Some resources if you are wondering about parentification and spousification

(118 Posts)
brdgrl Sun 03-Aug-14 18:18:28

This is a long post, but I do think it may be useful for some posters; if you think it may be relevant to you, do have a look.

With some regularity, there are posts on this board from stepparents (usually stepmums, but then the board is mainly used by women) who are concerned about what they feel might be an unhealthy relationship between their DSC (usually their stepdaughter) and the DSC’s father. These posts are invariably met with hostility from people who see it as an attack on the DSC. In at least some of these cases, it may be that the poster is observing one of the processess known as spousification or parentification. Having some admittedly non-professional experience with the situation, I am creating this thread to both present a corrective to some ignorance being bandied about on the board, and to offer some resources to posters who may find them relevant.
It appears that people are very uncomfortable with the therapeutic concepts of parentification, spousification, and parent-child boundary dissolution. I suppose they are tough ideas to grasp for some, and so they have decided that these concepts are the creation of bloggers, evil stepmothers, and quacks.

It is very unfortunate, since understanding the concepts, and making a careful judgement, assisted by a professional, about their application to a family’s situation, can make a world of difference for the child involved. It is also wrong to suggest that these concepts somehow “blame” the child; in fact, if nothing else, they surely present an alternative interpretation, based on the idea that the child is NOT to blame, but the family dynamic. This is a very positive idea, as with help and effort, that dynamic can be altered.

The terms used by professionals are parentification and spousification (I've never heard mini-wife except on here myself, and I don't think it is a useful term; there are also clearly a lot of fools confusing it with the actual therapeutic concepts). I am not a professional myself and do not claim to have a practioner's knowledge, but that of someone who has experienced it and read about it. When it was suggested to us that FST might be a good approach, and that DSD had been 'spousified', that was the first I really knew about it. I don’t claim to be an expert, and that is why I am mainly just going to provide resources so that people can do their own research, as I have done. I will add that my DH and I found support in dealing with the issue from Relate and also from a private counsellor, and that was very useful.

Parentification is a widely recognized therapeutic concept, describing a very real dynamic that affects bereaved or fractured families. Those who have identified it and built therapeutic models around it are not quacks or bloggers or people with a degree they bought off the internet. They are highly respected professionals

If I may be permitted to summarize the concept, and with apologies to the professionals - the main issue is that the healthy boundaries of parent/child are lost. The child is treated as a peer and partner, rather than as a child. This often means that the daughter (or son because that happens too) takes over the role of the mother in terms of companionship and decision-making. Many times she also takes over adult responsibilities, such as domestic duties and childcare. Obviously there are many teenage girls who do housework and look after siblings, but this is more than that. It is about the role within the larger family structure and the emotional demands upon the child. Sometimes this happens, for instance, when the mother dies and the daughter tries to fill the gap left behind, especially where the father is not able to adequately maintain boundaries or meet the kids' emotional needs himself because of his grief. It also can happen in divorce or even within intact families.

In other cases, the DSD does not take on the adult household responsibilities, but does take on the role of social partner, and is given inappropriate decision-making powers or included in age-inappropriate activities.

These children suffer from the dynamic, even though it is superficially very satisfying to them. They generally lack good peer relationships, and may suffer from excessive perfectionism; they often feel a great deal of stress and may blame themselves for things that are outside of their control. There may be a strong affect on their ability to have healthy adult relationships. It can be very damaging not just to the child, but to other children in the home, and of course to the adult relationships as well.

brdgrl Sun 03-Aug-14 18:19:14

Now, lest I be accused again of making this up, or of citing quacks and bloggers, here are some resources.

One of the major authors on the topic is Salvador Minuchin, a highly regarded child psychiatrist who developed the idea of Structural Family Therapy. Minuchin is a medical doctor and a long-time family therapist, whose ideas are taught in universities around the world, and discussed in professional publications. Here is a brief bio of him - link: www.goodtherapy.org/famous-psychologists/salvador-minuchin.html# Minuchin is a medical doctor and a long-time family therapist, whose ideas are taught in universities around the world, and discussed in professional publications. Here is a brief bio of him - link: www.goodtherapy.org/famous-psychologists/salvador-minuchin.html#

A very good explanation of parentification and its effects on children and families can be found in the book Burdened Children, by Nancy Chase (Burdened Children: Theory, Research and Treatment of Parentification. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1999.)
In particular, the Chapter entitled “Cross-Sex and Same-Sex Family Alliances: Immediate and Long-Term Effects on Sons and Daughters”, by Deborah Jacobvitz & Shelley Riggs & Elizabeth Johnson
(Abstract of the chapter from the publisher’s site: “Family theorists describe healthy family patterns as hierarchically organized, whereby parents guide and nurture their children's development, and children, in turn, seek comfort and advice from their parents. When this hierarchy breaks down, children may assume a parental role in response to a mother or father who turns to them for support instead of to a partner or other adult. Clinicians and researchers have noted the negative effects on children when the generational boundary between parent and child breaks down.”)
The most pertinent section begins on page 43.

Oh, and again – no daft bloggers here. The first author of this chapter, Dr Deborah Jacobvitz, is the Chair of the School of Human Ecology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her bio is here:
“Dr. Jacobvitz specializes in parent-child interactions and their transmission from one generation to the next. She draws on attachment theory to understand how parents’ reconstructions of their relationships with their own parents during childhood affect their parenting practices with their own children. Using data from a seven-year longitudinal study, Dr. Jacobvitz is studying the transmission of cycles of abuse across generations and the effects of family conflict on children’s developing friendships and emotional and behavior problems. She has received grants from the National Science Foundation and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. An expert on the widely used Adult Attachment Interview, Dr. Jacobvitz frequently leads workshops on this important technique for psychologists in the United States, Europe and Asia. She is past president of the Southwestern Society for Research on Human Development, is on the Editorial Board of Attachment and Human Development, and has published numerous articles in Child Development, Developmental Psychology, Development and Psychopathology, and other journals.” (from the University website)

I would also recommend the preface, written by Dr Chase, which gives a very coherent explanation of parentification. Dr Chase’s bio is here: “Dr Chase completed her Ph.D. in The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University with an interdisciplinary concentration in reading theory, critical theory, and developmental psychology. Her dissertation compared models of reading comprehension from cognitive psychology to theories of reader response described by Wolfgang Iser and Stanley Fish. From 1984 - 1999, Dr Chase was a faculty member in the Department of Academic Foundations (formerly Division of Developmental Studies) where she taught reading and composition. During that time she co-authored a freshmen composition textbook, and was co-investigator of a research grant on academic literacies funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). She also served as Assistant Director of GSU's Center for the Study of Adult Literacy from 1988-1991. In the early nineties Dr. Chase's research interests shifted. She began studying family dynamics, specifically parental alcoholism and dimensions of family responsibility as they related to academic performance of young adults. Dr. Chase earned a Masters in Social Work from The University of Georgia in 1995 and pursued part-time clinical training and practice in family therapy from 1994-1999 while continuing her work as an Associate Professor in the Department of Academic Foundations. She has published articles in numerous journals, including The American Journal of Family Therapy, Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, Journal of Reading Behavior, Journal of Developmental Education, Reading Research and Instruction, and Journal of the Freshman Year Experience. (from the University website)

A couple more good resources:
Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman is a less academic/clinical work. It has a section which explores the topic of father-daughter boundaries, as well as an additional chapter about sibling relationships. Edelman is a memoirist and non-fiction writer; the book was a huge bestseller and critically well-acclaimed. This is, as the name suggests, primarily about daughters being raised by their fathers or fathers and stepmothers.
Stepcoupling is another text I often recommend, which isn't wholly devoted to the topic, but touches on it in very practical ways for stepfamilies.

Well. I hope that is helpful, and can put to rest the idea that this is all an elaborate fantasy, a trendy “buzzword”, etc.
If you are a poster who thinks she might recognize something here, speaking to a therapist or counsellor who is knowledgeable about FST might be very useful in determining whether any of this applies to you. Of course, it may not.

ArsenicFaceCream Sun 03-Aug-14 18:58:48

^It is very unfortunate, since understanding the concepts, and making a careful judgement, assisted by a professional, about their application to a family’s situation, can make a world of difference for the child involved.

Mightily relieved to see an admission that this is a job for a professional therapist.

How very reassuring smile

Has the concept crossed the pond yet? I couldn't find references on UK sites (that is not a PA way of saying they aren't there, just that I can't find them) Is it still a largely niche US idea or will family therapists in the UK be familiar?

brdgrl Sun 03-Aug-14 19:14:19

Our relate counselor was familiar and in fact was the first to raise the suggestion to us.

ArsenicFaceCream Sun 03-Aug-14 19:17:03

I love Relate. Yay Relate.

ArsenicFaceCream Sun 03-Aug-14 19:21:43

In fact can I link to their excellent book on step-families? (although you can't beat actual therapy if things are tough)

Their step-family work doesn't get enough publicity.

www.amazon.co.uk/Relate-Guide-Step-Families-Successfully-ebook/dp/B0089WYI04/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1407073036&sr=8-3&keywords=suzie+hayman

Thanks.

Happybeard Sun 03-Aug-14 19:26:18

Thanks so much brd. Of course it's for trained therapists but are we to not discuss any psychology or theories unless we are professionals? It happens all over this website and in real life all the time. I was talking to a friend yesterday about how she thought her ex had the Madonna/ whore complex... Maybe I should have halted the conversation immediately as there was no trained professional present?

It was through discussing theories on mumsnet that I became interested enough to realise that I did need a counsellor to work through my isshoos with.

Back to spousification - that info is fascinating. It often seemed time that dsd had been installed by her mum as a stand in wife. I have heard her say on the phone to dsd "have a lovely valentines day with daddy, make sure he spoils you rotten!" Wtf?

Anyway, that's the thin end of the wedge and enough for today grin

brdgrl Sun 03-Aug-14 19:28:24

Here is one UK-based source, which I found in a minute's Google search, and have not read more than the abstract. However, I thought it might reassure you to know that the literature on the concepts is not restricted to the top US institutions.

The Parentified Child, in the Journal of Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, by Louise Earley and Delia Cushway, who are based at Coventry University, UK

brdgrl Sun 03-Aug-14 19:30:52

Here is another good article, and it can be read online. The sections labeled "parentification" and "adultification" are most pertinent.
healthyparent.com/Parentification%20Web%20Preview.pdf

There is of course a bibliography at the end of Dr Gerber's article, which can refer you on to even more resources.

brdgrl Sun 03-Aug-14 19:35:23

Happybeard thanks
It has made such a difference in our family to have a problem identified and to have real strategies for dealing with it. My DSD is very different today, and when my in-laws and family friends tell me how much happier and well-adjusted she seems, it is a really good feeling.

Bonsoir Sun 03-Aug-14 21:34:47

SDC can also sometimes defy the adult-in-authority status of a SP in quite subtle ways such that the parent doesn't really "get it" and intervene, without parentification/spousification.

brdgrl Sun 03-Aug-14 21:51:41

Absolutely, Bonsoir. This isn't to say that all problems with DSC come down to parentification/spousification, not by a long shot.

It will be a real issue for some families.

whyonearthdoyouthink Sun 03-Aug-14 22:05:43

Its perfectly clear to me dhs ex spousifies her daughters - they are leant on in the same way that most of us use adult friends or family members, the eldest got a joint mortgage at 18 with her mother, youngest has been involved in all her mothers relationship problems and is well aware her mother "hates men" and this was from a 15 year old. They have been protected from nothing - at 10 sd announced she may know someone who had breast cancer, but she wasnt allowed to tell us who - she was involved in every step from before there were ever tests.

Every friend their mother makes is their friend - every falling out she has is their issue. I dont need a therapist to tell me thqt treating your young children as adults, imbiding them with adult responsibilitied and worried is wrong and making them financially responsible o

whyonearthdoyouthink Sun 03-Aug-14 22:09:53

Its perfectly clear to me dhs ex spousifies her daughters - they are leant on in the same way that most of us use adult friends or family members, the eldest got a joint mortgage at 18 with her mother, youngest has been involved in all her mothers relationship problems and is well aware her mother "hates men" and this was from a 15 year old. They have been protected from nothing - at 10 sd announced she may know someone who had breast cancer, but she wasnt allowed to tell us who - she was involved in every step from before there were ever tests.

Every friend their mother makes is their friend - every falling out she has is their issue. I dont need a therapist to tell me thqt treating your young children as adults, imbiding them with adult responsibilitied and worried is wrong and making them financially responsible for the financial security is damaging to them. We alk love our children but there is a line between closeness and dependence on them and making them adults before their time - a classic example is dhs eldest missing 6 th form to collect youngest from school when mum home and dad more than willing and in fact sometimes atood outaode same school ditto to eldest taking youngest to doctors dentist and effectively replacing dad as mums "partner".

whyonearthdoyouthink Sun 03-Aug-14 22:10:45

Sorry about typos cant scroll

Waltermittythesequel Sun 03-Aug-14 22:15:29

How tragic for these children, to be caught in such a complex psycholigical web.

I do hope that they aren't mistreated in any way, shape or form by their loving, caring, agenda-free stepmothers. smile

whyonearthdoyouthink Sun 03-Aug-14 22:22:34

walter I got my SD counselling via Action for Children through the school - its not pleasant for anyone involved. SMs start with 1 agenda - to do the best for their families I remember posting that step parenting in a hostile situation is like the slow erosion of dreams - where one step at a time your dreams of a happy family fall apart.

No one SM or SC chooses that as a way of life.

Waltermittythesequel Sun 03-Aug-14 22:24:50

I do believe, why, that you have done the absolute most that you could possibly do by your entire family, including your SC.

whyonearthdoyouthink Sun 03-Aug-14 22:29:56

But so has every other poster here - at least thats whats I believe they just arent all as good at putting it into words.

No one wants to live in a battle zone.

ArsenicFaceCream Sun 03-Aug-14 22:31:46

SDC can also sometimes defy the adult-in-authority status of a SP in quite subtle ways such that the parent doesn't really "get it" and intervene, without parentification/spousification.

Do you mean that some people are sometimes uncooperative Bonsoir?

And that sometimes some other people don't notice that?

brdgrl Sun 03-Aug-14 22:32:56

SMs start with 1 agenda - to do the best for their families
why, that's a lovely way to put it.
I agree with you that we often don't need a therapist to tell us something is 'off'. Identifying and 'labelling' problems can be so useful in beginning to fix them.

Happybeard Sun 03-Aug-14 22:33:03

Walter your posts scream passive aggression. Why do you not feel able to put your opinion over as it actually is? I wonder if you behave this way during anonymous exchanges on MN how you tackle real life conversations. Maybe just jibbing at folk with blatant insults then following up with a massive grin?

It baffles me as to what you hoped to achieve by typing your last post.

Waltermittythesequel Sun 03-Aug-14 22:42:02

No, I don't believe they are Why. I truly don't.

Waltermittythesequel Sun 03-Aug-14 22:43:04

What are you trying to say, Happy?

I'm equally baffled by your post.

Happybeard Sun 03-Aug-14 22:51:01

More of the same then.

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