The first time I really became aware of how grievous parental inversion is, came in a meeting with a student, Susan, who had recently broken up with her boyfriend. They had been together for a number of years. As my student related their history, I noticed that she seemed to be relatively unemotional. I was surprised as he had left the relationship unexpectedly for another. When I asked her about her feelings, her response took me aback.
“Oh, I haven’t had time to really feel anything. I have been comforting my mother over the breakup. She is so heartbroken, you would think it was hers,” she said. Susan went on to say that she frequently comforted her mother through life’s hardships. Her mom had always been sensitive and she just kind of got co-opted into taking care of her after her parents split up. Susan, being the oldest and naturally empathetic, took on the role of parent.
The direction of the flow of life and love in a family is supposed to go from parent to child, not from child to parent. While this should be obvious, I often find that some people who go into ministry or counseling fields, whether spiritual, psychological, or financial, come from these kinds of backgrounds. Not always, by any means, but often enough.
Illness, addiction, mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, and other factors such as divorce and death can lead to these kinds of structures being erected in a home. A sure sign of parental inversion is the child receiving praise for taking on roles that only the parents should shoulder. You are the man of the house now! I can always count on you. What would I do without you? These kinds of statements lead a child to believe that the household depends on him, a heavy burden for a young heart.
I used the term, heartbreak, because, in the end, it does break the heart of the child. They grow into adults who suffer from an inability to receive love easily, though burnout and performance orientation often render them feeling empty and used. Here are some of the painful consequences that occur in parental inversion, when the child becomes the caretaker of the parent:
1: They see themselves as the protectors, problem-solvers, and caretakers of everyone else.
Rather than allowing relationships to organically develop, they automatically take on these roles. Being the caretaker forms the basis of how they relate to everyone. This makes having emotionally intimate relationships very difficult for them. Often because they jump into this role, they short-circuit reciprocity, opting instead to bond by trying to fix everyone’s problems, whether emotional or physical.
2: They see themselves as life-givers but do not feel full of life.
Because life was not poured into them, essentially they give from an empty cup. Victims give of themselves compulsively, often not realizing that they are trapped in a pattern of behavior. They gave of themselves as children to keep their home life and their unstable parents from destructing. These adults are reenacting that scenario in their adult lives. They often attract unstable people to themselves in order to justify the pattern.
3: They can be controlling.
Their attitude is that they can do it better themselves. Because of this deep-seated belief based on painful childhood circumstances, an adult victim of inversion often pre-empts other people in the practicing of their real gifts. Used to taking over, these adults tend to be leaders because they have had to be since childhood.
4: They do not feel much joy.
Childhoods are meant to be filled with play and discovery. The affection of our parents forms our ability to feel joy. Victims of inversion often work very hard but have a hard time taking time off to play. They often feel as if the world rests on their shoulders, just as it did when they were young.
5: They are tired but cannot rest.
Burnout is a serious issue for those operating under a structure of parental inversion. The constant demands of a needy parent do not allow for rest. It is no different if the parent is only sporadically needy. Once the burden of the household is undertaken by a child, their ability to moderate their rest is utterly compromised. They must keep the peace or make sure everyone is safe at all times.
6: They feel terrible anxiety and guilt.
When one operates under the belief that the whole family is counting on one, then what will happen if one fails? If the individual stops caretaking, then the spouse, the children, the family, or the world will fall apart and it will be all his or her fault. Motivation enough to keep on keeping on.
7: They see God as weak or ineffective.
This belief system stems from parental failure. Their authorities were weak and ineffective. That conviction is now transposed on God. They do God’s work for Him.
8: They turn off their emotions.
Learning to express emotions was never an option. Their emotions threatened the well-being of their parents and so they learned to shut down and get logical. Sometimes this causes them to be full of advice but with very little empathy, though as individuals they often are empathetic. Their empathy has been misused by their parents and so logic is a safer approach.
Healing Parental Inversion
The real heartbreak for me in seeing the effects of this family structure is that so often, the victims of inversion are such wonderful people. They truly dedicate their lives to making the world better but wonder why they do not reap the harvest they have surely sown the seed for.
Firstly, recognizing the extent and source of the problem in the first place allows for the uncomfortable truths about the difficult childhood to be exposed. Probably forgiveness of the parents and releasing the deep judgments formed against them in childhood will take some time to articulate, much less accomplish. But it must be done.
Secondly, rebuilding a foundation of trust can only happen within a relationship. Practicing vulnerability and intimacy takes both time and safe people. Facing the real pain of a lost childhood is healing when done in loving fellowship. And as the pain is faced and healed, joy begins to be restored.
The real key to healing from this dysfunctional family system is changing from a duty mindset to one of love. Because of the lack of love experienced by these precious wounded hearts, they often do not have a deep sense of feeling loved and celebrated for who they are rather than what they do. What a blessing that our God knows how to pour His love into even the most empty of hearts.
Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” Luke 17:18
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