Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Expanding the Discussion regarding Parentification and Its Varied Outcomes: Implications for Mental Health Research and Practice

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Expanding the Discussion regarding Parentification and Its Varied Outcomes: Implications for Mental Health Research and Practice

Article excerpt

Studies have demonstrated that parentification, a potential form of child maltreatment, is a ubiquitous phenomenon that most community counselors as well as other mental health care providers (e.g., school and family counselors, social workers) face. Although these studies have pointed to a relationship between parentification and later psychopathology, the potential for divergent outcomes is rarely discussed. This article advances an often-absent balanced discussion of the extent to which varied outcomes are evidenced in adulthood after one has been parentified in childhood. For example, varied outcomes such as psychopathology and posttraumatic growth may be feasible in adulthood after parentification in childhood. Suggestions related to research and practice efforts are put forth for mental health counselors.


Child maltreatment has long been viewed as significantly contributing to poor outcomes in adult functioning (Afifi, Brownridge, Cox, & Sareen, 2006). The deleterious effects of maltreatment on the child--and, later, on the adult--have been well documented in clinical and research literature (see Belsky, 1990; Briere, 1992; Cicchetti & Toth, 1995; Erickson & Egeland, 1996; Finkelhor, 2002; Garbarino, 1977; Kempe, Silverman, Steele, Droegmueller, & Silver, 1962; Polansky, Chalmers, Buttenweiser, & Williams, 1981; Rutter, 1990; Werner, 1990).

In the 1960s, Kempe et al. (1962) estimated that fewer than 1,000 children in the United States were victims of child maltreatment each year. Now, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 2006), in 2004 an estimated 3.5 million reports of child maltreatment were made in the United States. Of those 3.5 million cases, 62% involved neglect, 18% involved physical abuse, 10% entailed sexual abuse, and 9% comprised other neglect cases. NCANDS contended that child neglect is the most common form of maltreatment reported to public child protective services and that more than half of the reports of child maltreatment made in the United States each year are for neglect (DHHS, 2006).

Polansky et al.'s (1981) definition of neglect may serve as a guide to researchers, mental health counselors, and policy makers:

   a condition in which a caretaker responsible for the child, either
   deliberately or by extraordinary inattentiveness, permits the child
   to experience avoidable present suffering and/or fails to provide
   one or more of the ingredients generally deemed essential for
   developing a person's physical, intellectual, and emotional
   capacities. (p. 6)

Emotional neglect occurs when the parent or caregiver fails to provide the necessary attention to the child's need for affection and emotional support, fails to provide needed psychological care, and lacks the competence to foster an appropriate attachment relationship and environment for the child to develop (Herman, 1992; Marotta, 2003). Further, some of the same relationships and long-term effects that have been established between emotional neglect and poor functioning, psychopathology, and substance abuse (Cicchetti, 2004) have been observed among adults who have been parentified--a potential form of neglect (Chase, 1999). However, not all emotionally neglected children grow up to experience the same outcomes: some go on to experience high levels of functioning, and others go on to experience poor levels of functioning, and some may experience a combination of high and low functioning in different life domains (Cicchetti).


When one juxtaposes the above definition of emotional neglect with that of parentification--the specific phenomenon discussed in this review--one is likely to conclude that emotional neglect and parentification are, in fact, similar. Based on prior literature (Bellow, Boris, Larrieu, Lewis, & Elliot, 2005; Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973; Jurkovic, 1997; Minuchin, Montalvo, Guerney, Rosman, & Schumer, 1967), parentification is defined for this discussion as a disturbance in generational boundaries, such that evidence indicates a functional and/or emotional role reversal in which the child sacrifices his or her own needs for attention, comfort, and guidance in order to accommodate and care for the logistical and emotional needs of a parent and/or sibling. …

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