A Type of boundary dissolution in a dysfunctional family system:
Role-reversal. Role-reversal, also termed parentification, refers to a dynamic in which parents turn to children for emotional support (Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark 1973; Jurkovic 1997). Although learning to be responsive and empathic to others' needs is a healthy part of child development, parentification involves an exploitative relationship in which the parents' expectations exceed the child's capacities, the parent ignores the child's developmental needs, or the parent expects nurturance but does not give it reciprocally (Chase 1999). A parent engaged in role-reversal may be ostensibly warm and solicitous to the child, but the relationship is not a truly supportive one because the parents' emotional needs are being met at the expense of the child's. Further, children are often unable to meet these developmentally inappropriate expectations, which may lead to frustration, disappointment, and even anger (Zeanah and Klitzke 1991). In fact, parents' inappropriate expectations for children, such that they provide nurturing to their parents, are a key predictor of child maltreatment (Azar 1997).
Research shows that, over the course of childhood, young children who fulfill their parents' need for intimacy have difficulty regulating their behavior and emotions (Carlson, Jacobvitz, and Sroufe 1995) and demonstrate a pseudomature, emotionally constricted interpersonal style ( Johnston 1990). In the longer term, childhood role reversal is associated with difficulties in young adults' ability to individuate from their families (Fullinwider-Bush and Jacobvitz 1993) and adjust to college (Chase, Deming, and Wells 1998). Parent-child role reversal also is associated with depression, low-self esteem, anxiety (Jacobvitz and Bush 1996), and eating disorders (Rowa, Kerig, and Geller 2001) in young women. Due to cultural expectations that associate caregiving with the feminine role, daughters may be particularly vulnerable to being pulled into the role of "mother's little helper" (Brody 1996; Chodorow 1978). Consistent with family systems theory (Minuchin 1974), boundary violations also are more likely to occur when the marital relationship is an unhappy one and the parent turns to the child for fulfillment of unmet emotional needs (Fish, Belsky, and Youngblade 1991; Jacobvitz and Bush 1996).
Role-reversal may take different forms, depending on the role the child is asked to play. Parents might behave in a child-like way, turning to the child to act as a parenting figure, termed parentification or child-as-parent (Walsh 1979; Goglia et al. 1992); or they may relate to the child as a peer, confidante, or friend (Brown and Kerig 1998), which might be termed adultification or child-as-peer. Although providing a parent with friendship, emotional intimacy, and companionship ultimately interferes with the child's individuation and social development outside the home, the negative implications of a peer-like parent-child relationship may be less severe than a complete reversal of roles in which the parent relinquishes all caregiving responsibilities. Role reversal can also occur between adults, such as when an adult turns to the spouse to act as a parent, seeking guidance and care instead of a mutually autonomous relationship, termed spouse-as-parent (Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark 1973; Chase 1999). Another form of role reversal occurs when the parent behaves in a seductive manner toward the child, placing the child not in the role of parent or peer, but of romantic partner.
Anyone familiar with this dynamic? I think I know of a handful of friends who seem like they went through this experience.........