The Psychological Effects of Spousification on a Child

The Psychological Effects of Spousification on a Child

Divorce specialist Brette Sember
Brette Sember is a former attorney from New York who specializes in divorce, mediation, family law, adoption, probate and estates, bankruptcy, credit, and other related fields. She holds a degree in English and a J.D. in law from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

When a parent goes through a divorce or separation, their entire world turns upside down.

Being on your own without a partner is a difficult change to manage. Many people feel alone and adrift as they adjust to being single. There’s a massive need for emotional support at this time, and it can be easy to turn to your child for this.

Spousification occurs when a parent turns to their child for emotional support and begins to rely on them to fill the void left by the divorce. This is damaging for the child and is unhealthy for the parent-child relationship.

Key Takeaways

  • Spousification occurs when a child is expected to fulfill adult needs or an adult role in a family.
  • Causes of spousification include divorce but may also include death of a parent, substance abuse, economic instability, and more.
  • The impact of spousification on children is long-term and affects them as children and as adults.
  • Spousification can be prevented and it can also be treated.

What is Spousification?

Spousification, sometimes called parentification, happens when a parent relies on their child to fulfill emotional needs. When a parent is suddenly single, they are recalibrating their emotional needs and trying to find new ways to meet them.

Turning to a child as an emotional support might seem natural, but in fact, it’s emotionally damaging to the child.

This can also emerge as a role assumption called instrumental parentification. A single mom might expect her teen son to be “the man of the house” and handle home repairs. A single dad might rely on a daughter to cook or do laundry. A single parent might expect an older child to care for younger siblings.

Relying on a child to take over household responsibilities that need to be done can be part of spousification.

This situation goes beyond household tasks, though. The single parent is requiring the child to take the place of the absent spouse and fill a void left by the divorce. The parent looks to the child to help them find happiness, fulfillment, and emotional stability.

It is a very easy trap to fall into. Of course, you have an emotional connection to your child and want to spend time with them. And it is normal for them to have household responsibilities. What is abnormal is when this turns into expecting the child to fill your emotional needs.

You might be spousifying your child if you:

  • Expect your child to be your ‘date’ to events
  • Tell your child details about your marriage and divorce
  • Don’t go to therapy or get help for emotions, and instead on your child
  • Feel as if you couldn’t function without your child’s support
  • Pressure your child to spend time with you instead of friends
  • Think your child is your best friend
  • Expect your child to take over responsibilities your spouse handled before the divorce
  • Tell your child things that are not age-appropriate

Causes of Spousification

Spousification can happen any time there is a parent with unmet emotional needs.

This is common after a divorce or separation, after the death of a parent, and in single-parent families, but it can also happen in situations where a spouse is seriously ill or disabled, the family is economically unstable, neglect or abuse is present, a parent has an addiction, is frequently absent from the home, or emotionally unavailable.

It is also possible in a single-parent family where the only parent is too mentally or physically ill to handle all of the responsibilities in the home.

One study found that it is more common in Black families, but it can happen in any family.

The root cause is that one parent does not have an outlet for their emotional needs or someone they can rely on to support them. They turn to their child because they are there and they already have an emotional connection with them.

Another type of spousification occurs when a parent expects their child to be their friend. Expecting a child to be the person who listens when you need to vent or prop you up when you are down requires a shift in roles in the family.

Psychological Effects of Spousification on Children

Spousification expects a child to step into the role that an adult previously filled, something a child is developmentally unable to do yet feels pressured to do because they want to please their parent.

Spousification has a profound impact on child development and lasting effects. This syndrome mixes up the normal, healthy boundaries and hierarchy in families. Parents are meant to be in charge and manage their emotional needs without entirely relying on their kids.

When spousification happens, the roles in the family become mixed up, which can be confusing for the child and place an unfair emotional burden on children. This can damage the relationship between the child and the parent and the child and their siblings.

If one child is placed in a parental role with the other siblings, the relationship dynamic changes, leading to resentment. Children don’t have the emotional maturity to manage adult emotions and situations, and relying on a child to do so is like asking a child-size chair to handle the weight of an adult sitting on it.

Long-Term Consequences

Spousification has significant long-term impacts because it expects a child to take on a role that is beyond their level of emotional maturity. Studies have found that it can have the following impact on children:

  • A feeling that they are “robbed of their childhood.”
  • Depression and depressive symptoms
  • Anxiety
  • Distancing themselves from their parents
  • Internalization of their own emotions
  • Social isolation
  • Confusion about their identity and role
  • A feeling that they must anticipate the needs of others, particularly in their adult relationships
  • A belief that they must please everyone
  • PTSD symptoms
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Shame
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders

When parentification is primarily instrumental (taking over household responsibilities), studies show children are more likely to face underemployment and unemployment as adults and have mental and physical health issues.

However, as damaging as these consequences are, some studies show that children in this role develop resilience, a positive characteristic.

Mitigating the Effects of Spousification

The good news is that there are ways to prevent spousification and to repair it if it has already happened.

If spousification is happening in your family, the best solution is family therapy. A trained therapist can help you recognize and change your behavior and help your child cope with what has happened. Individual therapy for you and/or your child might also be necessary.

Preventive Measures

If you are worried that spousification could happen in your family, there are things you can do to prevent it, such as:

  • Seek therapy. A good therapist can help you identify your needs and find healthy ways to meet them.’
  • Develop your social circle. Instead of relying on your child for emotional support and friendship, develop adult friendships that give you the connection you need.
  • Create healthy boundaries. Set clear boundaries for yourself so you do not step over the line and parentify your child.
  • Improve self-esteem. Improving your self-esteem can help you avoid placing an undue burden on your child.
  • Reinforce parent-child roles. Be clear about your child’s role and responsibilities in the family and your role and responsibilities.

Final Thoughts

Spousification is common in divorced families, but being aware of what it is and how it can damage a child can help you avoid it. Your relationship with your child should be close but should not cross certain boundaries. If spousification should happen in your family, working with a therapist can help you resolve it.


CATEGORIES: Life After Divorce

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