The “Parentification” Trap: Dangers of An Enmeshed Parent-Child Relationship!
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you but not from you and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
– Khalil Gibran
Guest Post Hosai Mojaddidi
One of the consequences of divorce or remaining in an abusive or emotionally unfulfilling marriage is “parentifying” your children. This is especially true for women with sons who end up leaning too heavily on them and treating them as surrogate husbands. Parentifying your children or what some experts refer to as Emotional Incest or Surrogate Spouse Syndrome involves treating your child as a mate, friend, or equal because your emotional needs are unmet by your spouse.
Parents may never realize the damaging effects of this dynamic because they believe everyone benefits from it; they get their needs met while the children are loved and made to feel useful and important. However, studies show time and time again that assuming adult roles for most children is a heavy burden because they are simply not equipped with the coping skills and life experience to deal with difficult circumstances. So instead of feeling better about their new responsibilities they end up having lower self worth because of the constant feeling of disappointment.
It may not always be the parents who rely on the child but rather a child who wants to fill in where there is a void. When we study this dynamic from a family system’s perspective, it makes perfect sense that when one member of the system leaves or is not fulfilling their obligations, we look for another one to take its place. This is our way of maintaining a sense of balance. The scientific term for this phenomenon is “homeostasis.” Unfortunately, when it involves a parent using a child as a stand-in for a spouse or a child filling shoes too big for them to wear, it can cause a lot of problems for everyone involved in the long run.
The Longterm Impact of the Surrogate Spouse Role
When parents and children are trapped in these enmeshed cycles it creates a very unhealthy co-dependence. Children are trained to not only meet the emotional needs of their parents but to anticipate them before even their own needs. While this may seem perfectly fine and even commendable from the Islamic perspective of filial piety, it can cause a lot of problems for the child when they are married and unable to prioritize their own needs or the needs of their spouse and children. Daughters may grow to deny or suppress their own needs and sons may grow accustomed to one-sided relationships where they are taken advantage of.
In many households across the world and in the Muslim community right here at home, sadly, these phenomena are all too real. Time and time again therapists, counselors, imams, social workers, lawyers, and community leaders are pulled into serious family dilemmas involving couples and their parents or in-laws. In many cases wives complain that they are competing with their mother-in-law for their husband’s time, attention, and affections. Some wives even describe feelings of hostility or jealousy from their mother in laws when their husbands display any act or show of love. The husbands are often too emotionally torn by constantly being pulled in two different directions to fully understand the scope of what’s going on.
Signs of the Parentification Trap
Here are a few signs that you’re leaning too heavily on your children or you are too enmeshed with your parent:
1. You discuss the details of your marital problems with your children more than any other adult or peer your own age.
2. Your life, your self-worth, and your pain and happiness is centered around your children.
3. You expect your son or daughter to check on you daily and feel neglected or abandoned when they don’t.
4. You expect your son or daughter to get you extra special gifts for your birthday or during holidays and feel hurt if your gift is not better than that of others.
5. You expect your son or daughter to include you in family outing on the weekends or vacations and feel neglected when they don’t.
6. You feel a constant sense of guilt and obligation towards your parent even though you respond to their every need when you can.
7. You have a hard time enjoying moments or special occasions with your family when your parent(s) are not present.
8. You sometimes blame your wife and children for causing a wedge between you and your parent(s).
9. You discuss the details of your private life with your parent(s) more than any other friend, peer, or elder.
10. You have a hard time saying no to your parent(s) and if you have to will threaten, fight, and use ultimatums with your spouse for your parent’s sake.
11. Your mother is your role model and you compare your wife to your mother unfairly.
Additionally, as a child you may feel resentment and anger towards the parent(s) who parentified you. The expectations on you are too high to ever fulfill and the lack of boundaries can cause you to have an unhealthy self-image and many other relationship problems well into adulthood.
If you have any of these dynamics in your parent-child relationship and think you may be caught up in this trap it is time to seek professional help. Although some of these behaviors might seem normal or typical to you because of cultural norms and practices, when they cause such obvious problems they are clear signs of dysfunction as a result of parentification. It’s important to work on learning and developing age-appropriate skills to help you balance your relationships and a professional therapist can do just that.
Balancing Marriage & Filial Piety
It can be difficult to know how to balance one’s marriage with one’s duty to their parents. Here is a quote from Sheikh `Abdul-Majeed Subh, a prominent scholar from al-Azhar, who uses the example of a man caught in this dilemma to offer solutions:
“Driven by her outpouring of maternal affection and extra care, the mother may think that her daughter-in-law is trying to take exclusive possession of her beloved son. On the other hand, the wife may think that her mother-in-law is dearer to her husband’s heart than her, and here lies the problem.
However, if both the wife and the mother managed to understand the actual causes behind this problem, then it may be easily solved.
The solution, in fact, is within reach. The husband should strike an equitable balance and manage to run the affairs on both tracks successfully. The mother should be treated kindly, and the wife should be maintained honorably.
One solution is that the couple should have his own home, as the shared lodging maybe a primary cause of bringing about disputes between his wife and her mother-in-law. `Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) used to advise the governors of the Muslim Ummah saying, ‘you would better advise relatives to visit one another, but not to share the same lodging.’
If the son managed to have his own home and run his own affairs independently, he should be kind towards his parents. Such kindness may be expressed in the form of frequent visits, offering presents and sharing meals with them. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, ‘Exchange presents so that affection might prevail among you.’
In an attempt to avoid any future disputes, the husband should advise his wife to treat his mother kindly, even if his parents were dissatisfied with her. The husband should be a model in this respect.
If all efforts proved to be of no avail, and the parents or one of them was not on friendly terms with the wife, then the son should be kind and loyal to his parents. If the son managed to handle the situation, and solve the difficult equation among both parties, Allah Almighty will reward him and bless his wife and offspring. Allah Almighty says: ‘But if they strive with thee to make thee ascribe unto Me as partner that of which thou hast no knowledge, then obey them not. Consort with them in the world kindly, and follow the path of him who repenteth unto Me. Then unto Me will be your return, and I shall tell you what ye used to do.?’ (Luqman: 15)
He Almighty also says, ‘And they who believe and whose seed follow them in faith, We cause their seed to join them (there), and We deprive them of naught of their (life’s) work. Every man is a pledge for that which he hath earned.’ (At-Tur: 21)”
Allah Almighty knows best.”
Hosai Mojaddidi is the co-founder and past editor of MH4M. She has been actively involved with the Muslim community in the San Francisco Bay Area and the southern California community for nearly 15 years. Additionally, Sr. Hosai is a published author and lecturer.