Breaking the Cycle of Blurred Parental Boundaries

Destructive parentification is a behavior in which a parent transfers the emotional or physical responsibility of parenting to their child. Some parents turn to their children for emotional support and expect their children to fill emotional voids. Other parents who engage in destructive parentification may expect their children to fulfill physical obligations such as caretaking. These behaviors diminish the appropriate boundaries between a parent and child that are necessary for a child to develop his or her own identity. Additionally, boundaries that are blurred can expose children to events and circumstances that they are emotionally and physically unprepared to handle. This type of parentification can have significantly negative outcomes for children. Research has shown that children who are the victims of parentification, which is considered a form of abuse, have higher rates of externalizing and internalizing problems in childhood and adolescence than those who do not experience parentification.

When victims of parentification become parents themselves, the risk of the cycle continuing is extremely high. However, few studies have examined how maternal behavior in adult victims of childhood parentification affects future generations. To explore the relationship between maternal behavior and childhood psychological development, Amy K. Nuttal of the Department of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana assessed 374 pairs of mother-child participants through the first 3 years of the children’s lives. The mothers were evaluated for childhood parentification in their own families of origin and and for mixed histories of emotional abuse, sexual abuse, or physical abuse.

Nuttal found that the women with destructive parentification were less responsive to their children at 18 months than those with no history of parentification. The unresponsiveness was predictive of externalizing behaviors in the children at 36 months. When Nuttal examined the effect of the father’s presence, she discovered that the participants who maintained a relationship with the father of the child had significantly lower levels of prior parentification than those who had no relationship with the fathers. Nuttal also found that previous parentification directly predicted low levels of maternal warmth in the participants, which indirectly predicted negative developmental outcomes for the children. She added, “This finding suggests that facilitating the development of maternal contingent responsiveness among mothers with a history of destructive parentification may promote more adaptive child development in the next generation.”

Nuttall, A. K., Valentino, K., Borkowski, J. G. (2012). Maternal history of parentification, maternal warm responsiveness, and children’s externalizing behavior. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029470

Related articles:
Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: Interview With Sandra Aamodt
Importance of Coping Skills, Part 2: Building Resilience
How to Teach Children Emotional Intelligence

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  • JillyZ

    August 23rd, 2012 at 3:07 PM

    I have seen this so many times in young moms particularly, who have had to grow up too soon and now they are forcing this on to their young kids as well. When you get into this pattern of behavior that has become fairly common, then no one is allowed to be a child anymore. Everyone is continually seeking someone to care for them, and they forget that at a certain point you have to leran to take care of yourself. So unfair for those who have been caught up in this, but the chain has to end somewhere.

  • EP

    August 23rd, 2012 at 8:31 PM

    I think the parents who do this are not ready to be parents themselves in the first place! When you treat your child like a parent it shows that you want to be treated like a child yourself! You are not ready to PROVIDE care, rather you are SEEKING it.And that is a horrible thing to do to a child.

    It is the lack of awareness and a resolve to be a good parent that can often lead to this.Also,being a parent is a great thing but only if you are ready for it.Just taking the plunge without giving it enough thought can often have disastrous results.

  • cathy

    August 23rd, 2012 at 11:55 PM

    it is not a clear case of perpetrator and victim but can sometimes be a victim victim one too..If one parent is an addict or displays some other problem then there are handed that the other parent will start to exhibit such behavior of wrong parenting.they feel helpless and may end up transferring the responsibilities onto their needs to be treated in a way that a victim is and not always like the person is at a fault.that way there is far more chances of the entire problem being fixed.

  • Lisa o

    August 24th, 2012 at 3:52 AM

    When children are given these responsibilities from a young age and are required to be the smart one in the home, that is setting them up for such a tough life. Who wants to feel like they have practically had to raise their own parents and yet this is exactly what happens to so many children in these situations. The parents, or the supposed adults I guess I should say, should be the ones taking care of them but they find it to be the other way around. How can that be healthy for the child who has been forced into this role?

  • Londiwe

    September 19th, 2014 at 12:26 AM

    Lisa, I was one of those children who mothered the whole family and I wasn’t even thanked for it, instead I was criticized left right and centre by the person who was meant to BE the mother .What it did to me is beyond comprehension.I am insecure, always nervous and anxious, too scared to make any mistake, failed relationships an still they blame me and call me weird and abnormal .How could I have been normal under such an abnormal upbringing .I am trying to separate from this dysfunctional family and forge a life for myself.It is scary because I have no template.It has made for such a hard and terrifying life .Please send me prayers and love Thank you x

  • Ashley G.

    April 29th, 2018 at 3:01 PM

    I completely understand how you feel being a Parentified Child has led me to underestimate myself, low self-esteem, and lack on confidence for years. I recently was able to turn it around by becoming extremely aware of my decisions and actions I make on a daily basis and reflecting on them day and night. Next, I have fully submerged myself in every mindset and self-help books mainly from the perspectives of successful people to adopt what they do and their mindsets. Doing that has helped me WONDERS. I am now starting my own business and been conducting mass research to see how I can help people with our similar stories.
    Much love,

    Ashley G.

  • hannah

    August 24th, 2012 at 10:47 AM

    it is a real stretch of the imagination for me to think about having a child yet not having the capability to develop a real and nurturing bond with that child
    i have wanted a baby for so long now that i would practically give a limb to have one, and there are all of these other people who have them who don’t wnat them at all
    and then when they do have a child that they don’t want then they turn around and screw up their lives for them because that’s the only thing that they knw, they are repeating the same things that were done to them
    how could you ever foster the growth of maternal caring and nurturing when this is the kind of person that you are talking about?
    i know that working with them to try to establish some bond would be a great first step toward making that child relationship healthy, but how many generations do we have to wait for that circle to be broken?

  • C.L

    August 24th, 2012 at 2:51 PM

    Never send a boy to do a man’s work. And yet people unload their responsibilities onto their children. I have seen such parents and it angers me to say the least. Such people do not deserve to be parents, there are so many people out there that can be great parents and have no kids, and you are just wasting this great blessing!


    August 24th, 2012 at 11:44 PM

    SHouldnt all this be a part of parenting 101?I mean who doesnt know you shouldnt do that to a child!if you are incapable of handling those responsibilities how in the world do you expect that young child to be able to?i think it says so much about you as a parent.stand up for yourself and change,youre only contributing to a cycle that can destroy several lives on its way!

  • Jada

    August 25th, 2012 at 7:45 AM

    Babies are having babies and like it or not that continues to be one of the biggest concerns that we have still not been able to stop. We need more sex ed from parents, from the schools, so that people know what causes them to get pregnant (duh!) and how to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Until we get control over this problem that still plagues our society then there will always be issues with people having kids who have no business having kids and perpetuating this strange parent/child confusion that seems to exist in so many families.

  • t broad

    August 25th, 2012 at 11:52 PM

    its easy to blame a parent doing this but that is not the solution to the this study has told and something that we need to understand is that people tend to do this if they were subjected to the same in their own they need to be seen as victims first and then as perpetrators.if their victim part is healed then the perpetrator part would automatically go away too!

  • Trish

    August 26th, 2012 at 8:40 AM

    If the parents are blurred as to what their roles are then imagine how the children in these homes feel!

    All of the other kids that they know are being taken care of, being allowed to have a childhood, and these children are so confused because this isn’t what they experience at home. In their lives they are the ones taking care of the adults and that leaves them not really knowing what their role is supposed to be and in a situation where they are not old enough to emotionally handle the role that they have been given.

  • Elli

    August 27th, 2012 at 5:58 PM

    “Destructive parentification” sounds like a term any of us would want to avoid!

  • Chrona

    October 14th, 2013 at 2:24 AM

    As a child who was emotionally parentified, I don’t condemn my parents but do pity them. The more I learn about what happened to me the more I identify with all the conclusions drawn in studies like this, but they overlooked one thing here.

    When you become enmeshed with a parent, that parent rewards you for supporting them. You’re told that you’re smart and special for helping mommy or daddy through their problems. You think that you’re such a good kid, but you suffer when your parent suffers. You believe that love is earned by doing, or else it isn’t real. You are re-victimized by people who exploit this belief. And finally, if you’re lucky, you figure out why all this is the case, and that close relationship you had with your parent is a lie. It’s a lie because you were used. Because your needs were unmet and continue to go unmet, and the parent who used you and the parent who didn’t stop it have both failed to parent you in any way.

    You are orphaned.

  • Londiwe

    September 19th, 2014 at 12:19 AM

    You have hit the nail on the head.I have literally just figured this out and I am in excruciating pain to realize that I wasn’t loved by the entire family.I am effectively an orphan and I have repeated the same cycle with friends and partners ! Well , it’s time to change.I thought that live had to be earned!

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