Updated: Jun 5
This particular tactic relates to narcissistic parents and their behavior with their children. Although some responsibility is great for children to learn, this is in the extreme and covers specific areas, such as taking care of adult responsibilities, managing the household, meeting the emotional and physical needs of others, above and beyond what is age-appropriate. In these circumstances, the child is providing the parenting and the parent is getting their needs met without contributing to the child's needs.
What is the difference between assigning chores and parentification? Assigning chores teaches the children how to manage the household and are divided among members of the house. Parentification would be demanding the child or children take over all management without the parent contributing. Sometimes this is called instrumental parentification and can include paying bills, budgeting, translating for the family, housekeeping, grocery shopping and cooking. It may also include physically caretaking for a sibling or parent's physical needs in the event of illness, injury or disease.
Emotional incest is an ugly term and is pretty straightforward in terms of definition. In traditional incest, a family member uses the vulnerable and easily accessible people in their family, often children to meet sexual needs. Emotional incest only replaces the needs met, swapping sexual needs for emotional needs. This may look like the child becoming the confidante for their parent, hearing about things inappropriate for their age, having to mediate between parents and others, providing emotional support and comfort for the parent and offering advice to a parent.
Parentification and emotional incest both result in confused boundaries in adult relationships, undue stress, increase the likelihood of codependency issues, anxiety, perfectionism, type A behaviors and burnout, etc. This role reversal makes the child feel they must perform over and above normal standards to meet the needs of others as an attempt to receive love. Further, children become incredibly sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, leading them to feel that they must become fixers and people pleasers, must be extremely responsible, organized and empathetic. This often leads to overthinking as a child gets in the pattern of trying to predict the needs of others to reduce conflict.
You are 16 and your grandmother and mother are fighting. "If your grandmother calls, I need you to answer the phone and tell her that she needs to back off and not call again" This demonstrates being pulled in as the mediator and being expected to set boundaries for the parent.
Your father has fallen behind on mortgage payments due to mismanagement of the budget. "I know you are only 15 and in school full time, but I need you to go to work to help pay the mortgage or we will lose our house" Paying a mortgage is the responsibility of a parent, and this places added stress on a child who then feels responsible if the family loses the house.
You are 13, its a Thursday at 3:30pm and you have just gotten home from school. "I'm going out to the bar, I need you to watch your younger brothers, make sure they finish their homework, feed them dinner, and put them to bed at 8:00, don't call me unless it is an emergency!" Making sure the children finish their homework, get dinner and get to bed is a parent's responsibility, but they have chosen to meet their own wants before the needs of the children, foisting them onto the child.
You are 10 years old, return from school one day and your mother is crying at the table. "Your good for nothing step-father has left us again because I didn't want to have sex with him every night, now what are we going to do?" Children do not need to know about parent's sex lives, this is a concern that needs to be addressed with other adults. This puts pressure on the child to "fix" the situation and jump in to give mother advice and soothe mother's emotions.
As the child grows up, these patterns continue and the child remains overly involved with the parents, struggles to say no, set boundaries and if they do they are cast out as the black sheep and replaced with a different sibling, new spouse or a close friend, reinforcing that love will be withheld if they do not meet the needs of others.
Parentification and emotional incest are not specific to narcissistic abuse. They can also be seen in families where there is parental mental illness, past trauma, chronic disease or disability, addiction issues, divorce and single parent households and difficult circumstances.
Learning about the tactics used in narcissistic abuse is a strong way to begin to notice ongoing patterns of abuse in your life, however this blog is not intended to replace therapy. If you determine that there might be narcissistic abuse in your life, finding a therapist who understands narcissistic abuse is highly recommended.