I have hinted at the role parentification plays in trauma bonding briefly in my article Exploring trauma bonding and dysfunctional family relationships: Is it love or fear that keeps you going back for more? I wanted to explore the two concepts a little further though. Parentification occurs when children assume the care giving roles of the parents. The 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, are significantly affected by drugs or alcohol, are differently abled or have cognitive deficits, suffer from depression or other mental health issues or simply lack basic parenting skills. Parentification only really becomes abusive if the child does not receive additional support either from extended family or from community programs for example.
Trauma bonding is a psychological response to trauma whereby an individual in an abusive relationship will begin to form an unhealthy, sympathetic attachment to the abuser only because they share strong, negative emotional experiences together. Trauma bonding is similar in principle to Stockholm Syndrome. Stockholm Syndrome was named as such after four bank robbers held up a Swedish bank for 6 days. After the hostages were released, they would not testify against the bank robbers and instead campaigned to raise money for their legal defence. The hostages had formed a sympathetic bond with their captors in only 6 days.
In my article Exploring 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 mother/father who wanted to kill themselves. The child becomes responsible, in a sense, for keeping their parent alive. The child must attend to their mother/fathers every needs. The child must be both the therapist and parent. The negativity and toxicity of a situation such as this is horrendous. The child has formed a toxic and traumatic bond with their parent which is in no way similar to a love bond. Love requires reciprocity, compassion and mutual attention and respect of each other’s needs, wants, feelings, desires etc. The child that is parentified receives little to nothing in exchange for all the ‘love’ they give their mother/father. The parentified child is instead drowned in negative emotions and stuck with the unwanted and unfair burden of responsibility of which they cannot, either physically or mentally, escape. The parentified child will experience reverse abandonment anxiety. Rather than anxiety that they will be abandoned, they develop anxiety that they will abandon their parent. That is, the parentified child/adult may give up a once in a lifetime scholarship or job offer in another state out of fear of abandoning their mother/father.
The effects of parentification and trauma bonding leaves a child with the belief that sacrificing their needs, wants, etc in order to serve another is the only way to have a meaningful relationship. Past trauma bonding leads to self-sacrificing and people pleasing behaviours which are in no way going to prevent future trauma bonding. Trauma bonding outside of parentification looks different. Some people will intentionally and consciously sacrifice their wants, needs etc in order to make the other fully dependent on them. They may even mimic the other in order to create dependence. Once the other has become dependent on the manipulator, BAM, the trauma bond has formed. The manipulator, who most likely has abandonment anxiety, has now trapped someone who is unlikely to leave them. The poor individual who has become trauma bonded with their manipulator will have similar experiences to those of the parentified child/adult.
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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.