Emotional Parentification is a toxic family dynamic that you may not have heard about but most likely experienced. If you have felt like you have had to be your parent's therapist, caretaker constantly, and confidant, keep reading.
There are two types of parentification- Instrumental Parentification and Emotional Parentification. In this post, you will read about Emotional Parentification.
When I reflect on my childhood, I noticed patterns of constantly trying to accommodate how my parents felt. If they were having a bad day, I would brainstorm ideas of what I could do to help them. If they were having a good day, I would think of ideas to keep that streak going. I did not have the language to help them, but I did pick up on their behaviors and triggers to know what would happen. As a child, we do not think about the implications of taking on that burden. We want our parents to be okay.
I think our parents do not even realize the effects of emotional parentification. When parents constantly share their emotional pain with their child, the child learns to put others' needs before their own needs. They are empathetic, which means they can be exploited relatively easily.
More importantly, the child's brain is not developed enough to handle that level of information or responsibility. To clarify, it is okay for parents to wish for love and support from their child. However, when that turns into parentification (role reversal), it can damage their development.
As someone who felt responsible for taking care of my parents growing up emotionally, I am sharing my top 5 tips on healing from the effects of emotional parentification that have worked for me.
This post is all about Emotional Parentification.
In the South Asian community, there is an expectation of caring for your parents, family, community despite them causing us physical, emotional, or spiritual damage. It may almost feel like you have been acting the role of a therapist for your parents, regulating their emotions and problem-solving for them.
When it does not work out in the parent's favor, they can get angry, emotionally manipulate you, or make you feel guilty for not being able to solve their problems. Keep in mind, though your parents have their trauma that they have not dealt with. This means no matter how much attention or nurturing they get from you, they are most likely to stay stuck in their old patterns.
It is important to understand that while you were taking care of your parent's needs, you put your own needs aside. This means you may have unmet needs of your own as you go into adulthood. Your parents met your emotional needs when they believed you emotionally supported them the way they wanted. This is highly toxic as it teaches the child that their needs are too much. This could further lead to the child blaming themselves for everything.
Keep reading and you will learn about emotional parentification, the effects of emotional parentification, and different ways to heal from it. After learning about these 5 healing hips, you will be able to reflect on your healing journey and break the cycle.
When a child is conditioned at a young age to take on the emotional burden of an adult- now as an adult- it can look like:
1. Not engaging in meaningful relationships.
2. Being afraid to share your emotions.
3. Not voicing your concerns.
4. Involving yourself in relationships where you can problem-solve for others.
5. Confusion when someone does care about your needs.
6. Depression, anxiety, and isolation.
8. Unable to get past the guilt and shame.
You may also continue to pursue this role as a way to seek validation as an adult. You may fear that if you do not tend to your parents' needs, they may fall apart. The parent may exploit this further by playing the victim and making you feel guilty if you choose not to be there for them.
Your parent's pain is their responsibility, not
"But Nisha, our parents sacrificed their life by immigrating to the United States so that we can have a future full of possibilities. Don't we then have an obligation towards them?"
My answer to that is- NO. There is a difference between caring and emotional abuse. I always say our life comes down to choices. They made a choice. The price of a secure future is not a constant sacrifice of self, especially when it is a threat to your mental, emotional, physical safety. This was a pretty defining moment in my life. I recognize this is much easier said than done, and many may not agree with it. It took me about 3 years to realize that it was not my job to change my parents- although it sure did feel like it.
As children of immigrants, we have this profound sense of obligation to support our family, recognizing that they didn't have access to the same resources that we do. It is easy to think then that you must sacrifice yourself or constantly help them get through their crisis. That is the price we pay.
It may take you a while to understand and ACCEPT that it is okay to work towards your healing journey, create boundaries, and do your part in breaking the cycle. Initially, your parents might make you feel guilty for not continuing to sacrifice yourself for them. Because of this, you may experience a level of shame and/or survivor guilt as you start to have a better life in comparison to your parents.
You can choose to share this new way of life, but in the end, only you are responsible for your healing journey. As I continue my healing journey, my parents have become more open to having these difficult conversations with us and learning more about themselves in the process.
Anything that comes at a cost to your mental health can't be and should not be worth it. Each family is different, and the severity of the dysfunction is different, so only you can decide your boundaries and what is and isn't acceptable.
5 Ways To Heal From Emotional Parentification
1. Therapy to heal from emotional parentification
Tell your story. You may be so used to suppressing your own emotions and memories, feeling guilty for seeking help, feeling guilty to talk about your parents in a way that isn't safe for you, and acknowledging what happened to you. Acknowledgment is the first step towards healing from your family's dysfunctional patterns, understanding how those patterns are developed, and how they were passed on through past generations.
The goal is not to blame. Initially, you will find yourself blaming yourself and justifying your parent's actions which are completely normal. Once you learn to detach from your parents, you will see that your family was not healthy. You can choose to live another way even if your family chooses not to.
2. Challenge yourself to connect with others
When you grow up being a parent to everyone around you, you become pretty self-reliant. You grow up believing that you need to take care of everything on your own. Asking for help is pretty foreign to you, and it can create a lot of anxiety. The first time I decided to seek help- truly- I was lingering outside the counselor's office pretending I was just walking around. It took everything in me to step into that office. It almost felt like I failed myself and everyone in my life by asking for help.
There was also this fear that if my parents found out, they would fall apart as if they did something wrong in raising me. Everyone experiences asking for help differently, but when you have been taking care of everyone else your entire life, know that it is OKAY to ask for help.
3. Healing your inner child
There are so many ways to heal your inner child. Pay attention to your patterns, reflect on your childhood- what brought you joy, work with your inner critic. Go back to things that made you happy, do things that made you feel safe.
Journaling is one of the most powerful ways to heal. I am still learning to practice this regularly myself. Journaling will allow you to reflect on your patterns and feelings and give you a space to pour out your feelings. I usually write about my day, and that highlights so many of my patterns. It is simple yet so effective.
5. Affirmations for healing from emotional parentification
Growing up, you may have heard things like 'you are no good', 'you can't do anything right', 'you don't love me' etc., which can be damaging to your self-esteem. It is important to practice positive affirmations. One of my favorite ones is one day at a time. Every time I become extremely anxious during my healing journey, I like to say, 'one day at a time' &' you are enough.'
Parents, a quick reminder,
A child needs to hear," You don't need to worry about me, it is my job to worry about you. I can take care of myself and have enough people I can rely on for support." Please share with your child that you are going through difficult situations, validate their fears, and ask questions.
It is also important to note here that no family is perfect. Please do not confuse a family that merely goes through its ups and down with a dysfunctional family. Dysfunctional family in this space mainly covers abuse, neglect and household dysfunction.
I also honestly believe that a family can heal. Parents make mistakes. We, their children, make mistakes. It is important to recognize no parent is perfect. They are only human trying their best like we are. It is essential to be empathetic about the fact that our parents could not break the cycle but paved the path for us to do it for ourselves and generations to come. Give them a chance, listen, don't immediately choose anger. Yes, boundaries are important but do not be so rigid that you are unable to see any potential improvements in your relationship. (This may not be true for everyone.)
If you are someone who feels responsible for your parent's feelings, know that you are not alone. Guilt and shame can consume us, especially because our culture values family so much despite the harm caused.
You are worthy of taking up space in this world, you deserve to be heard, you deserve to receive support. You should never have had to take on that burden. I am sorry that you did. You can work through those heavy emotions, one day at a time.
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