"Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer. From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I."
Parentification, when a child takes on the role of an adult, is a particularly precarious form of abuse. In its toxicity, it sends a developing child a destructive message, "Your needs are not important." This is a falsehood with strident roots that are difficult, but not impossible to uproot. Arriving at a level of understanding and acceptance that we, as human beings, all have innate needs and core longings is a start. We need love, security, safety, protection, nurturing, and care. These are fundamental building blocks for our emotional well-being. They help us move seamlessly through stages of mental, physical, and emotional development and bring us to a place a maturity. However, when we grow up in a toxic environment in which roles are reversed and a child is forced to take on the role of a parent to meet the emotional needs of the other parent, the natural progression is interrupted. The end result will be a child launched into a world of chaos, confusion, and an age inappropriate role.
As adults who may have parentified as children, how do we undo the effects of this form of abuse? A good place to begin is by acknowledging our experience as well as our unmet needs. Allowing ourselves to recall the anguish, the fear, the anger, the regret, the sadness and realizing that growing up in an emotionally abusive and traumatizing environment was not our fault. An adult depending on a child to carry out adult roles and responsibilities is inappropriate and wrong. This environment interrupts a child's normal developmental progression; leaving gaps, voids, and disruptions. A child may be acutely aware that a boundary has been crossed and know something is "wrong" or "off", as his/her voice becomes inaudible or ignored in the ears of the adult. Therefore, efforts to survive and navigate an unhealthy environment become maladaptive coping skills that prompt the child to live in proverbial isolation with ever evolving needs and longings going unmet and unexpressed. These coping skills are often carried into adulthood creating greater challenges, because unmet needs do not go away--they simply remain unmet.
Once we have acknowledge our experience, it may be helpful to share our story with someone we trust. Sharing our story in a nucleus of safety challenges us to step out of our comfort zone. When we share our story or our "secret" of parentification we begin to move in the direction of wholeness and healing. We are relational beings, created and sustained by relationships. Communication, interaction, eye contact, laughter, and mutual sharing are all by God's design. We were created to journey through life together (Genesis 2:18)
When we have been verbally or non-verbally conditioned to care for others and neglect, minimize, or ignore our own needs it may feel counterintuitive to even think about self-care, let alone exercise it. If you grapple with feelings of guilt or anxiety for taking time out for you, it may be helpful to remind yourself that although this may not have been your childhood experience, it is okay to take care of oneself. Consider the account of Jesus in Mark 1:35, who even in the midst of ministry, healing, and caring for others valued and understood the importance of self-care.
Give yourself permission to be kind to you. Perhaps you are thinking, "Where do I begin?" or there may be some grappling with an internal dialogue such as, "How do I care for myself when I was not cared for?" What does self-care even look like? It may be helpful to envision what kindness and compassion looks like to you. How do you demonstrate kindness to others? Imagine yourself caring for yourself as if you were caring for someone else. Is envisioning this level of care and consideration uncomfortable? Unsettling? Anxiety or guilt provoking? If so, that is okay and understandable. Give yourself permission to acknowledge your feelings of discomfort. Trust God with your heart and your feelings, realizing that his desire is for you to a live a full, vibrant, and abundant life (John 10:10)
Self-care may seem intimidating when we have been conditioned and trained to care for others. Challenge yourself. Take small steps. Make treating yourself with kindness, care, and compassion a priority. Here are some suggestions:
- Share your story with God through contemplative prayer and personal reflection: Recounting our stories may be painful, but when we run to the arms of our loving Father, he wraps us in his warmth, love, and compassion (Psalm 18:6). There is healing to be found in bearing our wounds, brokenness, disappointment, fear, and anger before him in prayer (Psalm 69:16)
- Journal: chronicling your experiences may be an effective form of self-expression. It may also serve as a vehicle to articulate suppressed or minimized thoughts and feelings (Psalm 45:1)
- Creative Arts: Painting, drawing, music, dance, photography, etc. are all mediums of self-expression that are catalysts for movement in our journey (Psalm 147)
- Purpose to be kind to yourself each day: Speak aloud positive, biblical affirmations to yourself each day (Job 22:28, Proverbs 18:22), get proper rest (Psalm 127:2), exercise and eat a well-balanced diet. Treat yourself with the same level of care, kindness, and compassion that you would bestow upon someone else. It is a spiritual discipline to practice these concepts daily, but in so doing our mindset changes and we make strides towards total wellness and healing.
Father, in the name of Jesus, I confess that I was a parentified child. I acknowledge my sorrow and brokenness before you. I turn to you for help, guidance, and deliverance. I pray that you would heal the wounds of my heart. Lift the burden and the weight of caring for others at the expense of myself. I receive your love, your compassion, your care, and your kindness. I pray for the grace to render self-care. Undo erroneous thinking. Reestablish boundaries that have been crossed. I pray for an outpouring of your joy and peace in my life. Amen
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