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Instrumental Parentification

One of the things that I hear repeatedly in therapy is the parentification of children from a young age, particularly children of narcissists. It’s something that parents need to be very careful not to do to children, so as to avoid the impact of that behaviour, which I’ll explain later.

So, I guess the first thing is to establish what it is.

There are three types of parentification. The first is Instrumental Parentification, the second is Emotional Parentification, and the third is Narcissistic Parentification.

Because this topic is big, I’m going to break it into individual blogs for each one, so I can do them each justice.

I’ll start with Instrumental Parentification (I suspect most of you want to know about Narcissistic Parentification, so sorry if I’m disappointing in the first two instances!)

This is when, a parent burdens a child with too many of the household chores and responsibilities. A child who is asked to look after a sick relative, or other children in the house, who is made to cook or clean more than is appropriate for their age. A child whose natural social development is inhibited by the responsibilities at home.

One example of that inhibition might be where a teenager is repeatedly required to stay home to look after younger children instead of joining their friends to go to the shops or for sleepovers etc. Once a month or every couple of months yes, but every weekend? No. It’s not appropriate for a child to raise children they didn’t have themselves.

So, finding the line between appropriate and inappropriate might be hard, but ultimately, it comes down to asking a child to do something that is beyond the scope of their years, and takes too much of their personal time.

For example, a 10 year old can unload the dishwasher and feed the dog every day, but they can’t hoover and mop the floors every day too. They can put the bins out for the rubbish lorry with some assistance, but they aren’t responsible for emptying all the bins and carrying all the bags outside. They can sit with their younger sibling for 10 minutes, but they can’t be left with them for hours without adult support and supervision. They aren’t responsible for cooking every day, or bathing smaller children.

Good parenting means teaching your child life skills such as cooking, cleaning and laundry, but it isn’t about making them wholly responsible for those chores, and punishing them when they get it wrong or if they aren’t ‘up to standard’.

Part of family life is pitching in, but finding the balance between teaching and holding responsible for is vital.

The impact of Instrumental Parentification is one where the child grows into an adult who feels they are responsible for much more than they are. Have difficulty asking for help, could have problems with perfectionism, anxiety, control. They may struggle with boundaries and being able to say ‘no’, even when completely overwhelmed and unable to complete the tasks they already have. They may be the complete opposite of that too!

They may feel their only contribution is to help others and not be able to accept help from others at all. They will seem strong and independent.

Please don’t misunderstand this. Children need to help around the house and learn what it takes to look after themselves, but they also need to be a kid and learn about balance and fun and joy in being young.

To help guide on what’s appropriate for the varying ages for household chores I have attached an image to explain. I cannot emphasise enough that, just because they are capable, it does not become their exclusive responsibility, merely something they do to help their parent.

As ever, please feel free to ask any questions.


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