Parent-Child Role Reversal

parent-child role reversal

Parents and children should have clearly defined roles. Parents take care of children, and children are free to grow up safe, happy, and protected. However, parent-child role reversal can blur these roles and even change them entirely.

What Is Parent-Child Role Reversal?

The parental role is often one of giving. Parents care for their children’s physical and emotional needs and provide love, nurturing, food, shelter, and structure. In cases of parent-child role-reversal, however, the child is the one who gives to the parent. This is known as parent-child role reversal, or parentification – a term coined in 1973 by Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark.[1] This may be voluntarily on the child’s behalf, or their parent may give them duties and responsibilities, but they learn that taking on parental duties is how they can stay close to their parent.

Two types of parentification have been identified:

  • Instrumental parentification – in instrumental parentification, children take on or are given practical responsibilities, such as taking care of their siblings, cleaning the house, and paying bills. Taking on so many practical tasks can place many demands on children that are intensely distressing and focus more on their parents’ needs rather than the child’s.[2]
  • Emotional parentification – emotional parentification happens when children fulfil their parents’ emotional needs. They often try to diffuse household stress and conflicts, placing the needs of their parents above their own while repressing their own needs or feelings to provide support.

Parentification is not always parent-focused – sometimes, it can be sibling-focused. Children may become caregivers for a sick or disabled sibling, forcing them to put others’ needs and feelings above their own.

Causes of Parent-Child Role Reversal

Parent-child role-reversal can occur when family systems experience high levels of stress. This can mean the parent cannot meet the child’s needs, which prompts them to step into a parental role. Stressors and potential causes of this role reversal can include:

  • Substance use disorder in a parent
  • Divorce
  • Financial pressures and hardship
  • Illness
  • Mental health conditions

These circumstances can lead parents to treat children (often firstborn children) as substitute parental figures rather than as their child.[3]

Long-Term Effects of Parent-Child Role Reversal

As children, those acting in a caretaker role may often be regarded as mature, capable, and confident. However, although these traits may seem positive on the surface, they stem from a harmful place, and the effects can reach far into the future. Adults who were parental figures as children can struggle with many long-term consequences, including:

  • Relationship difficulties – early childhood experiences can shape people’s relationships in later life. Stepping into a caretaker role can develop an insecure attachment style, which can impact relationships in adulthood, causing anxiety and a fear of abandonment. In romantic relationships, people may take on the caretaker role, even when they do not want to.
  • Mental health – a child acting as a caregiver to their parents can often feel like they have to put everyone ahead of themselves and hide their emotions. As they grow, this can seriously affect their mental health, causing significant stress and anxiety.
  • Substance abuse – children may struggle with substance use disorder as adults, turning to substances to mask their pain or deal with their emotions.

Adults who assume a parental role as children can also struggle with relationships with their children later in life. Some research has suggested that parentification can be intergenerational and is passed down between generations, meaning that adults can, in turn, reverse the roles of themselves and their children to compensate for their childhood losses.

Adults struggling with the consequences of parent-child revolve reversal can also have problems trusting other people, want to control every situation they are in, and have trouble relaxing. They have often spent so much time denying their own needs and feelings that they feel they cannot do anything for themselves.

Healing From Parent-Child Role Reversal

The effects of parent-child role reversal can be challenging to manage in adulthood; however, there are many ways that people can work towards healing, including:

  • Finding community support – research has suggested that receiving support from peers and other family members can help people overcome the negative effects of parent-child role reversal.[4]
  • Setting boundaries – children who took on a caretaker role for their parents in childhood may not have a good sense of boundaries, as they have had no space to put themselves first. Learning how to set boundaries within their relationships can help them to put themselves first and cultivate healthy relationships where they are not caretakers.
  • Cultivating emotional and mental health – assuming a parental role in childhood can be exhausting and lead to feelings of depression and anxiety as an adult. Many can also feel that they were not allowed to express their emotions as children, as no one would have been there to support them. Adults can benefit hugely by allowing themselves to feel and express their emotions in healthy ways and take positive steps to support their mental health.

The healing process can be difficult for those who were expected to take on the role of a parent. Seeking professional help can be highly beneficial and working with a therapist can help people heal from patterns of parentification.

Parent-child role reversal causes children to grow up too quickly and assume too much responsibility for their age, potentially hindering their natural growth and development. As adults, they can have insecure attachment styles, causing relationship difficulties and damaging their mental health. However, with the right support and correct approach, healing is always possible.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


[1] Engelhardt, Jennifer. “The Developmental Implications of Parentification: Effects on Childhood Attachment”. Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, Teachers College, Columbia University, vol 14, 2012, Accessed 16 Nov 2021.

[2] Hooper, Lisa M. et al. “Predictors of Growth and Distress Following Childhood Parentification: A Retrospective Exploratory Study”. Journal of Child and Family Studies, vol 17, no. 5, 2007, pp. 693-705. Springer Science and Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s10826-007-9184-8. Accessed 16 Nov 2021.

[3] Reder, Peter; McClure, Mike; Jolley, Anthony (2005). Family Matters: Interfaces between Child and Adult Mental Health. Routledge. p. 145. ISBN 978-1-13-459685-0.

[4] Połomski P, Peplińska A, Lewandowska-Walter A, Borchet J. Exploring Resiliency and Parentification in Polish Adolescents. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Oct 30;18(21):11454. doi: 10.3390/ijerph182111454. PMID: 34769971; PMCID: PMC8583031.