feel like your used by everyone, that people take you for granted, that you are underappreciated, that you are alone. These are all completely normal side effect of being that parentified child and what we want to do is figure out what you can do to reverse this so that you don’t continue in that program or in that pattern.

Now one of the ways that you might figure out that your parent is that narcissist is what happens when you advocate for yourself. Do you get a lot of backlash from them? What happens when you ask for support? Does your parent start to blackmail you? There’s a term “emotional blackmail” and there’s actually a really excellent book and I’ll put the link to it in the show notes that talks about this concept and how your parent might be using this to keep you in that relationship that really suits them very well. 

I’ve had people tell me that their parents will use these emotionally manipulative terms to keep you feeling guilty and coming back for more. So they’ll say oh you’re just waiting for me to die, right? These are the kind of statement that really pull on your heartstrings and make you want to come towards them and help them. So it’s very manipulative.

Now if everything I’ve shared so far isn’t enough, let’s talk about all the reasons why being a parentified child is such an energy drain. As we’ve already said it could be that you have a parent who is very negative or even nasty. So if you are receiving a lot of verbal abuse that’s a huge energy drain. If you have a parent to attacks you and you know that this is the case if you are always on the defense when you’re with them, then that’s a huge energy drain. If you are around a parent who is hyper-anxious, then their anxiety can become your anxiety. You start to worry about them all the time, then that can be a huge drain on your energy. 

If you believe through all of your past experience and the programming that you have downloaded that it is your job to fix your parents because they are fragile, because they are broken, because they need you, because they can’t take care of themselves or whatever story you tell yourself about them, then that can be a huge energy drain. 

You got to recognize that it is not your job to fix anybody — in particular your parents. And I know this is hard to really grasp sometimes especially if this is your programming but this is such a beautiful opportunity for you to notice where you’re stuck in the pattern. It could be that belief. It could be some emotional attachment like guilt or fear and these are opportunities to start to work on yourself and we’ll talk about what to do in a minute. 

Another energy drain is if your parent is inappropriately bringing you into their troubles and they might have been doing this since you were a child — talking to you about their marital problems or their intimacy issues and waiting for you to counsel them especially into the late hours of the night. You know, these are all very inappropriate parent-child behaviors. And you might notice that they’re continuing to do some of this to this day. 

Growing up with a narcissistic parent who pulls on those empathy strings from you can set up a pattern where you start to attract other people who are narcissists into your life. I’ve had clients who talked about how they had parents who were very fragile. They had one parent maybe like the mom was working and taking care of all the kids, trying to make the household you know work while the dad was an alcoholic and was always out. The parents were always yelling. There was just chaos in the house and it was them feeling really empathic towards the mom and wanting to help her that kept them in that parentified child roll. And then as they grew up, they ended up attracting somebody who was also very needy but didn’t give them any credit, that expected a lot from them, that was essentially abusive both emotionally, verbally, and sometimes even physically. So sometimes these patterns can perpetuate even in adulthood and it’s because of that programming that you had early on. So there’s this is something that you’re noticing in your life it can be this great time to wake up to it and recognize that listen just because it’s been going on up until this point does not mean that it has to continue. There is definitely something you can do to reprogram your mind so that you no longer believe that it’s your job to get dumped on, to take care of everybody else, to fix people who don’t have their life together and that your needs don’t matter. These are all beliefs that keep you in that pattern. And if you’re the kind of person who feels excessively guilty, it stems from that belief so it’s an opportunity for you to do some belief work.

I had one person write in to say that their parent wanted to keep them for themselves and so when the client got married, the mom was very upset about that. In fact, when she was growing up, the mom would be very negative about any boyfriend that she would have. It’s the way of her just trying to keep her for herself right? So here’s what she said once her daughter got married. She said after a while that she forgives her for it. And in the client’s words she said, “She talks like my only purpose of existence is to be there taking care of her, listening to her having her mad at me, and never saying a thing.”  This person would clean her mother’s house, work and give her half the money to pay her house bills, and just be there for her whenever the mom was crying. 

So you can see how this becomes this really toxic pattern of feeling like you have to take care of your parent as if they were your own child. 

Someone else describe feeling like they have a “huge tangled ball of yarn to work on” now that they realize that they are a parentified child and they’re trying to get it all untangled. 

And the other energy drain is that you just don’t want to hold on to resentment or hatred toward your parent. Maybe you recognize that that’s what’s happened as a result of your experience and you just want to be free of that. 

So now let’s talk about what you can do to unravel that ball of yarn, to release any sort of resentment or any responsibility that you’re taking, any guilt that you want to release yourself of because this is where you get to really start the process of focusing on yourself, empowering yourself, and reprogramming your mind.

Tip #1:

To start out, I’ll mention the tips that I brought up in the video. So the first tip is to just recognize that you have needs. This is revolutionary for some people because they never really had anybody shine a light on their own needs. It was always about somebody else and if that was you, then you know you may have pushed your needs down so far for so long that you forgot that they’re there. And one of the ways that you can know that they’re there is if you feel empty, alone, if you feel abandoned, if you feel unimportant. These are all signs that you have unmet needs. If you have resentment it means that you are upset with somebody else for not taking care of your need whatever that may be. 

So rather than hold on to all of these emotions like resentment, this is an opportunity for you to do something proactively and take care of you. And that really starts with the awareness that you even have needs. One of the things you need to do is really tune in to what are those needs and what you need to do to get them met. This is your responsibility and while there maybe this wish inside of you that the parent is finally going to recognize how important you are and how much you’ve done for them and step in and take care of you finally, unfortunately that may never happen. 

So I know that’s heartbreaking and I know that deep down inside that would mean the world to you, but you get to do that for yourself. And that is where your healing begins.

Tip #2:

You need to work on decreasing your sense of over-responsibility. We talked earlier about getting your needs met and now it’s about not worrying so much about other people, specifically your parents where you have that codependent relationship perhaps because if you’re constantly worrying about them and you’re constantly calling them and you’re constantly doing for them, then you’re stuck in that perpetual cycle of worry. You’ve got to remember: people or not as fragile as you might think. And if you step aside and allow them to step up for themselves and take care of themselves, they might bitch and moan initially, but see what happens. 

Maybe your prediction won’t come true. Maybe they’ll actually figure out that they need to do something for themselves once and for all. And I have my clients do behavioral experiments where they actually predict what they think might happen that causes a lot of their anxiety and then have them try it out anyway and then see if they were right. I mean, what could potentially happen if you don’t call your parent today if that’s something that you’re doing? Or if you don’t pay their bills? Or if you don’t take their abuse? What do you think will happen? This is where we get into that anticipatory anxiety and really working on your predictions because in your brain they feel so true but most of the time they’re probably not and unless you test them out you won’t know for sure.

Tip #3;

The third thing that I want to share with you is that you could do a visualization where you just see a scenario from your childhood where your parent was really inconsistent ,where you really felt propelled to step up. It could be because they weren’t there to do what they needed to do and you just felt that urge to fill in the gap as we talked about or could be that they required that of you and so became part of the expectation and something that was normalized in your home. So notice what that was bring that up to your mind and then confront them about it. You can even bring your adult self into that image and tell them how upset you are that they’re falling apart, how upset you are that they’re expecting you to do all these things when it’s really not your job to be the parent. Let them know how you feel. So this allows you to release a lot of that pent-up anger rather than hold on to resentment. It’s a start.

Tip #4:

The next step I have for you is really about your mindset. If you have a parent who has hurt you or that you worry will continue to hurt you, recognize that they cannot do so without your permission. And also that it’s not what they do that hurts you. It’s how you think about it that hurts you. Your parent might have trouble managing their emotions and you might be trying to set some boundaries and make some independent decisions without asking for their approval, but if you wish still on some level to have that approval, that will keep you attached to them. And so recognize what keeps you in that cycle with them so that you can untangle it.

Tip #5:

We talked earlier about identifying what your needs are so that you can fill them for yourself. One of the most essential needs that you need to consider is what do you need to feel safe and I really want you to spend some time thinking about this because this is where if you don’t feel safe you will be in that constant fight or flight. You’ll have a ton of anxiety. You will have trouble sleeping. It can really do a lot of damage to your health. And so it could be that what you recognize, like some of my clients have done, that their parents is toxic and they feel safest when they are away from them, then maybe you create that distance. Or maybe you feel safer when you set expectations with them and it can start the shift the paradigm between you and them, then that’s what you need to do. So figure out what that looks like for you.

Tip #6:

And finally the best thing that you can do for yourself is to learn to manage your own thoughts and feelings, decide what kind of relationship you want to have with your parent without trying to change them, and that way you can live with Integrity. You may not know how to do all this yet but keep listening to the podcast because I keep sharing week after week how to do these things. And of course if you want to learn more, you can check out my website for more resources  including a link to my calendar if you want to schedule a call.

Those were my tips but now I’m also going to share with you some additional tips of the people who have written to me what they have done. 

So one of them said, “I started pulling wayyyy back. I stopped visiting so much.” Another said, “I started saying no and my mother started figuring things out on her own and stopped depending on me so much.” Another one wrote in and talked about real gratitude that she started to have and she said, “I think she gave me the best she could (she’s referring to her mother) and I don’t want to feed hate inside of me.” This is somebody who was expected to take care of their siblings and became really attached to their siblings and even now in adulthood is continuing to take care of them and instead of hating her mom for that, she was able to turn it around and really reframe it and that is a beautiful thing, a beautiful skill to be able to do something like that.

Tip #7:

And finally somebody wrote, “I told myself that I am not my mother’s therapist nor am I her parent.” 

So again, it starts in your mind you have to make the decision about why you matter, where your needs begin and their needs end, where you need to put down a barrier, a boundary, and communicate your needs either verbally by saying “no” or by taking action and removing yourself from them if they’re very toxic.

By now you should have lots of things going through your mind, lots of tips of things that you could do. I hope this was helpful and I really want to hear about your story. So please reach out you can leave a comment at the end of this podcast episode and let me know what you think, what was helpful. You can leave a review on Apple podcasts.  You can reach out to me by going to www.bookachatwithsharon.com and we can have a session to really go over your situation and how I might be able to help, especially if you’re looking for some coaching around that.

As always I love hearing from you so I look forward to your comments and I’ll be back next week with some more tips on how you can optimize your life. In the meantime take care. 

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