By Deborah Harrison and Patrizia Albanese
This abridged version of “The ‘Parentification’ Phenomenon as Applied to Adolescents Living Through Parental Military Deployments” is printed with permission. The full, original study appeared in the University of Alberta’s Canadian Journal of Family and Youth, 4 (1), 2012.
Many children and adolescents care for their family members in some form during their childhoods, but some take on adult roles and responsibilities beyond what is considered to be developmentally appropriate—a situation known in academic and clinical literature as parentification. Parentification is widely understood as an interactional pattern within families in which children or adolescents are assigned roles and responsibilities that are typically considered the responsibility of adults, but which parents have relinquished.
Parentified children are then expected to fulfill caretaking roles, which include the care of younger siblings, and providing comfort, advice, or protection to family members (Earley & Cushway, 2002). Hooper (2007) notes that some researchers have distinguished among different types of parentification. For example, some have used the term instrumental parentification to refer to children taking on an unreasonable number of instrumental tasks, such as household chores and food preparation. In contrast, emotional parentification involves catering to the emotional needs of parents or siblings, or acting as the peacemaker in the family.
Parentification and military deployments
Canada has experienced a recent sharp increase in the frequency and danger of military deployments. During the first 12 years of the post-Cold War period (1989–2001), Canadian Forces (cf) members were deployed on 65 missions worldwide, compared with a mere 25 peacekeeping missions during the preceding 40 years. The cf’s recent change in focus from peacetime to wartime deployments has significantly altered the lives of affected cf members and their families.
In our study, we conducted two-hour semi-structured interviews with 61 adolescents from cf families, selected from the 1,066 (of the circa 1,200 enrolled) “Armyville” High School (ahs) students who, in 2008, had filled out a survey for our research team. Most of the survey had replicated parts of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (nlscy), and had compared cf and civilian youth on measures of psychological well being, family functioning, attitudes toward school and peer relationships. We recruited the 61 interview participants by inviting students who had participated in the survey to volunteer by filling out contact sheets attached to their surveys. From this pool we constructed a sample consisting of 15 “cf adolescents” from each grade, with gender divisions reflecting our volunteer pool demographics, and an attempt to include youth with parents representing all ranks, and both the regular and reserve forces. We interviewed 35 girls and 26 boys who, among them, had 69 parents who were current or recently retired cf members.
“Armyville” is a company town that has been dominated by the presence of a large army base for several decades, and whose residents are primarily white Anglo Saxons. The ratio of cf to civilian adolescents attending ahs was approximately 50:50 in 2008–09. The school district in which ahs is located prides itself on its proactive stance toward supporting the children of cf members deployed to Afghanistan since 2002, and it has supplied each of its schools with a large binder of information about how parental deployments affect children’s moods and progress in school.
Parentification and gender
Parentification was much more strongly at work in the experiences of the adolescent girls we interviewed about parental deployments than in the experiences of their male peers. It was evident that girls were significantly more active in domestic work of all kinds, especially emotional caretaking work.
Especially notable was Marlene, who looked after her entire household at the age of 12 when their mother was away on basic training:
I was the mother role now, ’cause my dad was working. So I got up early in the morning, … got my sisters ready to catch the bus, … made lunches and… got myself ready for school. And then, I would come home after school and… I had to make dinner and make sure the girls did their homework…. [When] my dad got home, I’d have dinner on the table.
And Heather, who reorganized her social life in order to prioritize her mother’s social needs while her father was away on an unaccompanied posting:
I don’t like going out with my friends, so I usually bring my friends over. ’Cause I don’t like leaving my mom home…. She says it’s fine when I go out, but I think she’d be bored…. She has friends, but she doesn’t go out much.
Girls’ emotional work additionally included self-censorship: that is, protecting both their deployed and undeployed parents from additional stress by refraining from sharing potentially upsetting personal problems with either of them. For example, Jasmine described how she, her mother, and siblings communicated with her father when he was in Afghanistan:
When my dad called, we talked to him and we’d tell him everything good that was going on. We’d never tell him anything bad, because that’s the last thing you want them thinking about…. Like, he was just a couple hours away is the way that we made it sound when we were talking.
Chantal, a senior girl with a frequently deployed father and chronically ill mother, did not tell her parents for four years about the severe bullying she had been subjected to at elementary school:
Because I didn’t want to make matters worse, I just kept it to myself…. I actually didn’t tell them till about Grade 9… four years after I moved down here.
A few of the adolescent boys we interviewed were atypical in that they provided emotional support to their mothers when their fathers were deployed. For example, Mark, a senior boy, described suppressing his own needs during his father’s deployments, to ease the burden for his mother, who is chronically depressed:
Having my dad go away constantly, Mom being depressed…. It’s almost like you’re living with yourself. Because you don’t want to talk to your mom about it because she’s depressed, and you don’t want to make her more depressed, and you don’t want to make her think about it. And then you’re sitting there like, “What am I going to do?” and you have to come up with your own reasons, your own answers.
In general, however, the adolescent boys we interviewed appeared to provide significantly less instrumental and emotional support to their families when their parents were deployed.
Parentification and the adolescent’s relationship with the undeployed parent
The essence of parentification is that the child or adolescent assumes adult roles in the household, to compensate for the fact that, for whatever reason, his or her parent(s) is “unavailable.” The deployed parent is unavailable because he or she is deployed. The parent remaining at home is frequently also emotionally unavailable, owing to full-time work commitments, temporary new status as a solo parent, and/or an anxious state of mind brought on by the other parent’s deployment.
Emotional unavailability of the undeployed parent was a frequent theme in our interviews. Justin, a junior boy, described the stress and anger continually expressed by his mother during his father’s deployments:
She’s very stressed out…. She just usually gets noticeably angrier…. Like if I had small problems, she’d flip. And every day after work, she’s just so angry and stressed out that she won’t talk…. I can’t really find a word to describe [how horrible it is]. Just constantly tension everywhere.
Marlene (introduced earlier), whose mother spent almost a year on basic training, lived with a father who was unable to provide any nurturing to his children. She described her daily life as:
It was pretty much leave for work, come back for dinner, go to bed, leave for work, come back for dinner. That was it. We didn’t really talk. It was just, “Here’s your dinner. I’m going to go watch TV now.”… That was it. I didn’t talk to anybody…. I was really, really lonely.
After her mother’s basic training, both of Marlene’s cf parents were sent on long deployments back-to-back. She described how her self-censorship may have permanently eroded her ability to communicate with either of them.
We started getting really distant, and not telling him as much—and same with my mom. I didn’t hide stuff from them. I just didn’t tell them as much, so they could get back to being them again and not have to worry about me…. It’s really hard, ’cause my mom and dad are gone so much. Like, my mom’s gone on course. My dad’s gone on course. My dad’s gone to Afghanistan. My dad’s gone to Country X…. It’s never really stable.
Mark (introduced earlier), whose father was in Afghanistan and whose mother was chronically depressed, revealed his mother’s permanent unavailability by expressing his extreme anxiety during the deployment at the prospect of the “only parent I could count on” not returning. He told us:
That was basically my only thought during the whole time. “I want him to come home, you better come home.” Like, he’s the only reason why our family stays together… [If he didn’t come home] it would make things a lot more difficult.
In summary, parentification entailed intricate instrumental and emotional domestic work on the part of some of our research participants with deployed parents (especially the girls), in the context of both parents being unavailable to them as sources of support.
Our participants were proud of their domestic achievements during parental deployments. On the other hand, developing adolescents need to spend quality time with their peers, pursue extracurricular activities, establish romantic relationships, and be mentored through new challenges by their parents. For a significant number of our participants, too few of these needs appeared to be being met during the parental deployments they discussed with us.
Parentification and perception of school support
In general, the participants who had experienced a recent parental deployment were more negative and more specific in their feedback about the quality of deployment support provided by teachers and guidance counsellors at the school than were their peers who had not experienced a recent parental deployment. For example, Jonathan referred to the school’s “sugar coating” of the war in Afghanistan; Sarah criticized the guidance office’s refusal to provide support without a prior appointment; Jasmine highlighted the deployment-related training that she believed school personnel had failed to receive; Joanne mentioned teachers’ ignorance regarding which students’ parents were deployed, and of how an adolescent’s acting out during a deployment might reflect the stress his or her family was experiencing:
It’s not their fault, but they don’t know anything…. They [should] have at least a list… and bring it to the military, and say like, “Please tell me who are deployed right now.” And get all those kids into a room. And I’ll bet you they’ll all be sobbing within 15 minutes of asking them questions, because they have it all bottled up inside of them.
She added that, partly because of this lack of information, teachers found it difficult to understand that a student who acted out during an Afghanistan deployment was doing so because they were missing and/or worried about a parent who was there.
If a kid is really obnoxious in class, or rude in class, there’s obviously something behind it. There’s some motive of why they may be acting out. Some teachers find it over and above their job to address it. Over and above like, “Oh, they’re just a troubled child.” Like, get them through this class with a 60, and then they’ll be off to the next teacher. I know a lot of them are just acting out to act out. But some of them are probably acting out because they have problems at home because one of their parents are being deployed, or one of their parents are going through things in the military.
Our data suggest that the real or perceived deficiencies in the school’s support system had been observed more intensively by cf students who had lived through recent overseas deployments than by their peers who had not. This would be a plausible interpretation, in view of the fact that students who had experienced difficult deployments, especially those who had been parentified, would have been those who had been most in need of support from the school, and consequently also most conscious of the kinds of school support that might have been missing.
The implications of our findings are two-fold. First, in keeping with traditional expectations about domestic labour and gender, deployments appear to demand more from the daughters of deployed members than they demand from sons. This statement should not be interpreted as an attempt to minimize the work and suffering that male adolescents put into their parents’ deployments. Indeed, a strong need exists for community organizations which provide support to children of deployed military members to develop effective strategies to assist adolescents of both genders. However, our findings suggest that girls could especially benefit from curriculum modules which focused on the costs to women of gender role socialization and the gender division of labour, and from support initiatives that were predicated on a realistic assessment of how gender socialization is likely to occur within communities located near army bases.
Second, between the lines of their comments, our interview participants appeared to express the need for more knowledgeable and proactive support to be provided by schools to adolescents who are affected by parental military deployments. Enhanced school support could potentially fill some of the vacuums created by the parental emotional unavailability that is the unavoidable by-product of the situation of adults who are responding as heroically as they can to the overwhelming stresses that deployments create. Enhanced school support could also ease some of the burdens that many undeployed parents now shoulder alone. Education is a provincial responsibility in Canada. However, since decisions to participate in overseas missions are made at the federal level, it would be appropriate for the federal government to assume responsibility for assisting provinces to enable schools located near military bases to increase their levels of support to students whose parents have been deployed.
Earley, L. & Cushway, D. J. (2002). The parentified child. Clinical Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 7 (2), 163–178.
Hooper, L. (2007). Expanding the discussion regarding parentification and its varied outcomes: Implications for mental health research and practice. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 29 (4), 322–337.
Deborah Harrison is professor (retired) and adjunct professor of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick, and professor (status only) of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at OISEUT. Her books include No Life Like It: Military Wives in Canada (co-authored with Lucie Laliberté; Toronto: James Lorimer, 1994) and The First Casualty: Violence Against Women in Canadian Military Communities (with seven collaborators; Toronto: James Lorimer, 2002).
Patrizia Albanese is an associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Ryerson University. Her most recent books include Youth and Society: Exploring the Social Dynamics of Youth Experience (Canadian adaptation of White and Wyn; Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2011); Child Poverty in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2010); Children in Canada Today (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2009).
How did your life change during the deployment?
How did the deployment affect your parent who went away? your other parent? your parents’ relationship?
What was the hardest part of this deployment for you?
What was the best part of this deployment for you (if any)? (probing for reflections on resilience and self-esteem)
How (if at all) did AHS [the school] help you adjust to the deployment?
Generally, how good a job does AHS do supporting students whose parents are deployed?
After the interviews had been transcribed, we organized the responses to our open-ended questions thematically, via an inductive process of generating categories from data, which resembled (but was not synonymous with) grounded theory methodology.
The clinicians at The Phoenix Centre for Children & Families in Pembroke, Ontario, see many families from the Canadian Forces. CrossCurrents spoke to Greg Lubimiv, executive director of the centre, about parentification and its effects.
How do you tell if teens and children have been parentified?
What I look for is changes that have occurred from before the first deployment, since it’s a process that often starts with the first time a parent is absent. This provides a baseline of behaviour that you are able to then compare to what the child is exhibiting at the present time. The child might not exhibit a lot of changes after the second or third deployment, because the changes happened earlier. I focus on losses related to four life areas:
Friendships: Children often lose friends because their new role as parent takes up their time, either instrumentally, because of chores, or emotionally, because of the investment of time in the parent who is at home.
Interests: We ask children, “What were you interested in before your parent or parents were deployed the first time? Video games, baseball, swimming?” Then, we ask them what their interests are now, and receive such answers as, “Um, ah, I don’t really know. I don’t really know what I like to do” or “I used to like swimming a lot, but now I just go once in a while, or not at all.”
Time for self: Teens (in fact all of us) need time for themselves to grow—to listen to music, watch TV or video, or just have “me” time. Here we look for a significant increase or decrease in that time. If a teen has no time for him- or herself, that’s a definite problem; but if a teen has a lot of time, it could be because they feel distanced from their peers, or feel a need to remain in the home to be present for the parent there. The larger the net change of time for self from the pre-deployment time, the more it needs to be explored further.
Grades/attendance: Again, we will typically see grades drop because the children do not have the time to spend or the capacity to pay attention in class or on homework. As well we may see attendance issues, or frequent lateness because the child is dealing with logistic issues at home.
Do parents see that they are parentifying their kids?
Much of the time, no. The parent or parents are in their own state of stress or need. The child or teen steps in, the parent’s need is met, they are fulfilled, so no, they often don’t see it.
What about parents who argue that extra chores for kids are actually a good thing?
There is the question of additional responsibility versus parentification. It’s not necessarily wrong for kids to have added responsibilities when a parent is absent, say, taking over the care of the lawn. It’s when boundaries and roles get blurred, when the child starts acting as if he is the father, that trouble begins.
A teen cutting grass is one thing. A teen who is worried that the state of the yard will bring disgrace on him and his family, who watches for every weed, trims, fertilizes and ruminates over the lawn is in trouble. Parentification eliminates the time that kids get to spend in age-appropriate behaviours, and that is what creates the concern.
Is parentification the main way teens adapt to deployments?
Kids adapt to deployments in different ways: one family with two teens sought help for the younger teen, a boy, who seemed to the parents to be acting out. The older teen, a girl, had buckled down at high school and had gone from being a C student to an A student. What we saw as clinicians was different than what the parents saw: we saw a son who was reacting to being a teen by testing boundaries and deemed this “normal” teen behaviour; we saw a daughter who was dealing with a lot of anxiety caused by the deployment by focusing exclusively on school as being in trouble.
What do you look for in a family with deployments?
We check the social support systems of the parents. In many career military families, there have been multiple moves for the family, to the point where the parents may have given up on a social support system—they’re not in any one place long enough to invest in making close friendships, and their familial support group is far away.
When the parent’s emotional needs are not being addressed during a deployment, the parent naturally turns to someone they are emotionally connected with. If there isn’t anyone in the adult world, the child, particularly if the child is a teenager, may be the one who is engaged for emotional support. It’s when the parent begins to depend on the child that parentification takes place.
We also look at how the parents or family has developed rules and consequences for when both parents are at home, and then look at what changes when one or both parents are gone. When rules and consequences are followed only when both parents are at home, and are relaxed when a parent is deployed, the boundaries begin to blur and parentification can become nurtured.
Just as routines are important for toddlers and preschoolers, routine is vital for teens. The less change there is between at-home times and deployment times, the more anxiety is kept in check for both the remaining parent and the children. It also makes adjustment far easier for the returning deployed parent when rules and consequences are adhered to and kept routine.