As difficult as divorce is for you, it is even more so for most children of divorce, especially when they feel they must give emotional support to one of their parents. It is a clear – and unfortunate – role reversal when children have to give their parents emotional support instead of the other way around. It is called “parentification.”

This is similar to “adultification,” which occurs when parents expose children to adult responsibilities. Some use the terms interchangeably. Some say the former is a type of the latter. In any case, both are avoidable in your divorce.

How do Parentification and Adultification Happen?

A lot of therapists will tell you that parentification and adultification are not uncommon in divorces. And it is easy to see why. Here are some of the ways that parents parentify or adultify their children during and after their divorce.

  • Treat the child as a friend or social companion.
  • Force the child to listen to adult problems, e.g. complaining about an ex-spouse.
  • Force the child to choose with whom he wants to live.
  • Seek emotional support from the child.

The last scenario is often unintentional; children see parents upset and want to comfort them. Children also may offer support as a way to stave off change and attempt to hold the family together. But it should be the other way around; the parent should offer emotional support to the child rather than relying on the child for support.

What are Potential Consequences of Parentification and Adultification?

When a parent adultifies or parentifies a child, the parent does not allow that child to develop appropriately. Children must grow up faster than normal and take on adult responsibilities and concerns at the expense of normal childhood development. Simply put, parents do not allow their kids to be kids.

For example, a child who feels the need to be there for his parent at all times may have trouble socializing with other children and might experience higher stress levels. According to Cultural Sociology of Divorce, parentified or adultified children may show signs of emotional problems such as depression.

Children may also struggle to establish “separate identities or autonomy.” An adultified child does not receive the space to grow, experience life on his own terms, or make and fix mistakes.

A well-known example of this consequence is the “affluenza” case. In 2013, wealthy, intoxicated 16-year-old Ethan Couch drove his pickup truck into a disabled vehicle on the side of the road in Texas, killing four and injuring several others. He received probation instead of jail time because a judge controversially agreed he suffered from “affluenza” and never learned right from wrong.

Years prior, a social worker found that his parents adultified and coddled Couch.

That is not to say that all cases of adultification or parentification have such disastrous results. But some mental health professionals point to the social worker’s report as evidence of the family’s dysfunction and its effects on Couch. “This was a very dysfunctional family,” psychologist Michael Flynn told local station WFAA in Dallas after he looked over the social worker’s report. “Did not prepare Ethan for adulthood. It doesn’t surprise me at all that it has run its course this way.”

How to Avoid Adultification or Parentification

It can be easy to unintentionally adultify or parentify a child while in the midst of an emotional divorce. But there are steps parents can take to avoid it.

  • First, establish healthy boundaries. Remember that your child is not your friend or confidante.
  • Do not talk badly about your spouse in front of your child. Regardless of whether your spouse is the reason for your divorce, your child does not need to know the details. All your child needs to know is that the divorce is not his fault.
  • Do not make your child choose between you and your spouse. Do not use your child as a pawn in your divorce. Your child will make his own decisions when he is ready to do so.
  • Do not rely on your child for emotional support. If you need someone to talk to, discuss your divorce and emotions with a friend or adult family member or speak with a therapist.
  • Consider taking your child to therapy as well. Even if he is not seeking emotional support from you, he may be in need of it.

Get Legal Support from Molly B. Kenny in Bellevue

Your divorce may be difficult and you may crave support, but remember that you are your child’s support system, not the other way around.

Meanwhile, if you need legal support and representation for a family law matter (divorce, child custody, visitation, etc.), then call me at 425-460-0550. We will set up a consultation to review your case.

Molly B. Kenny
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Divorce and Child Custody Attorney Serving Bellevue and Seattle Washington