How does parentification lead to reverse abandonment anxiety?


Jason Brien.

Parentification occurs when children assume the care giving roles of the parents. Usually only one child within a family system is parentified however siblings are often enrolled as helpers or assistants. The parentified child is compelled to give up their own needs, wants, desires and childhood to look after siblings and/or their parents. Parentification can occur when the parents are neglectful, significantly affected by drugs or alcohol, differently abled, have cognitive/intellectual deficits, suffer from depression or other mental health issues or they might simply lack basic parenting skills. Parentification is only considered abusive if the child does not receive additional support either from extended family, siblings, community programs, etc.

In my article ‘Trauma bonding and dysfunctional family relationships: Is it love or fear that keeps you going back for more?’ I used the example of the child being the therapist to the parent who wanted to kill themselves. The parent essentially holds the parentified child responsible for keeping them alive. The negativity and toxicity of such a situation is truly horrendous. The parentified child receives little to nothing in exchange for all the ‘love’ they give their suicidal parent. The child is instead drowned in negative emotions and stuck with the unwanted and unfair burden of responsibility which they cannot, due to their young age, cognitively comprehend.

The parentified child becomes enmeshed with the suicidal parent and the child experiences reverse abandonment anxiety. Rather than experiencing anxiety that they themselves will be abandoned by their parent (or others), they experience anxiety about THEM abandoning their parent (or others). They suffer from existential thoughts such as “What happens to my parent if I die”? and “How can they survive if I am not around to assist them”? In essence, the parentified child is aware that they have an ‘I’ (self-identity) which is separate and unique from that of their parent however they feel obligated to merge their unique and separate ‘I’ with their suicidal parent so as to help the suicidal parent maintain their sense of ‘I’.

The parentified child eventually develops the false belief that if they remove their unique and separate ‘I’ from that of their suicidal parent, the parent will cease to exist (i.e., the parent will commit suicide). The child realises that they must abandon their unique and separate ‘I’ and instead construct an ‘I’ which is harmonious with that of the suicidal parent. The child learns that if they mimic and adopt the behaviours, beliefs, attitudes, etc of the suicidal parent, they can reduce their feelings of reverse abandonment anxiety. The more content and happy they can make their suicidal parent feel, the less the child will feel that they have ‘failed’ (abandoned) the parent and thus the less risk there is that the suicidal parent will be ‘triggered’ into action (committing suicide). This false sense of responsibility is a terrible burden for a young child to carry.

Reverse abandonment anxiety also exists for parentified children who must care for their siblings. The parentified child feels responsible for maintaining the existence of their siblings. The parentified child will again enmesh themselves with their siblings in order to ensure their siblings survival. In a way, the parentified child sees their siblings as parasites who must drain off vital resources if they are to survive. The parentified child gives their body and resources up willing and unquestionably as the survival of the ‘other’ is more important than the survival of themselves.

The parentified child will see no value in directing love or kindness towards themselves. As long as the other is happy and loved, that is all that matters. The parentified child will not pursue goals which are in their best interests as doing so triggers the reverse abandonment anxiety. How could they possibly enrol in an interstate college and abandon their parents or siblings who cannot possibly survive without them? They will most likely allow the parent or siblings to live through them. In healthy people, support is the temporary abandonment of oneself in favour of another. The parentified child believes that support is the complete abandonment of oneself in favour of another.

An adult who suffers from reverse abandonment anxiety will likely gravitate towards relationships where they can become caregivers. They will gravitate towards relationships in which they can ‘save’ the other person. They will enmesh themselves with their partner and they will resume the parentified role. This is not the same as a co-dependent person. A co-dependent person enmeshes themselves with others out of fear that the other will abandon them if they are not subservient, people pleasers, etc. An adult with reverse abandonment anxiety views themselves as a host for parasites. They feel obligated to enmesh themselves with others in order to ensure the survival of others and they will not take ‘failures’ to ‘provide’ lightly.

An adult who suffers from reverse abandonment anxiety will likely gravitate towards relationships where they can become caregivers. They will gravitate towards relationships in which they can ‘save’ the other person. They will enmesh themselves with their partner and they will resume the parentified role. This is not the same as a co-dependent person. A co-dependent person enmeshes themselves with others out of fear that the other will abandon them if they are not subservient, people pleasers, etc. An adult with reverse abandonment anxiety views themselves as a host for parasites. They feel obligated to enmesh themselves with others in order to ensure the survival of others and they will not take ‘failures’ to ‘provide’ lightly.

If the parentified adult ever seeks out therapy, they will be shocked to discover that they can prioritise themselves without ‘failing’ others. They will realise that absence is not abandonment. They will also realise that self-care is also not abandonment. They will find it hard to understand that they are not as meaningful to the lives of others as they had been led to believe. They will be shocked to learn that most people like living relatively independent of others. They will learn that it is okay to pursue interests, have beliefs, etc, which others may not agree with. They can unburden themselves of the unfair and false responsibility and guilt that they are obligated to keep other people alive.

Resources

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3471375/

https://lonerwolf.com/toxic-enmeshment/

Hooper, L. M., Marotta, S. A., & Lanthier, R. P. (2008). Predictors of growth and distress following childhood parentification: A retrospective exploratory study. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 17(5), 693-705. 

Jones, R. A., & Wells, M. (1996). An empirical study of parentification and personality. American Journal of Family Therapy, 24(2), 145-152. 

Mika, P., Bergner, R. M., & Baum, M. C. (1987). The development of a scale for the assessment of parentification. Family Therapy, 14(3), 229.

Namnyak, M., Tufton, N., Szekely, R., Toal, M., Worboys, S., & Sampson, E. L. (2008). ‘Stockholm syndrome’: psychiatric diagnosis or urban myth?. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 117(1), 4-11. 

Saunders, E. A., & Edelson, J. A. (1999). Attachment style, traumatic bonding, and developing relational capacities in a long-term trauma group for women. International journal of group psychotherapy, 49(4), 465-485.