Helping family members cope with the challenges of caring for an aging relative.
In the United States, there are around 40.4 million unpaid caregivers providing care to adults aged 65 or older. Of those, nearly nine out of ten are caring for a parent or relative, and these figures are expected to rise with the aging Baby Boomer population.
By definition, parentification is the assumption of a parentlike role by a child for their parent when the parent is no longer able to care for themselves. Children often feel obligated to reverse roles because the parent has taken care of them for their entire lives.
But the loving sentiment behind this idea isn’t always healthy or in the best interest of either person, particularly when mental illness creates a destructive relationship and complicates the role of the caregiver.
Causes of Parentification
Parentification can occur due to a number of factors. For older adults, the main causes of parentification are often disease- or illness-related, such as parents who develop dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Parents who can no longer care for themselves may rely on their children to step in as caregivers. The children take on tasks ranging from housework to running errands and may have to monitor the parent for safety reasons.
How Mental Illness Can Contribute to Destructive Parentification
Mental illnesses like Alzheimer’s and dementia can cause parentification to become destructive. When this happens, there is no longer any care or appreciation for the child or family member who is caring for them, and though unintentional, the effects can have a lasting negative impact on both sides.
Patients with mental illness may be unable to recognize the caregiver or remember the work they put forth. Their condition may cause them to become combative, hostile, or even disconnected from their family. They may no longer see their caregiver as a child or family member, but rather as someone who is controlling their life.
For the parentified child, depression and feelings of ill-will are common. Parentified children often experience poor interpersonal relationships and weakened connections.
When parentification becomes destructive, the role of caregiver transforms from duty to burden. Having an aging parent who suffers from mental illness can make the caregiver feel hopeless or lonely as they watch their biggest support system slowly fade.
And all too often, the caregiver feels lost and powerless, unable to think of anything that could improve the situation.
How Caregivers Can Cope
It’s not easy to sit back and watch a loved one in decline, especially if it’s a parent who once cared for you as a child.
However, it’s in the best interest of you and your loved one if you can recognize when parentification has become destructive and admit it’s affecting you in a negative way.
First and foremost, take time to heal the emotional wounds that parentification may be leaving. Individual or group therapy can provide support and a path to recovery as well as time off or a vacation. When you’re able to take care of your own needs, you’re better equipped to make decisions in the interest of others.
It’s also important to acknowledge how your role as a parentified caregiver may have affected others in your life. For example, if you have children who see the stress, anger, and resentment you experience, it could have a lasting impact on them, making it difficult to break the parentification cycle. Make sure you lead by example and show others that you prioritize self-care.
Home care for elderly people can help ease the burden and provide respite to caregivers, even if it’s just for a short while. The children of aging parents often have their own families and careers to focus on and may not be able to provide the level of care the family member needs, and that shouldn’t create feelings of guilt or ill-will.
Finding an opportunity to take a break can make a world of difference in combating feelings of depression that come with parentification. But more importantly, it allows a professional to focus on the specific problems of destructive parentification that will provide a better caregiving experience for both the parent and their child.
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Family Psychopathology: The Relational Roots of Dysfunctional Behavior
edited by Luciano L’Abate
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.
Boumans, N. P., & Dorant, E. (2018). A cross-sectional study on experiences of young adult carers compared to young adult noncarers: Parentification, coping and resilience. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences,32(4), 1409-1417. doi:10.1111/scs.12586
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