The 'parentification' burden: when kids are forced to play parent

All too often, South African children are forced to take on the role of the parent.

This distressing experience of role reversal is referred to as ' parentification'.

Counselling psychologist Jeremy Bayer explains that parentification is when a child is made to feel responsible to fill the void of a missing or absent parent.

He says the phenomena typically occurs in 'broken homes', single-parent households or in families plagued with divorce, death, drug abuse or conflict.

The child steps in to fulfill a parent's role. The child is roped in to help out, neglecting their own feelings as a result - which has long term negative consequences.

Jeremy Bayer, counselling psychologist

These children are forced to grow up so quickly, so young. This is unfortunately a South African phenomena at the moment.

Jeremy Bayer, counselling psychologist

As a young child, the burdens of adulthood can be traumatic and leave psychological scars later on in life.

Bayer says childhoods are stolen when parents and guardians relinquish responsibility to provide physically and emotionally for their children.

Parents have a duty to care for their child's emotional and physical needs.

Jeremy Bayer, counselling psychologist

The eldest child is most likely to experience parentification because they are seen as the most "mature", Bayer explains.

He says some children are obligated to act as a parent, not only to their siblings but, to their own parent as well.

Parentification also becomes the breeding grounds for crime such as theft, in order to survive, as life becomes about meeting primary needs such as food and basic care.

According to Bayer, these are some of the negative consequences of parentification:

  • can foster feelings of fear, failure and anxiety in young children
  • lack of emotional stability later in adulthood
  • suicidal thoughts
  • may lead to teenage pregnancy
  • poor academic performance
  • interrupted psycho-social development
  • deffered dreams and ambitions
  • unstable relationships
  • feelings of inadequacy
  • over-contolling behaviour

The counselling psychologist advises that it's important for those who have been forced into parentifaction to speak about their experience and seek professional help to resolve any ongoing issues.

Several listeners called in to share their experiences of parentification growing up:

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