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
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