As difficult and emotionally traumatic as a divorce or other parental separation can be on the parents going through the process, it can be that much more difficult for the children that are equally experiencing the changes in family dynamics, but without the adult abilities and coping resources that hopefully the parents involved have available. If the changes in family dynamics are not handled appropriately and with the necessary amount of care required, the changes in family circumstances can affect the children involved for the rest of their life. Family courts in Kansas and Missouri are cognizant of the psychological scars that a child custody case can leave on children. One important consideration is the parentification of children (also known as “parentizing”). This is where a parent treats a child as their equal, oversharing information with a child and confiding in the child as the parent should do with an adult, processing their emotions and feelings and even seeking emotional support or backing from their children. In other cases or situations, the parentification of children takes the role of requiring older children in a family to be excessively responsible for the care, needs and other parenting of younger siblings. Another way to look at parentification is that it is a role reversal of a parent trying to make the child act as a parent with the emotional burdens and responsibilities that a parent has the responsibility to carry, while the adult “unloads” their responsibilities to try to feel better on their children. Clearly, this is entirely unfair to the child or children involved. When a parent places adult emotional burdens and needs on a child, the parentify the child, resulting in blurred boundaries and enmeshment between the child and parent. While a parents efforts in this regard can feel comforting to him or her at a time of their greater emotional need, it ultimately negatively impacts the child. Even more concerning related to parentification is when one or both parents tries to have the children understand their emotional burdens by taking sides. This is commonly referred to as “parental alienation.”
Why does parentification often happen following a divorce or other parental separation?
Often following a divorce or other change to the family dynamics, a parent may be feeling alone, and may be experiencing difficulties in adjusting to their new role as a single parent. Often in these circumstances children become keenly aware that they are splitting their time between parents/households and children in some circumstances feel caught in the middle or guilty about being happy with the other parent. This results in the child gradually and increasingly trying to comfort the struggling parent. In other situations, as parents are mentally struggling following a divorce or other unwanted change in the family dynamic, the parent will withdraw from being an emotionally present, supportive parent, resulting on the child trying to help the parent in their time of struggle. Finally, if the child sees the parents disagreeing or arguing, the child may be parentified in trying to find a role as a peacemaker or problem solver between the parents. Many parents that have allowed for the parentification of their children do not intend to allow their children to fall into this role.
How Can Parents Prevent Parentification?
Adjusting to a new life following a divorce or other change in family dynamics can be challenging for everyone involved, however, if parents will work together to ensure and prioritize their children’s best interests, they will largely be able to work together to prevent parentification. Additionally, when parents regularly check in on their children, ask about their feelings, ask about their needs an other similar efforts, they dramatically reduce the possibility of parentification of children. Finally, by avoiding badmouthing or sharing information about adult worries, concerns and responsibilities, that will similarly reduce and prevent parentification. Reassure your children when needed, avoid saying or allowing the children to overhear things that should not be of their concern or worry! If you, as a parent have emotional needs, make sure you are finding appropriate, adequate sources such as trusted friends or family members or even a therapist, if needed, to process those concerns.
Many courts in Kansas and Missouri will now view this parentification behavior, and in its worst forms, parental alienation as a form of emotional abuse. When children are asked and expected to be responsible for the psychological and emotional well-being of their parent, resulting in the child not being able to express their normal child-like emotions and needs, it can cause deep psychological harm to the child. There are studies indicating that children suffering from parentification are at a deeper risk for anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse or use as an adult. Therefore, it is crucial to your child’s well-being that you avoid parentification and if you believe it is going on by the other parent, it is equally important that you work with legal counsel to engage in an intentional effort and strategy to prevent and combat parentification by the other parent.
Kansas and Missouri courts try to combat parentification from the beginning of cases, when filed, by requiring every parent going through a custody or divorce case to take a court-sponsored co-parenting class or program. However, beyond that, a parent engaging in this kind of behavior who does not stop or cease their concerning actions after being warned risks a limitation or loss of custody. Specifically, both Kansas and Missouri have statutes that require the court consider the interaction and interrelationship with parents, and others, as well as which parent is more likely to allow frequent, continuous and meaningful contact with the parent.
In some situations, if parentification if suspected, a parent should discuss with his or her knowledgeable family law attorney such options as a motion or request for family counseling, a request for co-parenting therapy, a request for mental health evaluations or other steps that will allow the court to have an understanding of the concerns present and how they can be adequately addressed. If you are concerned about the parentification of your children by the other parent, it is crucial to a successful outcome in your situation that you work with a knowledgeable and experienced family law attorney who can help you navigate these difficult waters. Please call us at Pingel Family Law today to schedule your consultation at (816) 208-8130 to find out how you can put our knowledge and experience to work for your family.