The line between “Mommy’s little helper” and “Mommy’s little caretaker” is very delicate, and it’s important for moms to know the difference.
Consider, for instance, the following scenario. Mommy asks her 10-year-old daughter to refill her glass of wine while the family watches Curious George on a Friday night. Harmless enough, right? What if Mommy has a few more glasses of wine, falls asleep on the couch and daughter has to tuck Mommy and her 4-year-old brother into bed, while brushing her teeth and saying her nighttime prayers by herself?
You might feel pretty judgmental of drunk Mommy, but the scenario I described happens all the time in American homes. According to Dr. Carole Lieberman of UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, the phenomenon is called parentification. “It occurs when a parent abdicates her parental role and allows her child to take care of her, instead of the other way around,” Lieberman explains. It’s insidious, because most parents don’t even know when they’re doing it. “Parents are more likely to parentify their child when they’re feeling overwhelmed by life stressors, or have physical or psychological problems, like narcissistic personality disorder or addiction.”
The alcohol scenario may not ring true for you, but Lieberman provided the following examples to put parentification in context:
- A single mom sets an early curfew for her high school daughter, making her come home in time to keep the mother company so she won’t feel alone.
- A child does all the laundry, all the cooking and all the household chores, because he knows his parent is in chronic pain.
- A dad battling addiction asks his daughter to call his boss with an excuse for why he isn’t at work.
Unfortunately, no one is immune from this caretaking dynamic, since it can emerge slowly and quietly over time. It’s important, however, for parents to correct the dynamic if they realize they’re relying too heavily upon their child for help. “Children need to be nurtured by their parents,” says Lieberman. “It’s not healthy for them to switch roles and nurture their parents. It makes them feel scared, confused, depressed and lost.” It can also lead into co-dependency as children grow into adults.
If you yearn to be coddled by your child, or recognize that you’ve parentified your kid, it’s not too late to correct it. “Ask yourself what’s causing the imbalance,” suggests Lieberman. Either work to correct it by facing the problem head-on, or by asking for help from your adult support system, like family, friends and even hired help.