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elderly parent child role reversal

Parentification—The Role Reversal from Parent to Child

Parentification, or elderly parent-child role reversal, occurs in millions of American families annually. It will likely become a reality for most of us—a period when caring for one or both parents becomes a reality.

Role reversal can come on quickly when an adult child suddenly finds themselves having to assume the parental role in the relationship.

When elderly parent-child role reversal occurs, the “parentified child” is faced with duties like cleaning, cooking, or providing rides to appointments. In addition, the parent may need help with the activities of daily living (ADL), such as bathing, grooming, or getting around at home.

When role reversal occurs, family members thrust into the role of primary caregiver for their parents can find themselves overwhelmed or lost about what to do.

Resources available

As part of The Kensington Sierra Madre’s continuing Promise to care for our residents as if they were our own family, we’re pleased to provide monthly online events with a rotation of a wide variety of speakers.

As part of our current Caregiver Connect Series, we will be featuring Jenny Peterson (USC).

Ms. Peterson is a Program Specialist at the USC Family Caregiver Support Center and provides an interactive discussion group aimed at helping caregivers deal with and understand their new role while continuing to care for themselves.

Online events are just one of the resources caregivers can use to help themselves and their parents. 

It’s important to understand what can happen with elderly parent-child role reversal or parentification.

What is aging parent role reversal?

Relationships between children and their parents naturally evolve over time. Unless a specific power of attorney (or something similar) is granted, adult children have no legal responsibility for their parent’s care.

Adult children also don’t have any automatic authority over their aging parents. 

Unless a parent is deemed cognitively incapable of caring for themselves, aging parents have the same legal rights, responsibilities, and privileges as any other American adult.

However, natural aging frequently includes physical and cognitive declines that can alter the parent-child relationship. 

Some of the problems that can arise from this change include:

  • A parent’s denial of physical or mental limitations
  • The need for independence vs. the need for assistance
  • Privacy vs. the need to check on a parent’s welfare

How to handle role reversal

The ability to handle these elderly parent-child role reversals takes three things:

  • Acceptance
  • Honesty
  • Open communication

The adult child needs to speak openly and honestly about their concerns related to their parent’s situation. New family systems will need to be created. In a best-case scenario, the elderly parent can view their child as a confidante instead of an adversary.

The caregiver’s role is not to be a parent to the parent. Instead, each person will ideally work together to deal effectively with the challenges that aging brings. This way, the effects of parentification can be less complicated for everyone involved.

Caregivers of aging parents can also find themselves dealing with a parent with mental health issues like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

Types of parentification

Parentification generally occurs when a parent relies on the child, and the roles between the two become blurred. With healthy parent-child relationships, the parent will care for the child through emotional support and instrumental support (like food and shelter).

If a parent cannot offer these things to the child or themselves, the child might assume the parental role.

Let’s look at the two types of parentification—emotional and instrumental.

Emotional Parentification

Parents may confide secrets or personal information to their children or go to them for emotional support instead of the other way around.

The caregiver might give advice, provide emotional support, diffuse arguments, or comfort other family members during trying times. But unfortunately, the adult child infrequently receives the same emotional support back from the parent.

Depending on the caregiver’s emotional needs, self-esteem, and mitigating factors (for example, if substance abuse such as alcoholism is present), the toll of role reversal may be very demanding emotionally.

Instrumental Parentification

The activities of daily living include a practical ability to complete basic chores and tasks. 

For example, paying bills, cooking dinner, groceries must be purchased and stored appropriately at home, and so on. Unfortunately, simple tasks like these may become too difficult for the parent.

However, it’s important to note that occasionally helping a parent with basic chores—especially if they’re temporarily incapacitated by illness or injury—is not the same as a role reversal.

Parentified children will often experience a persistent, pervasive, and intense demand to perform basic tasks for their parents.

So how can you tell when role reversal has edged itself into your parent-child relationship?

Signs of Unhealthy Role Reversal

While everyone begins with the best intentions, the strains of role reversal can start to cause dysfunction in the relationship—and it may come from either party.

Some warning signs of unhealthy role reversal include the following:

Feeling manipulated (aka “guilt trips”)

If your parent is trying to manipulate or make you feel guilty through statements like: “after everything I’ve done for you…”

Judgment or criticism

Frequent critical or judgemental comments can have cumulative harmful effects.

Patronization

Even though you are both adults, there can be an impulse to belittle or talk down to the other person.

Secrets

Limiting the information your parent or caregiver has a right or needs to know—like a diagnosis or financial issue. This includes making important decisions without consulting the other person.

Elderly parent-child role reversal red flags

  • Frequent feelings of guilt, not meeting the parent’s standards
  • Feeling incapable of saying “no” to your parent
  • Feeling judged or controlled by them
  • Not meeting the adult responsibilities for your own children, life, or finances

When it’s time to hand over the role of caregiver

When you are in a role reversal situation, you might feel as though you have assumed the parent’s role and that your parent now plays the child’s role. 

But remember when we were children? We would never have wanted our parents to compromise their mental health or well-being for our own sake. 

If you feel that you’re in a role reversal, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself. You can’t effectively care for others if your own health or well-being is compromised.

Unlike standard parent-child relationships, everyone involved in a parentification situation is an adult—which can make things more complicated and frequently more stressful. 

Plus, your own needs and responsibilities as an adult can be just as demanding as your caregiving duties.

Are you experiencing any of the signs of an unhealthy parentified child? If so, reaching out to support groups, family therapy, or senior living communities can help you cope—and care for your parent.

The Kensington Sierra Madre—your partners in care

One of the most significant advantages an adult child caregiving for an aging parent has is their ability to recognize when it’s time for a change.

The Kensington Sierra Madre has communities and amenities that can accommodate many different levels of care for your parents and loved ones. 

From our life enrichment programs to rehabilitation services and more, we work with families to make the best of our resident’s golden years.

Reach out to us, and let’s find the best path for you and your parent.

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