For part one of this series see What are The Roles in Dysfunctional Families Systems?
A Short Childhood Story
My brother glanced at me as we “read” the emotional temperature of the room. What was tonight going to be like? My mother already had one of those frowns on her face.
As expected, she began her nightly diatribe. “These kids have been terrible all day. I don’t know why they won’t listen. I’m so miserable. I can’t get any one of you to help me do anything.” She turned to me and screamed. “STOP KICKING THAT TABLE LEG.”
On cue, the terrifyingly dark cloud that was my father rolled in. His voice commanded total obedience. “I don’t want to hear it tonight.”
My stomach started to hurt. I looked at the stewed tomatoes sitting in a bowl by my plate. They were disgusting. My mother was now busy fixing one of her favorite treats. Cornbread mushed down in a glass of buttermilk. It looked like vomit. My brother’s face peeped over the round oak table. He was eating as fast as he could in order to get away as soon as possible.
I couldn’t eat another bite. I just couldn’t. The hum of my parents arguing, coupled with my mother’s recitation of all the terrible things I had done that day made me sick. I was so bad, no punishment would be enough for me. I looked at my father. He was terrifying. I made myself take a small bite of food. My stomach really hurt.
My father noticed. “You eat all that food or you’ll get a whipping.”
My mother nodded in happy agreement. The bane of her existence, me, was getting what I deserved. “Yes!” She enthusiastically colluded. She put some “greens” on my plate. I knew my father would make me eat them. They lay like rotten seaweed as my mother poured her favorite condiment over them, vinegar. I promptly threw up into everyone’s plate and all over the dining room table.
I don’t remember much about what happened after that. I do remember being banished to my room. I lay silently in bed that night, surrounded by thick blackness. The hum of a car engine sounded in the distance—headlights nimbly jumping from wall to wall. I squeezed my eyes shut. My brother once told me, “If you let yourself see the lights of passing cars, you’ll have nightmares.” I didn’t need the lights of cars to give me those.
The Beginnings of Parentification
I started with this story in an attempt to explain how the pattern of parentification begins. Constant threat sets the stage for total compliance. As I grew a little older, my role as a scapegoat continued, but it morphed into another role. My father used me as his emotional wife. Though he never touched me in a sexual way, he committed devastating emotional abuse. I remember the warm feeling of his approval as I listened intently to his opinion on a host of favorite topics. My mother grew jealous and her hatred towards me increased. I was pulled into my father’s confidence as he explained his frustrations about his marriage even to the point of sharing intimate details.
As a twelve-year-old, I stood before one of the greatest works of art in Western civilization. Michelangelo’s Pieta sat just inside the gigantic doors of the Vatican. My father enjoyed that trip to Italy as much as I did. Two years before, he had taken my brother to Spain. To an outsider, such glorious opportunities must seem wonderful. No one thought it odd that my mother sat at home while my father took his kids on whirlwind trips to Europe. Parentification was in full swing—we traveled with my father, not my mother.
Serving as a pastor, my father often spoke in various churches throughout the week. I was always the one to accompany him. My mother never attended. I loved the special attention I got as his sidekick.
As the years passed, the pattern became more and more entrenched. I only ever existed to please and agree with my father. It gave him the total control he longed for and was the reason I stayed in the relationship for so long. Why would I leave the only source of “love” I had?
The Pattern of Continued Parentification
The pattern of parentification forces survivors, like you, to learn their needs and desires will not be met. You must learn to deny your innermost thoughts in order to please your parents. This powerful pattern takes on many forms. Perhaps the family system did not provide financially. Maybe you had to work to help the family, were made responsible for raising siblings, or were given chores beyond your capabilities. Maybe your mother relied on you emotionally through a divorce. Whatever form it takes, parentification keeps you quiet about the truth of the family system. It cuts you off from healing and forces you to stay enmeshed in destructive patterns.
You could not and can not help your parents with their emotional pain. You do not have the ability to make your parents happy nor do you have such an obligation. Those feelings were placed in your heart long ago by your parent’s unwillingness to take responsibility for themselves. The protective instinct and obligation you feel towards your parent/parents is a symptom of parentification.
My father set himself up as the “good” parent and used my mother as a target. By the time they divorced many years later, the stage had been set to drag me into the mess and destroy what little emotional life I had left. The only approval I ever received was for doing what my father wanted. Never for being myself.
This is why it is so hard to leave a parental abuser for those who have cultivated compliance over the formative years of life. This is also why the symptoms of Complex PTSD are so profound and so difficult to heal. It is mind control, brain-washing, and emotional destruction of the highest order. And it is done in secret.
None of this is your fault. If I could give you any gift, it would be that you would stop blaming yourself. You’ve suffered long enough. It is time to defy trauma, and embrace joy.
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Rebekah Brown, a native of the south, now resides in the Great American West. Surviving a complicated and abusive family system makes her unique writing style insightful as well as uplifting. Rebekah is the proud mother of two and grandmother of four.