I was researching the emotional neglect of children. My thesis was about the relationship between the personal and professional lives of therapists. They were able to keep the distress in their clinics from affecting their emotional balance. They stopped their personal challenges from affecting their work.

I wanted to know what brought them to be clinicians. Their answers were consistent. Most people said that being there for others, emotionally, came naturally, and that they were good at it because of their upbringing. They each came from difficult family circumstances.

Watching one parent beat the other was the main focus of their childhood stories. They were supposed to protect and support their parents. As adults, they used this skill to help more people.

Sadhika's parents fought every day about everything. Her mother was uncontrollable. Her father couldn't protect the children because he became a piece of furniture. Sadhika told me she couldn't ask him to protect her and her siblings because he seemed to be in the same boat.

She took care of her mother, did household chores, and held the centre. Missteps were not an option.

When parents rely on their child to take care of them indefinitely without enough reciprocity, it's known as "parentification". The psychic stability and development of the parentified child can be costly. The phenomenon has nothing to do with parental love and everything to do with the personal and structural circumstances that prevent parents from attending to the enormous anxiety and burden that a child may be experiencing on their behalf. The parent can't see that their child is taking responsibility for maintaining the peace in the family, for protecting one parent from the other, for being their friend and therapist, and for parenting the siblings.

A group of psychologists in the US studied family structure in the inner city and came up with the idea of a parent child. It often fell to a child to act as the family's glue due to the high rates of single mothers, incarceration, poverty and drugs.

When parents delegated parenting roles to their children, the term "parentification" was introduced in 1967. When a family had an unbalanced ledger of give-and-take between parents and children, the concept was expanded by a psychologist. Since then, psychologists have studied the effects of parentification across cultures.

Some people in your adult circle of acquaintances, colleagues and friends are likely to fit the bill. The child in the over-responsible co-worker who always seems to be weighed down by something, yet manages to take care of everything without ever asking for help in return may be you. She might say she is running on fumes or that she wishes she had a friend like her despite her conscientiousness.

When there is no excuse for the sense of burden, how can parents make sense of their childhood?

Having resolved familial interpersonal conflict my entire childhood, was I, too, parentified?

The narratives of parentification revealed during my interviews gave me a glimpse into my own mind. I came from a loving family with no apparent reason for the unhappiness or the bad relationships I found myself in. I had resolved family conflict my entire childhood.

The applicability of the "western" concept to Indian family systems was questioned by my committee while I was pursuing my PhD. Due to my personal experiences, I felt that normal family systems were being confused with acceptable parental practices. I chose to study urban Indian families with two available parents, sufficient financial stability, no obvious or diagnosed parental illness, or any other condition that would cause the child to play the adult sooner than her friends, because I wanted to learn more about these families.

When parentification is found in families that have suffered parental death, divorce, poverty or even war, the children have an available narrative of struggle that helps them understand their challenges. They know why more was demanded of them when they were children. When there is no excuse for the sense of burden, how can parents make sense of their childhood? I wondered why families believed they provided the best environment for their children to grow up in.

Several people were willing to tell their stories. As children, they took on excessive and inappropriate responsibilities. I spoke with each of them for an average of 10 hours in back-and-forth interviews in which I tried to understand every aspect of their lives so far, what they thought had gone awry, what should have happened instead and how this was affecting them today.

Her parents would continue as if nothing had happened, and the cycle would repeat

At the time of the interviews, she was from a big city in south India. Her parents had been together for a long time. Her family couldn't afford an education so she was promised one. Her husband wanted her to be a stay-at- home mother after they married.

The spouses were not from the same caste and married against their families wishes. In India, inter-caste marriages are considered sacrilegious. Both families exiled them, causing a lot of stress to the couple and their children, which resulted in fights, unhappiness and isolation from a system of loved ones. As time went on, the father began drinking and hitting his mother. She would come back from school to see her mom. She would be angry at her father, but in a few days she would be the only one who held onto that fear. Her parents would keep going as if nothing had changed. She was intent on preventing it from happening again.

Anahata and Mira remembered their mothers as unhappy or depressed. Husbands abandoned them because they felt that a fulfilling life was unachievable. They remembered their fathers as being quiet or angry because of their own pressures of being men. The mothers were free to induct the children into their camp because they rarely spoke about what they were going through.

I discovered that there was substance use and mental illness in the family.

The mothers were often rebuked for bringing up their children poorly or for belonging to a caste or section of society. Whatever the reasons for conflict or the nature of violence, it seemed to have been accepted. It made it difficult to understand the effect on the child. The child realized that it was her job to apply bandages and balms wherever she could. She supported, protected or nourished her parents.

Not caring for their parents was not an option

The child learns from a young age that she is supposed to do the psychological work of her family. Mira was soothed by her mother's tears, she was told to open locked doors and eat her meals, and she was told how bad her father and grandparents were. With everyone from the vegetable vendor to her aunts and uncles, Sadhika had to carry her mother's despair. Anahata and her mother would encourage her to get a job, even get a divorce.

The children developed a way of knowing how to support their parents and others. They needed this for their own survival. They didn't want to care for their parents. The consequences could range from the parents not loving the children to the child blaming herself. The problems the children are trying to solve are not their own and they don't have the chance to understand why. They know that they need to pay more attention.

She said that she had developed an emotional radar that was always looking for who needed what. Imagine a really cranky, brilliant, angry surgeon and he has a really efficient nurse. The correct surgical instrument appeared when he put his hand out. It was my job.

Does it make the child more alert for the next problem? What does it mean for a child to deal with issues that mature adults can't solve? There is no child with this equipment. We all cried to ourselves in our early adolescences. Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever asked.

The families of these children claim to be normal. The child is the only one who thinks differently. She tries to mold her family by intervening, offering solutions and resolving conflicts based on what she sees on TV. There wouldn't be a reason for so much hurt or for parentification if anyone paid attention to her.

They wonder – how much can I ask for? Will I be considered needy or dramatic?

Little space is left for the child to express her own needs as a result of always looking after others. Those of other people seem to be the only legitimate needs. Her needs are linked to fear and shame by her parents' emotions. The development of a false self was called a "false self" by Donald Winnicott. This self-denying persona allows the parentified child to stop expressing and fulfilling her own needs, and gain value from foregrounding the needs of other people. It makes sense that parents struggle with setting healthy, balanced boundaries and finding themselves in exploitative relationships with friends, co-workers or romantic partners.

Parentified adults form relationships based on how valuable they are to other people. They can feel good and worthy in the world around them thanks to this. It can look like they are overextending their own resources to help other people. They can't get support in return. How much can I demand? I don't know if I'll be seen as needy or dramatic. They don't know if someone will stay if they ask for it.

Romantic relationships have the worst consequences. There are studies showing that parentified adults are vulnerable to harmful intimate relationships. Masochistic and borderline personality disorders are some of the disorders psychologists suffer from.

Her husband asked: ‘Why you?’, and she answered with what felt like clarity: ‘There is no one else’

Sadhika said that it was a perfect fit for many of the people I spoke with. She believes her husband could be diagnosed with a personality disorder. The person who belittled her constantly and gaslit her always chose others over her.

It's surprising how long it takes parents to recognize their own abuse. They subconsciously believed that relationships that were violent and abusive were not meant to be broken apart. They didn't intend to repeat these patterns but they had learned them all. Parents are complying. They are happy to have someone else's company. They are manipulated and shamed for doing so, adding to their childhood neglect and emotional impoverishment. The patterns are so familiar to the adult that they don't need to raise an alarm.

These experiences can be used to fulfill professions. Parentified adults are reliable, sensitive, solution focused and compassionate. She is a parenting coach. She is a Therapist. People are on death row. Mira works in India's low-income neighbourhoods. There are a lot of career decisions. Most people work to support or uplifting others.

Silhouettes of woman and baby,looking out at featureless,concrete wall.

Mental health and social conditions are related.

Parentified adults can be exploited. Some of them said that they felt responsible for their work. Mira was taking on more work and trying to be perfect. Her husband wanted to know why. She said, "There is no one else." Parentification is better summarized in this one sentence.

There are many kinds of people and pasts, but research has shown that parents show a particular proclivity here. The fear of always being there for others creates an inner voice that makes them feel guilty. This dedication can be used by others. One participant's co-workers would use their emotional troubles as a reason to give her their work. She would take on their work no matter how busy or tired she was because she couldn't say no.

It is unsurprising that parentified adults can face inner exhaustion and fierce anger because of their self-denying persona, unhealthy relationships, caring endlessly for others and an overall sense of pervasive burden. The parentified adult, who is always calm and collected, is surprised when this expresses itself in a burst of rage or tears, and a quick reaction to frustration. These clues can be lost if they are not questioned.

Undoing parentification amounts to reparenting yourself

It's one of the biggest risks for parentified adults to be able to parent their own kids. Each generation can have unresolved burdens for the next. Insightful parentified adults seek therapy to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma when they find themselves turning to their own children for too much emotional support.

When parentified adults go to therapy, they begin to draw lines between the enormous fear, helplessness and loneliness they lived with as a child, their need and ability to care for others, and their exhaustion and anxiety as adults. It's perverse that emotional exhaustion is part of their identity as the perfect caregivers and has the power to keep them from reverting to bad habits.

You need to understand what happened, how it affects you, and allow yourself to experience the validity of your story in order to reverse parentification. This requires kindness and support. It can help balance equations of give and take. It's possible to care from a space of choice and love. You may begin to feel like you are entering yourself for the first time.

It's helpful to identify and circumscribe your parentification since it doesn't mean a bad childhood or an all-or-nothing phenomenon. I encourage you to seek help if you cared for your parent over a long period of time.

Parentification is an issue in psychology. As you work through your pain, you can use these variables to understand what worked in your childhood, and what didn't.

A strong voice emerges from within that was silent all this time, longing to protect the child they once were

As parentified adults wade through years of painful memories and realise why they hurt, injustice of anger and feelings becomes dominant at first. There was a silent voice that was longing to protect the child they once were.

Mira said there was a feeling of how she could have done this to me. When I look back, I'm like, "Why did that have to happen?" Why couldn't you find a different way to deal with your shit? It wasn't that she cared for her parents; it was that something was taken from her without her knowledge. Space for other emotions can be created by expressing anger and injustice.

It's important for healing to support your personal growth without negatively impacting your parents. A Therapist, a few friends, fulfilling work, even if born of parentification are some of the ways this can come in.

She would tell her younger self: ‘I’m sorry you had to go through this’

A healthy romantic relationship is one of the major factors. It is possible to replace the fear of abandonment with an anchored feeling of being held by a partner who can bear you and provide a gentle reminder that they will still be there once that fight is over.

This journey of reparation can be helped by a therapist who understands parentification. They are able to help contain the anger and create a new narrative. It is not possible for all this validation to come from within. It is difficult to build relationships with people who allow you to rely on them.

Parentified adults need to find and uncover an inner, younger self who is willing to receive adult love and care. Sadhika's younger self stood in a corner. You have a puppy who has been abused. It was abused. The cowering in the corner has stopped since you brought the puppy into the house. She needs to re-parent herself. She and others would apologize to their younger self.

Healing may not come from the source of the hurt: changing the parents’ perspective is not the goal here

Your boundaries will be reset with your parents. Some people put a distance between themselves and their parents. It's rare in India to cut ties completely. Adults who are parentified are more likely to have a good relationship with their parents. They try to tell their parents how they hurt them. Some parents are willing to listen, but most don't like it.

Though her mother was guilty of giving her daughter's narrative, her parents have been receptive. She was able to tell her mother how much she depended on her. Her mother was receptive to her daughter's point of view.

When Anahata tried to talk to her parents about her experiences, they didn't like it. She said that they were having a confrontation. My father told me not to blame them. Everything has been given to you by us. You've received everything that money can buy. Do you have a problem in life? Changing the parents perspective is not the goal in this case, as it may not come from the source of the hurt. The aim is to believe in your own story and to heal through other means.

You may feel guilty if you abandon other people. You could be pulled back into that role. If you fall into old patterns, I encourage you to show yourself some kindness. I want you to know that they will be okay without you. It is possible for others to take responsibility for themselves. The ability to say no is what it is. When you feel like giving care, you can say yes.

As I write, my body shakes and I cry, but it does not overwhelm me any more

I am able to write about health and reparation because of it. My body shakes and I cry but it doesn't overwhelm me anymore. I have been fortunate to have my parents listen to me discuss it. I had to stay away from them for a long period of time. I did my research and found that I had clarity and confidence in my story. I began to communicate.

10 years have passed since I stopped parenting my parents and found a place between their daughter and manager. They want me to stop making decisions for them. There's a place for humor now. Every time I write about my fear-filled childhood, my parents will write an article justifying their actions. It's health for me that we can accept all of this to be true.

I have only done research and therapy with women. I use the pronoun "her" because of this. The daughters were exposed to their mothers narratives most of the time. The fathers narratives were mostly absent due to their own reticence and the fact that they were the perpetrators of abuse in the child's eyes. No one person is solely responsible for parentification. This view would make it hard for us to understand the complex factors that lead to parentification. The possibilities of healing as well as expanding the discourse would be limited by this.

It was published by Aeon.