September 13, 2011

Guest Post: Parentification in YA (and eBook giveaway!)

Today I'm happy to welcome Jeannie Campbell from The Character Therapist to the blog for a Psychtember guest post!
Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit, but has worked in a variety of venues, from a psychiatric hospital to private practice. She graduated summa cum laude from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with a Masters in Psychology and Counseling and magna cum laude from the University of Mississippi with a double major in psychology and journalism.

I’m so honored to be included in Psychtember. YA books are some of the most fun to read for me because I deal with a lot of teens and early twenties in my own practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.

Today I’m blogging about parentified teens, which is something I’ve seen a lot in real life, so therefore should see a lot of in fictional books. All of you YA writers out there would be the best place for me to start. 

Parentification is a role reversal between parent and child. The child's needs of comfort, guidance and attention are sacrificed to meet the parent's physical and emotional needs.

There are two types of parentification: 

1) Emotional 

A child is robbed of a childhood when they have to meet the emotional or psychological needs their parent. Parents sometimes talk to their children as if they are therapists, best friends, or even worse, as a surrogate spouse or significant other. Sometimes this is called emotional incest, and it happens with the child who is the opposite sex of the parent. 

2) Physical 

Sometimes called instrumental parentification, this is when the child takes up the role of meeting the physical needs of the parent or family. This could include cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, paying bills, getting younger siblings ready for school, helping with homework, giving out medications, and much more. It's not the same as giving a child assigned chores to complete. It's dysfunctional in that the duties are beyond the age-appropriate level for that child, leaving them little/no time to engage in normal childhood activities like playing, going to school, doing sports, developing peer friendships, and even sleeping. 


Children and teens learn about their world through experience. They go through developmental milestones each year, which allow them to be self-sufficient adults. When they are in a home with responsible parents, they are free to explore their environment and not worry about making mistakes because they have their parents as safety nets.

A parentified child has no such freedom. They are stifled, unable to explore for fear of making mistakes, and they can't afford to make mistakes! They become isolated from their peers and may associate with individuals who are older, putting them at risk of being manipulated or used by older people. They carry an enormous burden, which is unhealthy and overwhelming. It's emotional abuse with damaging effects. 


What type of parents do parentified children likely have? Usually if there is any kind of drug or alcohol abuse, the children try to take care of their parent. Stealing their keys so the parent doesn't drive drunk, hiding alcohol or pills so they can't be found...that type thing. If a parent is absent and there are multiple children, the oldest will generally be parentified, stepping in to take care of the younger by doing laundry, learning to cook, making school lunches, etc. Parents with personality disorders or severe mental illness are also prone to parentifying their children. It varies from situation to situation, but rarely (if ever) would you find a parentified child with a "normal" parent. 


There are many. I'll stick to a few main ones below. 

1) Rocky relationships as adults - in general, a parentified child has difficulties forming relationships as an adult. Many marriages and friendships fail as adults. Sometimes when a child isn't allowed to act like a child when he/she is a child, they start to act like a child when they grow up. Their partner might think them irresponsible or immature, as if they are sowing wild oats not sown before. 

2) Anger - can be explosive or passive. They may not know why they are angry, but find themselves lashing out at people they care about. They can harbor lingering resentment at their parent, long after the parent has died or been incarcerated or institutionalized. Eventually the child will grow up and realize they had no childhood, and they'll never get that time back. 

3) Perfectionism - mentioned above, but a parentified child had to live up to high expectations, not only of their incompetent parent, but also of themselves. What child doesn't want to please their parent, to take care of them if need be? As children they believed that their power was unlimited. Rescuing their mom or dad required doing everything just right, and if they failed, they berate themselves and think it's their fault. They do this into adulthood. 

4) Control freak - being robbed of any other way of living except being in control, a parentified child might automatically default to being in control (if they don't swing in the other direction), and might react badly when a situation goes beyond their control or they feel their control is being threatened.

Young adults everywhere can relate to parentification, I promise. Either they will have experienced it firsthand or know of a friend who did. I hope that this post gets your wheels turning about how to incorporate this information into your own works in progress!

I hope that you’ll take the time to visit my website, The Character Therapist, and sign up for my newsletter. You’ll automatically receive my Writer’s Guide to Character Motivation for free. While you’re there, sign up to be a “follower” of my blog…just ‘cause you’re nice.

I’m also giving away a copy of my Writer’s Guide to Creating Rich Back Stories to one lucky commenter on this post! To be entered, just leave your email address below.

Thanks very much, Jeannie, for such an interesting discussion, and for offering up your e-book for giveaway! The winner will be drawn on Sunday, Sept. 18, after 8 pm EDT.


  1. Wow, this was insightful. I've seen this around and never knew what it was.
    Thank you for sharing your insights on the subject!

    And I'd love to be entered in the giveaway
    jessapphire at gmail (dot) com

  2. you're welcome Jessica!

    and thanks, Danya, for hosting me. :)

  3. Jeannie, I'm so impressed, not just with your degrees and high honors, but with the cogent analysis of a very complicated issue. In viewing psychology as a social science, it would be interesting to compare the cultural climate of, say the 19th Century, with today's. Past generations had no qualms about "parentifying" a child's role in the family. It was thought of as teaching a child responsibility or helping in the family. Today's world (at least in the West)now has different views of what a healthy childhood should be; thank goodness. Alice Lynn

  4. Please enter me in contest. I am a follower and email subscriber.

  5. This is very interesting. Thanks for the post.
    Please enter me!! Thanks!:)

    kristengjohnson (at) gmail (.) com

  6. Yes! I'm so glad someone talked about this! I get so frustrated whenever I read about these types of parents in YA fiction. A lot of YA books act like this is not a big deal (because it's a convenient way to write the parents mostly out of the plot), but it always bugs me.

  7. what an interesting topic! Thanks so much for sharing your insight with us.

    Jen Uhlarik

    P.S. please enter me in the drawing.
    wkinson at verizon dot net

  8. This is the first I've heard of this book but I must say you have totally drawn me in with the subject matter. Being a social worker myself I can appreciate how parents screw up their kids. :) Thanks for the article. Love it!

  9. As usual, Jeannie, incredibly interesting! I think my WIP's MC may have a little of this going on ... your descriptions have helped me understand it a little better.

    And, yes, I would love to be included in the drawing for your book!

    Thank you!
    Stacy Aannestad

  10. I'm so interested to see what the effects in adulthood of this situation can become. I knew it was bad for the kid but not what the consequence might be. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Such an interesting topic & post! I loved it! And it's SO true! I feel like we see a lot of this in YA, but no real... depth to it. They will briefly mention that the kid is the parent or more mature (like Bella in Twilight)but that will be all. I feel like too often, they don't address the severe downfalls for a kid needing to be the parent and in some books, it looks glamorous. (Which is NOT a good thing...)


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