End the Parentification of Your Daughters

Daughters are all too often forced to assume parental roles to their siblings or own parents, and it needs to stop.

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A few days ago, as I scrolled through Reddit, I came across a post in a community called “AITA” (“Am I The [EXPLETIVE]”), where people post descriptions of situations for which they are unsure if they’re in the wrong. Titled “AITA for needing my daughter to help,” it detailed a man who, after his wife died, began relying on his 16-year-old daughter to take care of her two younger brothers. She gave up everything important to her—soccer, her art program, prom—to become essentially another parent to her siblings. He was even prepared to disallow her from going to a college out of state because she’d be, in his mind, “abandoning her family.” This post infuriated me more than many of the other messed up things I’ve seen on the Internet. My heart broke for this girl, who was all but forced to miss her adolescence.

This is in fact a form of abuse called parentification. The word was coined in the 1960s to describe the process of role reversal in which a child is forced to assume a parental role to their siblings or actual parents.

Parentification can play out in several ways. First, there is emotional parentification, in which the child is made to feel responsible for the mental well-being of his or her family. Second, there is instrumental parentification, in which the child is made to take on the bulk of the household’s physical tasks. The girl from the Reddit post, for example, suffered from both: her father, in telling her she was abandoning her family and implying that she alone was responsible for their well being, was practicing emotional parentification; her being forced to stay at home to take care of her brothers is, through and through, instrumental parentification.

The plethora of negative effects associated with parentification includes anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Parentified children are likely to grow up not knowing how to prioritize their own needs. Furthermore, as a form of chronic childhood abuse, parentification can cause complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

All too often, it is the eldest daughter who suffers from the burden of parentification. This stems from the sexist and patriarchal idea that it is a woman’s duty to take care of her family and that this responsibility should come before anything else, including all that is important to her. It propagates the idea, too: girls who experience parentification are more likely to enter relationships with people who need to be taken care of, further cementing the idea that women should be the ones taking care of others. And from these sexist structures emerge problems for everyone: it’s not just women who suffer from parentification—boys who grow up in families responsibility-free thanks to parentified sisters often struggle to be functional adults.

Though not at all to the extent of the abuse of the daughter from the Reddit post, I experienced a mild form of parentification with my cousins when I was younger. Despite being older by only seven months than my (male, might I add) cousins, I was always expected to be the responsible one; I was never off the hook. I was the mediator during my cousins’ frequent fights, and if I was involved in the conflict, I was expected to ignore my feelings and just apologize, regardless of whether or not I was actually in the wrong. If there were only two of something (cookies, presents, whatever else), I was expected to be the one to relinquish mine so my cousins could be happy. I love my cousins and the time we spend together very much—it’s not their fault in the slightest—but my mental health suffered from the emotional parentification I experienced and the excess responsibility I was given. At one point, I started getting frequent stomach aches from the stress.

Though my life wasn’t ruined the way this girl’s was or even really affected to a large extent (I only ever saw my cousins once or twice a year), it makes me wonder how common this situation is and how many girls have been negatively affected by parentification. It’s a problem and a cycle that needs to end.

But that’s easier said than done—the patriarchal entitlement to a daughter’s emotional and physical labor is built into many cultures, and it’s extremely difficult to dismantle. It’s hard to find just one solution to this systemic problem, but if we wish to end this form of abuse, efforts must start in the household. Rather than accepting as a universal truth the belief that the daughter must be the one to sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice to care for their family members, households must urge sons and daughters to equally share these responsibilities. Parentification needs to be treated like the form of abuse that it is; teachers and counselors who suspect a student is suffering from parentification should intervene as best as possible. At school and at home, girls need to be taught their worth as people—not just as caretakers.