Introduction and Questions
Parenting is hard work all by itself. With regular parents and regular children, it’s tough to even accomplish doing a basic good job day in and day out. There is nothing that compares to the grueling (yet fulfilling) responsibility of good and loving (i.e., truly effective) parenting.
But what if you aren’t a regular parent? And/or your child (or children) isn’t a regular child (or children)? By this, I mean this: what if you weren’t parented in a child-friendly way? And then what if your child (or children) notably requires (or at least particularly benefits from) child-friendly parenting strategies in order for him or her (or them) to maintain a relatively acceptable/regular level of emotional equilibrium for his or her (or their) age (for example)?
In other words, how is a person supposed to be a good parent if the way they were parented wasn’t completely good for them? How does a person un-learn the stuff that wires them to be particularly ineffective at parenting?
Addressing Un-Child-Friendly Parenting, Parentification, and Covert Incest
Un-child-friendly parenting takes all forms and covers a spectrum of severity. Often, those who are mistakenly overlooked or whose felt pain is minimized are those who were parented in a role-reversal sort of way. These children (and the adults they grow into) are the invisible suffer-ers of this kind of mistreatment because no one from the outside would be (or would have been) able to recognize that anything that would be considered mistreatment was going on.
Many children who experienced a long-term role-reversal dynamic in their relationship with their parent or parents may seem very mature, even from a young age (which undoubtedly reflects well on the parents). They appear to be very compliant, obedient, and submissive (which, again, notably reflects well on the parents). Adult children of this sort of parent-child relationship often grow into highly functioning people despite having to cope with debilitating effects of having been parented backwards. The anxiety and depression, for example, that so often accompany this and other types of abuse may show up early in their lives, even as early as when they are young, school-aged children.
What makes backwards parenting so inappropriate is that the parents often rely on guilt, blame, shame, and other harmful tactics like emotional manipulation and emotional blackmail to get their children to be compliant or to obey them (instead of allowing children to be free to make their own choices within protective scaffolding of natural and logical consequences). Additionally, instead of using assertive parenting techniques to communicate with their children, parents who emotionally mistreat their children often rely on aggressive or passive-aggressive (which is still considered aggressive) communication. This kind of mistreatment doesn’t usually leave marks on the physical body, but the child’s heart carries them all the same.
Parents who subject their children to this sort of emotional abuse most assuredly have needs that were left unmet by their parent or parents, which they are expecting their children to now meet. This backwards-parenting approach (which is termed parentification in clinical literature) might not be fully malicious or intentional or conscious (though sometimes it is).
Furthermore, the boundaries of a healthy and appropriate parent-child relationship can be further blurred, broken through, or erased entirely by different aspects of covert incest (also termed emotional incest) that may be present, whereby the parent turns to the child to meet emotional needs that should instead be met by another adult in the parent’s life (such as a spouse or a confidant).
Personal Application and Connection to Work and Writing
Only recently have I been able to use words to more fully describe and more accurately portray what I experienced as a child and as a young adult that relate to the role-reversal dynamic that trademarks parentification and covert incest. I am still in the process of working through the effects of having acknowledged the presence of this in my life, but I wanted to put it out there because it might help to explain where I am coming from with the idea of child-friendly parenting and why I care so much about putting positive and healthy cycles into motion within the parent-child relationship.
As a stay-at-home mom of three young children, I come face to face multiple times every day with the reality that children need to be children while they are still children. As good and loving parents, our role is to give our children guidance and to show them where reasonable limits are and to help them understand why those limits exist. If and when there is resistance, we handle it in a gentle, patient, and fair way. We encourage our children the best we can, motivating them with love, acceptance, affirmation, and validation. It’s not our role to force our children to do anything or to make them behave a certain way or to deceive them into doing what we want them to do so that we look good and/or feel good. It’s our role to be there and to help them and to love them—regardless of how they might be acting. We are the parent and they are the child. Not the other way around.
One of the reasons why I began these writings is so that I could help voice support of truly effective parenting, what I like referring to as child-friendly parenting. Some parents think that in order to be “good” parents, their children have to always be crying or mad or, at the very least, quiet. This kind of parenting, some think, shows how much the parent is breaking the childishness of the child (which some parents think is the main objective of parenting). The sooner the child acts “mature,” the better the parent, no matter what the means were to achieve this end.
What I believe is that one of the main objectives of effective parenting is to give children a safe environment (physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually so) to explore who they are and to learn about the world around them, all of which is done in developmentally appropriate ways. Furthermore, our relationships with our children are central to the health of our family. If our relationships with our children are destructive and dysfunctional, then we can’t expect our family unit to be any different.
The thing with parentification is that so many of our parents were raised this way that it doesn’t seem wrong to them to have raised us this way. (Also, some parents struggle with their own memories of the abuse they endured as a child—which may have included abuse in the criminal sense, where the perpetrators would be in jail if anyone knew or did anything about it. Yet when people don’t get the real help they need, it’s their children who are often the ones to pay because the guilt and the blame and the shame have to go somewhere, doesn’t it?) Additionally, many church cultures are so entrenched in these ways that to attempt any other way of parenting (or to even insinuate that one’s parents might have been misled by participating in this sort of role reversal of the child-parent relationship) is seen as an outright sin because you’re not respecting your elders (punishable by the fires of hell, et cetera). Do you see how this is a Catch-22 for children who were parentified?
What I have done with my life and what I am attempting to do here with these writings is a little more nuanced than merely being rebellious or not honoring elders or trying to exploit someone else’s pain for my own gain.
This is about acknowledging my pain and working to prevent preventable pain in my children’s lives—as well as helping others to do the same in their lives and in their children’s lives.
If our parents have pain in their own lives, then it is their responsibility (if their parents have since dropped the ball) to tend to that pain and to get themselves the help they need—it is not our responsibility to be their parent. What’s been done (or not done) with them has been done (or not done), end of story. It’s up to them to help themselves and to seek the strength they need from their God. All of us only have the capacity to help ourselves because our choices are the only ones we can ever truly make. We cannot make anyone else’s choices for them, not even our children’s.
It is because I love and honor my parents that I desire to be the best parent I can be. It is because I felt my mom’s love and knew that she loved me deeply that I want to be a loving mom to my own children. It is because I saw how hard my dad worked to take care of us that I want to work hard now in my own family to show myself approved (as it’s said).
And it is because I saw the value in a whole, healthy, and happy marriage that I have striven to have one of my own. Nothing matters more to me than to use whatever giftings that have been endowed to me to enrich the life of my husband and the lives of my children and any other lives of anyone else who wishes to learn from what I have learned and from what I’ve experienced.
Some would call this sort of living for others codependency, but I would call it (since I am aware of, and have worked to thwart, the many effects of having codependent tendencies) purposeful self-sacrifice (all the while understanding that self-development is key to growing up and growing into the person we’re meant to be).
Review, Reiteration, and Implications
Parentification, as it is and to repeat a little from above, is a sort of role reversal in the child-parent relationship. It takes different forms in different families, but I am most familiar with the kind that expects the child to meet the emotional needs of the parent (needs that were left unmet by that parent’s parent or parents—and, in the case of covert incest/emotional incest, by that parent’s spouse or confidant). In my case when I was a young child (and into my present years as an adult child, with children of my own), I was expected to meet the emotional needs of both parents.
It (having experienced ongoing parentification and its kin, covert incest/emotional incest), essentially, robs a child of his or her childhood because he or she, in effect, cannot be the child that he or she is (at the time of being an actual child). And so, this child, who was (in essence) forced to grow up before his or her time, grows up to become an adult who, among a host of other things, is still very much an undeveloped child on the inside. How, then, is a grown-up child supposed to effectively parent an actual child?
This is where the rubber meets the road—and where families either fall apart in like fashion as the generations that preceded did or they bind together and begin a new kind of living and loving, an improved and enhanced version of everything that came before—and where the parentification cycle continues or it is broken and replaced with a healthier cycle.
Parentified children are faced with the challenge, as adults and as parents themselves if they want to live effective and truly fulfilling lives, to consciously choose a non-narcissistic, non-manipulative, non-emotional-blackmail path that uses child-friendly parenting practices. It sometimes feels very much like going against one’s nature because those sorts of un-child-friendly parenting approaches seemed to work with us when we were children, and even still now. It feels very foreign at times to work outside the box you grew up in. But here, again, is the point of the whole thing—to live outside the box that someone else put you in (or, at least, if you like the box and want to stay there and so choose to remain there, that you have had a chance to get to know the not-box world before you settle into any space that you ultimately choose for yourself in the end).
Often, having kids is the switch from being (and feeling) relatively functional as a grown-up adult to being (well, profoundly feeling, more-so) intensely incompetent as a parent because we find that we lack many of the assertive, grown-up skills that parenting requires (if we want to be assertive, grown-up parents, that is, and not resort to the methods of manipulation used by passive, aggressive, and/or passive-aggressive parents in order to get our children to “behave” or in order to escape the responsibilities and pressures of being an active, involved, effective parent).
Quite simply, once we become parents, we know. We understand more fully why and how our parents were the way they were with us (and with each other). This station (as a mother or father) is the hardest there is—and if we don’t have truly effective skills at our disposal up front, then it’s tempting to repeat the ineffective tactics used with us (even if we are aware that they are ineffective) because it’s just easier than having to learn a new system.
But something that is very important to understand (besides the fact that good parenting is really and truly a hard thing—well, I think good parenting makes the work of parenting easier (if not in the moment, then most certainly in the long-run), so what I mean is that learning a new and better way can be hard to do even if it’s the right thing to do)—is that we also have the opportunity to choose our own destiny, as it is.
We can continue the good parenting that was done with us while making improvements to the not-so-good parenting that was done with us. We don’t have to fall into the black hole of I’m-a-carbon-copy-of-the-way-I-was-raised. We are all products of our environment, yes. But we can create our own environment that we determine is best for our children. This is one of the many advantages we have of being an actual adult now.
Conclusion and Declaration
Well (to answer the questions from above regarding how we’re supposed to parent our children in child-friendly ways if child-friendly parenting is largely unfamiliar to us or if we have inconsistent experiences with being parented in child-friendly ways or if our children require more child-friendliness-ness from us than we think we are able to give them), the job of good and loving (i.e., truly effective) parenting just became exponentially tougher, more grueling, and more complex for us (while also having the potential to be far more fulfilling for us than it would have been had we never known the difference between the [ineffective] way it’s always been done and a more effective way).
Yet, at the same time that child-friendly parenting just became more crushingly intricate (and to restate for emphasis), we have the potential for even greater gratification by what we do as parents, given that we see and know the path that we need to take towards improvement, effectiveness, and consistent goodness.
Just because the journey is going to be harder for us, it doesn’t mean that we quit, give up, throw in the towel, or don’t care anymore.
It just means that that’s the way it is.
Did you get that? It’s going to be harder. It’s just the way it is.
But it’s also going to be better. Did you get that, too?
So we’re going to keep trying.
And we’re going to keep moving forward.
And we, nevertheless, are going to stay aware of our strengths and weaknesses, using our strengths to their greatest end while using our weaknesses as springboards for growth.
We are good people and good parents.
We do not allow our perceived shortcomings to be an excuse for arrested effort.
We give it our best anyway.
Because we know that this is how positive growth happens. For us. For our children. For our marriage. For our family.
We lean into it.
What has your journey been like as you have sought to use child-friendly parenting strategies? Do you find that it’s been difficult to unlearn ineffective ways? Does the accomplishment of becoming more and more effective as a good and loving parent give you the momentum you need to keep going?