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There is a major difference between having a friendship with your child and parentifying them by putting them in the position of an adult. And even if it seems ‘harmless’ to put your child in that position, it’s quite detrimental to their emotional and psychological well-being.

As parents, it is our job to do just that: parent. Our role as a parent is supposed to always come first because our kids need us to be the stable, secure, and constant force in their life. When the roles are reversed, and we put our child in the position to be our security, our stability, and our constant, it’s not only unfair to them, it’s dangerous to them.

“Children should not be serving the intimate needs of a parent, or placed in the role of secret-keeper,” explains Lisa M. Hooper, a researcher, and professor at the University of Louisville. Hooper has taken part in extensive studies on the effects of parentification, which is basically when a parent places their child in the role of the adult, instead of vice versa.

Examples of this are when a mother talks down about her husband to her child. Or, when a parent discusses their intimate sexual lives with their kids. In some cases, parents who are too unstable to take care of their kids end up depending on their kids to take care of them. In turn, those children end up missing out on their childhoods because they are too busy trying to play the adult.

Children are not developmentally capable of handling adult situations, and the complex emotional issues of their parents, and should not be placed in a position to carry that burden. In many ways, this behavior is very close to neglect, because the needs of the parent are being placed before the needs of the child, and in many ways, the mental health of the child has been sacrificed accordingly.

Now, let me be clear: there is a difference between reaching out to your child for love and support when you are feeling down and outright putting them in the position of an adult (parentification.) Parentification happens either instrumentally, or on an emotional level, and either way, the results can be catastrophic to the mental health of the child.

When it comes down to it, a parent is supposed to be the one who can tend to their child’s emotional needs and not vice versa. Research has found that when parents lean on their children for emotional support, it typically leads to the child forming co-dependent relationships later on. Even worse, they are taught to put the needs of others always before their own. In turn, they end up leaning on substances, dealing with academic issues, and having social difficulties.

For those who are reading this that have been parentified, please know that what you have encountered is not your fault. And if you fear you are heading in the same direction with your children, it may be time to set healthy boundaries in your family. Additionally, it couldn’t hurt to seek an outside mediator that is trustworthy.