This week, two new clients came to me.

One is exhausted trying to be everything for everyone—managing campaigns, being the primary parent, running a consulting business on the side.

The other recently left a job in which she outperformed her boss but earned considerably less. She ran her department from behind the scenes.

I asked each about their families of origin.

Both said that their parents were not emotionally present. They both had to play the role of the big one, the family caretaker.

I said, it sounds like you were parentified. After I described this pattern, they both said, that’s me!

Parentification is a systemic pattern where there is an appropriate order (say, child, parent, parent’s parent), and the little one gets sucked into the layer of the biggest one (say, the child gets sucked into the layer of the parent’s parent).

Parentification in Families

Parentification happens in families when a parent cannot parent their children adequately (often because their own parent was unavailable or died at an early age) and a child takes on the responsibility of parenting themself and/or their siblings, and/or parenting their parent.

For example, I was parentified at a young age. One reason was that my mother’s mother struggled with alcoholism, was unable to be present for my mother, and died of cirrhosis before I was born. Partially because of this, my mother was unable to be fully present to me, and I learned to take care of myself from a young age.

Parentification in Organizations

Parentification also occurs within organizations when a boss doesn’t do their job effectively (perhaps they feel uncomfortable in their leadership role or overwhelmed by responsibilities), and they lean on an employee.

The employee who takes on their boss’s  responsibilities is parentified. Many middle managers are parentified.

When an employee informally takes the reins, it creates a sense of rest in the short term because tasks get done. But it also creates confusion: Your manager must assess you and give directives, but they’re now also your workmate.

In the long term, disorder ensues. Team members feel less safe because they don’t know where people stand, and informal lines of communication become more important than formal ones.

Even within cooperative, non-hierarchical leadership structures, it’s essential to have clear agreements about who leads what. Parentification happens when someone takes over a leadership role without explicit agreement or conscious acknowledgment of what’s happening.

The Benefits of Parentification

Parentification can have huge benefits. Parentified people often become high achievers with exceptional skills. They thrive as community organizers, leaders, entrepreneurs, coaches, consultants, teachers, doctors, lawyers.

They often understand what is in the greater good and are willing to share their opinions, take risks, and sacrifice for the good of the whole.

The Downsides of Parentification

However, parentification can also lead to the following symptoms:

  • Workaholism
  • Exhaustion and burnout
  • Taking responsibility for things that are not yours
  • Taking charge when it’s not your place
  • Arrogance, judgment, and a condescending attitude
  • Believing that you are/know better than others (although you’re embarrassed to admit it)
  • Feeling disconnected: The Lonely Leader
  • Not feeling part of the team because you’re in charge of the team:
  • Resentment
  • Expecting yourself to be bigger than you are
  • Focusing too much outside of your sphere of influence
  • Savior mentality
  • Guilt at not being able to change single-handedly
  • Overly relying on yourself
  • Having a hard time asking for help

Acknowledgment is the first step toward healing.

By becoming aware of the parentified part of yourself, you gain the freedom to discern your actions.

The goal is not to eliminate the parentified part of yourself. Rather, the work is to be aware of the parentified part so it can serve you when it’s helpful and rest when it’s not.

You might also shine a light on the parentified part’s beliefs. For example, it might say something like, If I’m big, then I’m safe. Or I need to be as big as I can be.

By becoming aware of the stories we tell ourselves, we create space to choose new stories that serve us more.

For example, a more accurate story might be this: No matter how much more competent (or taller) you are than your parent, they will always be the parent and you will always be the child. They are the big one. You are the little one. That is what is.

When we stop trying to be bigger than we are, we become more capable of seeing ourselves as parts of movements or nodes in systems—rather than individual agents. We become capable of taking right-sized action without burning out.

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