In broad terms, parentification can be defined as a child taking on the role of parent to his or her own parents; though in reality the construct is more complex. Although related constructs (e.g. boundary transgressions, role reversal, ‘hurried child’) have been discussed in the literature for many years, the term ‘parentification’ per se is a relatively new one within the field of psychological research and empirical studies are still limited. When researching in the field of parentification, an issue that is apparent is the lack of adequate measures of parentification available for children and adolescents. The few measures of parentification that exist have been (a) retrospective (asking adults to recall levels of responsibility within their families of origin as adolescents) and/or (b) uni-dimensional (measuring parentification as a single score rather than taking into account different facets such as confidant to one’s own parents, mediator between conflicting parents, ‘pseudo-parents’ to siblings, or excessive household responsibilities).
The first aim of the current research was to develop a reliable and valid multidimensional measure of parentification that was appropriate for completion by children and adolescents. The series of studies that follow utilise this newly developed parentification scale to examine parentification of adolescents aged 10-16 years from families undergoing parental divorce. A comparison group of children from two-parent continuously married (not remarried) families were included. A previously validated uni-dimensional measure of parentification, the Parentification Questionnaire – Youth (PQ-Y: Godsall & Jurkovic, 1995) was also used throughout the studies (although in the current sample, this measure was multidimensional, yielding two factors labelled Alienation and Tangible Tasks).
Broad research goals of the studies are:
1. to examine parentification (and its association with family functioning and sibling relationship quality) from the perspective of multiple family members,
2. to explore parentification differences between families on variables of age, sex, birth order, family size and parental marital status, and
3. to assess the extent to which parentification affects adolescent psychological
adjustment, and how burden of parentification may mediate the relationship between parentification and psychological adjustment.
Parents and children aged 10-16 years from 304 families (127 divorcing; 177 married) were invited to participate in a 12-month study of parentification that included questions about demographics, family responsibilities, family functioning, adolescent adjustment, and sibling relationships. In addition, in divorcing families, both parents and one child (target child) were invited to be interviewed regarding their experiences surrounding the separation and divorce.
The measure of parentification designed for the current research adapted the multidimensional, retrospective measure written by Mika, Bergner and Baum (1987). This new measure was labelled the Youth Parentification Scale (YPS), and findings suggest that it is a reliable measure of parentification in the current sample of married and divorcing families.
Results revealed that children from divorcing families and girls reported higher levels of parentification (across various factors). Results on multiple perspectives within the family were mixed. In general, children were more likely than their parents to report higher levels of parentification within the family, although this effect differed slightly dependent upon parental marital status. Siblings who reported offering support to other members of the family also rated their relationship with their sibling as warmer: this result held true for both firstand second-born children. Additionally, both first- and second-born children agreed that parentification may affect the relative status/power between siblings.
While few direct associations between parentification and adjustment existed, negative adjustment outcomes (higher anxiety, higher depression and lower self-esteem) were evident when the burden associated with increased responsibility was taken into account. Taking on the role of confidant to one’s parents, playing ‘pseudo-parent’ to one’s siblings, or feeling alienated within one’s family of origin was associated with higher levels of burden, which in turn led children to report higher depression and anxiety and lower self-esteem. Additionally, taking on a parentified role was associated with higher levels of burden, which in turn was associated with reports of lower levels of family functioning (i.e. lower intimacy, higher conflict, and a more controlling parenting style).
The current research has implications for the development and refinement of future measures of parentification for use in empirical studies. The Youth Parentification Scale showed that different facets of parentification do seem to exist, and that offering comfort and support to mothers or fathers seems to have an association with various aspects of adjustment, sibling relationships and general family functioning. Alienation (a factor emerging from the PQ-Y), while not actually associated with increased responsibility or parentification per se, showed associations with parentification that indicate that this may be an important construct to include in future attempts at developing a comprehensive measure of parentification.
Additionally, the current research unveiled findings that may have clinical importance. Findings revealed that while children from divorcing families did exhibit higher scores on various scales of parentification, outcomes were not necessarily worse for these children than for children within married families who were similarly parentified. Adolescence is a time of emotional growth when some age-appropriate adoption of adult responsibility is warranted; and in fact for children undergoing the transition of parental separation and divorce, adoption of extra responsibilities may be adaptive, perhaps even protective inasmuch as it may bring the child closer to parents during a time when anxiety about family dissolution is high. Further studies (preferably longitudinal) exploring the adaptive facets of parentification are warranted.