September 05, 2014

Parentification and Sibling Resentment: The Bologna Soup Story


Albert Anker
Dear John Bradshaw introduced the idea of championing our inner child. He instructed readers to keep a photo of themselves, age six years or eight in plain view. Our age in the photograph could correlate with a tragic event; it didn't have to though; it wouldn't matter if it didn't. The point was integrating our inner child with our adult self, gaining a realistic perspective of our lives. This exercise promised an awakening of self-compassion through the admission that once upon a time, we thought and acted like children...because we were.

How easy it is to forget you were a child.

Observing my self as a child meant really seeing my self, remembering feelings and thoughts and my teacher in first grade. It sounds silly talking about our inner child, holding her hand and promising to care for her; yet feelings of tenderness dissolved my cynical resistance. Self-forgiveness melted boundaries between the past and present, releasing the shame still carried as an adult, for failing to meet big expectations fixed on tiny shoulders.

Adult children of narcissists peer into childhood darkly, mercilessly critical of themselves, oblivious to the blame they're directing towards a six-year old who acted like...well...a six-year-old. Not seeing themselves as children with undeveloped psyches, limited choices, powerless over circumstances, doing the best they could. That's a hard thing to accept, being powerless. It may lead to increased reluctance putting ourselves in little shoes perhaps; avoiding empathizing with the vulnerable child we were perhaps. When you think about being a child, are you touched by the complexity children face adjusting to an unpredictable and sometimes ugly world? And while we were figuring out who who we were and where we fit in a reality we couldn't control, shit happened. Tender children dealing with shitty circumstances grew up to blame themselves for not behaving like adults when they were eight or even fifteen. This is what Bradshaw meant by championing our inner child. Self-forgiveness. Self-compassion. Self-love.
Parentification: "The compliant response is illustrated when you, as an adult: spend a great deal of your time taking care of others; are constantly alert about acting in a way to please others; are very conforming; feel responsible for the feelings, care and welfare of others; tend to be self-deprecating; rush to maintain harmony and to soothe others feelings; and seldom get your needs met." ~Dr. Nina Brown, The Parentified Child
What were you doing when you were fifteen?

Albert Anker
In 1966-67, our neighbors were driving to Texas to buy a bull for their farm. They invited my parents to go with them. Circumstances were such that they had to go the next morning, no matter what. Mom resisted. She didn't want to leave her daughters alone. My brother wasn't in school yet (he's ten years younger than me) which meant she would take him with her. She didn't have the freedom to tell my father "no" and maybe you had to have to grown up in those times, to understand male authority. Hurriedly and reluctantly, mother packed bags while scribbling lists and reminders. She worried about not stocking the pantry, figuring I would make do. Call me creative. Call me industrious. Just don't call me cruel.

I was maybe fifteen years old and responsible for waking three sisters, fixing breakfast, ordering baths, combing hair, and catching the school bus since we didn't have alternative transportation. I was told to make sure everyone finished their homework, myself included. In addition, the next Sunday was Easter and mother had always made new dresses for church. Staying home to make Easter outfits was her strongest argument against driving to Texas, though as usual, Dad would hear none of it. Her resistance to what he wanted to do was akin to patriarchal mutiny. She had to go. Feeling sympathetic to her plight, I offered to do the sewing. She pointed to a pile of fabric on the sewing table and wished me luck. During that week, I made four dresses, four dress coats, a paisley vest and bow-tie for my little brother. Wanting to do everything perfectly and please my family, I felt competent and smart---like Grade A marriage material for a future patriarch of my own. (ha! I got one all right! yikes)

Albert Anker
The Bologna Soup Story

My childhood as the eldest was different from my younger siblings. As the eldest of five, my siblings relish in telling stories about my unrighteous dominion. I'll share one of those stories in a minute but first you need to know we lived in a farming community where every household had as little as every other household. My girl friends also tended younger siblings and in comparison to a few, my life was a breeze. Each time my best friend's father pummeled her mother's body with his fists, she took over household duties until her mother could show her face again. (I understand the abuse cycle and how it traps women and children; but male violence towards those who love them most, is as crazy to me today as it was then.) 

Enjoying domestic arts and being a leader, I wanted to help and was never resentful of the work. It's what girls did in my culture, plus, I valued taking care of people. My easy going temperament and genuine pleasure in "women's work" was a good fit. By contemporary parenting standards, my childhood depicts parentification, but I didn't feel burdened then and don't feel resentful now. Nonetheless, caring for my sisters and brother demanded a heavy investment of time and energy which interestingly, cultivated my affection for them. Care giving wasn't onerous because I loved them. Maybe that's why it never occurred to me that my siblings would carry grudges. To be sure, I wasn't a perfect mother as a child. 
Albert Anker

Two weeks ago...

We were sitting around my parent's table, reminiscing. You know how FOO (family-of-origin) discussions go: one memory leads to another until someone lobs a grenade. The conversation grinds to a halt and nobody knows if the grenade-launcher was joking or serious. I had to mentally review the sequence of events in order to understand what had happened. Please note: Most people never understand why they throw grenades until waking up from the family collusion. Then we spend the last half of our lives understanding patterns and changing destructive behaviors, if we care enough to do the work, that is. I am grateful to be awake. I don't care if it takes the rest of my life "learning, unlearning, and relearning", it's preferable to peating, unpeating and repeating behaviors that hurt other people.

It all started with ruffles and lace...

Recently, my mother rummaged through her closets, rescuing vintage prom and Gunne Sax dresses circa 1970. "Remember the yellow and white formal you made?" she asked me. I was a young mother at the time, scheduling busy days in order to finish my sister's dress with enough time to mail it several states over. Mom said, "When we got the package on the day of the prom, we were so relieved. When we saw the dress, it was bea-U-ti-ful and fit perfectly!" I was getting lots of attention for actually finishing dresses on time. (It's always a plus when your seamstress is reliable). I had even sewn a sister's tailored wedding gown though she wasn't overjoyed when this was mentioned. (I've been in her doghouse for a couple of years and lemme tell you, it's cramped! My legs may be bent forever, if I ever get out...Woof!)

My anxiety was elevating by the second. Anxiety is a useful warning sign to pay attention to. Anxiety can be a functional companion when your family is dysfunctional. Anxiety makes you sweat when you're in the danger zone and then you can do something like leave the table to go to the bathroom, or say something really awful about yourself. Spotlights give me panic attacks. Being singled out fills me with apprehension, worried someone's feelings will be hurt; knowing someone will feel left out, someone will feel diminished and that means there's sure to be an explosion. The pattern is so ingrained, it's predictable. When siblings don't believe there's enough praise and attention to go around or even enough love to share, they put each other down through criticism and insult. If the critic's insults ally with another sibling's resentments, they sidle up together feeding grievances. Lest anyone be concerned about me becoming arrogant, no worries. My family excels at keeping each other in our place. It's a vicious game I'm devoted to unpeating.

Everyone was having a great time and then....

Mom just had to bring up 1967. "Remember when your Dad and I went to Texas?" The room fell silent. One of my sisters interjected a little too aggressively to pretend she was kidding, "YES! CZ made bologna soup!!"

Rather than defend myself, I asked, "Does anyone remember bologna soup?" Another sister dared raise her arm to the square, "I do! I do!" Grumble.

Five siblings at the table: Two on one side; three on the other.

"Maybe the only thing we had was Campbell's Soup and bologna beefed it up." My youngest sister pledged her allegiance to the chef.

"Are you accusing OUR MOTHER of not having food for her children?" a sister charged. A stunning accusation destined for the family history books. We stared at her grenade in the center of the table. Nobody pulled the pin. I resisted the urge to pick it up.

Five siblings at the table: Two on one side; two on the other; one to go.

The only person who hadn't spoken at this point was my little brother, the kid with the paisley bow tie. "Tell me bro," I asked, "How many fifteen-year-old kids do you think would do what I did as your sister?" He replied, "Maybe one in a hundred thousand."

And with that comment, the pattern was broken...

"Bologna Soup Girls"  (Albert Anker)
This time during round #500 of the Bologna Soup story, I didn't feel guilty or ashamed. Did the pattern change because I didn't JADE: Justify, Argue, Defend or Explain myself? Did the pattern change because I knew my intentions as a child were honorable? I'd like to think so. I'd like to think John Bradshaw's exercise prompted full embrace of my Inner Child, doing the best she could to make things better for her family. Even when it was beyond her maturation.

We've had this Texas discussion nigh on thirty years and it's never ended with, "One in a hundred thousand." In prior renditions, we'd argue. I'd zero in on sibling criticism, irritated by the absurdity of their complaints. (There's a myriad of insults worthy of my spittle and ire; bologna soup doesn't make the top six hundred; and besides, I had to eat it, too!) Then I'd beat myself up for disappointing my family and doing something so dumb as throwing chopped bologna in canned soup. Then I'd feel insane, or maybe surreal is a better description because such a petty grievance is crazy to me. But I've learned overtime that the crazier a situation appears, the deeper the pain disappears. Bologna Soup is a distraction. It avoids the truth. It's a red herring. Something else was going on besides bad soup.

Scapegoating

Super-responsible and super-conscientious people are easy scapegoats. We feel guilty. We want to do what's right. We don't want to hurt anyone. Scapegoating allows people to project anger and blame onto a safe target (the scapegoat) without risking reprisals from authority figures, the people they're angriest with. Instead of owning feelings and confronting their parents, my siblings attack the girl in the apron. They trust the cook will feel guilty and won't retaliate because of course she will, and of course she won't. There were extenuating circumstances in my family at the time and I understood then and now why eldest children were expected to care for younger siblings. The toxic aftermath in our family is the inability of adult siblings to communicate with one another as peers, to trust meeting at the table without grenades; to talk about fears and losses; to appreciate and admire without envy, one another's gifts. That I would be resented has been a deep loss in my life, another layer of grief.

My assumption is that parentification impacts a child's development, turns the family system upside-down, and fosters sibling resentment. Particularly I think, if the parentified child is perceived to be Mom or Dad's favorite. To be sure, favoritism is in the eye of the beholder and may not be indeed be a fact. The parentified sibling may appear to have more liberties and power than the other children, thus leading to perceptions of unfairness; however, this childish perception is a distortion of the truth. No one has fewer liberties than the child who is expected to behave like an adult, punished for behaving like the child she is.
"[parentified] kids carry the full burden of the family trauma. They lose out on the chance to experience their own childhood and are often resented by the other kids because they are doing the limit setting and child rearing. These circumstances often lead this child to choose a marital partner who is dependent so that, once again, they are in the role of parent to their spouse." ~Alan Schwartz, Family Boundaries and the Parentified Child
Albert Anker
If the parentified child always becomes a resentful adult, then I was not parentified. If sibling resentment is the criteria, then maybe. Exactly what Dr. Schwartz meant by limit setting and child rearing is unclear to me. Most examples of parentification are extreme cases: children raising children; children parenting incompetent and/or incapacitated parents; children forsaking age-appropriate interests. My story is dissimilar in that my parents gave wide berth to individual  pursuits and didn't expect me to take charge of the house or finances. They expected me to fill in when needed, enforce restrictions, protect, work, teach, and be a perfect role model. Little stuff like that...ha!

Just last year, my Dad told me to "straighten up" because I was the eldest and needed to set a good example for my siblings. He didn't seem to notice his children were in their fifties and sixties. I may be influential and I may be a good  person but  I have no pretenses about my power over anyone, nor my fault for the choices they make. Still, his throwaway comment offered a telling glimpse into my past.

Because of the horrible stories people write about narcissistic siblings, it's important to clarify I was not a vindictive, domineering, or coercive sister. I never battered my siblings never ever. I defended them against bullies. I taught them to play the piano and to read and organized birthday parties when mother didn't have time. I performed the role of the family peacekeeper while having fun, too. There are more funny stories to remember than stories about culinary disasters which is why being resented by my siblings is confusing. And why the theory of parentification has been a candle in the dark.

It's painful for me to accept our currently strained relationships as the best we can achieve as adult siblings. I understand we can't force anyone to sacrifice their defenses; nor can we insist they untie the scapegoat from her whipping post. We can't make someone love us. I no longer try to earn love or respect from other people. They are willing to give it---or they aren't. I remain curious as to how my siblings came to see me as an authority figure and especially why they have not released me from a childish perception. If I could tell my siblings one thing, it would be how much I care about them and always did. And my wish? Allow me be a child in your memory, too.


Resources

Bethany Webster, When Shame feels Mothering: The Tragedy of Parentified Daughters
"As children, we were not responsible for the choices and behavior of the adults around us. Once we really take this in, we can then take full responsibility by working through it, acknowledging how it has impacted our lives, so that we can make new choices that are in alignment with our authentic selves. Many women try to skip this step and go right to forgiveness and empathy which can keep them stuck. You can’t truly move on if you don’t know what you are moving on from."  
Samuel Lopez de Victoria, Harming Your Child by Making Him Your Parent 
Emotional Parentification: This type of parentification forces the child to meet the emotional needs of their parent and usually other siblings also. This kind of parentification is the most destructive. It robs the child of his/her childhood and sets him/her up to have a series of dysfunctions that will incapacitate him/her in life. In this role, the child is put into the practically impossible role of meeting the emotional and psychological needs of the parent. 
Instrumental Parentification: When a child takes up this role he/she meets physical or instrumental needs of the family. The child relieves the anxiety experienced normally by a parent that is not functioning correctly. The child may take care of the children, cook, etc. and by this essentially taking over many or all the physical responsibilities of the parent. This is not the same as a child learning responsibility through assigned chores and tasks. The difference is that the parent robs the child of his childhood by forcing him/her to be an adult caregiver with little or no opportunity to just be a kid. The child is made to feel as a surrogate parent over the siblings and parent." 
Lisa M. Hooper. Application of Attachment Theory ad Family Systems Theory to the Phenomena of Parentification
Attachment theory and family systems theory, taken together, are proffered as a potential framework to understand the adverse effects of parentification. Attachment theory helps clarify the process of parentification as it involves the relationship between child and parent and/or caregiver. Family systems theory gives clarity to the context (i.e., the family system) in which parentification takes place. Internal working models are discussed as the mechanism through which meaning making about the parentification process happens and thereby informs the opportunity for positive and negative outcomes in adulthood. The proposed framework allows for a potentially broader view of this ubiquitous phenomenon parentification.
John Bradshaw on YouTube, part one     part two     part three     part four
 
Narcissistic Continuum: Crib Notes in my Birkenstocks

Narcissistic Continuum: Non-Violent Communication: Eisler and Rosenberg





27 comments:

  1. Great post, CZ and very timely for me. I was often placed in charge of my younger sister, a position that helped both of us feel as if I was her "mother". However, whenever her REAL mother wanted to step in, I was to step aside and my opinions (even as an adult) about my sister were to match my mother's. I didn't mind helping out. In fact, like you, I often enjoyed being useful to my family. But I do resent that my mother set us up to fail as siblings. That my mother created a situation in which my sister and I could never be equals. A situation where I would feel responsible for her in ways I shouldn't have (and she would feel I should always submit myself in order to please/protect/take care of her). My mother continues to rely on me to "co-parent" my adult sister and it has created a mess of a situation.

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    1. Hi Jessie! It's so great to hear from you, particularly on this topic. I wanted to hear from people who had a similar childhood yet didn't grow up to be resentful or bitter. I've read many stories online and the "parentified" child identifies with the story of Cinderella (I don't). So we can't generalize one person's experience as typifying everyone else's and once again, we're stuck with a "continuum" of sorts. Parentification is a new 'study' for me so I won't have any great answers or advice. Just warning people.I'm struggling to understand parentification as a possible explanation for our screwy sibling relationships. I need to hear from people and am "all ears" for advice, including information, links and books.

      I was put in charge of my youngest sister, too. She's the one who has lived with me for many years. Our struggle has been getting her to take responsibility for herself instead of expecting ME to take care of her as if I were her mother. When I was able to SEE that dynamic, I could do something about our problems. You can't do anything as long as you're stuck in the past. My sister has been able to 'step up' after saying very bluntly to her, "I am not your mother. Do you see how you expect me to take care of you the way I did when we were kids? Well, I don't love it now!!" We are able to talk with each other and work things out and that is why we continue to live together as older women.

      It doesn't sound like your sister is able to sort the past from the present, nor take responsibility for herself. This is a real loss for you since it sounds like you enjoyed helping out and would like your sister to grow up with you. All you can do at this point is release yourself from a responsibility that's not yours to bear. I think Bradshaw is the first therapist I read who helped me cut through my illusions about who was responsible for what. It shocked me to discover I felt responsible for grown-assed adults. ha!

      Parents could intervene in this unhealthy dynamic by doing what they're supposed to do: Parent. See each child as a separate individual and hold each person accountable for their behavior without tying up the scapegoat (who is usually generous, kind and conscientious). It sounds like you understand what happened but still resent your mother for not doing her job. Who wouldn't? Especially if she won't listen and learn and change her behavior now that you understand the process! And it also sounds like your mother expects/expected you to be her emotional caretaker, more worried about how she feels than the impact she has on you.

      You can back out of the co-parenting role she sticks you in. It might take a support group dealing with dysfunctional families (like Alanon) because I KNOW it's very hard to break this pattern. I started working on this at your age and look at me now. I'm still working on it. I'm either a slow study OR this is really difficult behavior to change.

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    2. Yes, I've been working on "backing out" for quite awhile. I refuse to "side" with her, refuse to be her "therapist" (she actually called me that once), and have refused to feel guilty about not taking on parental roles with my sister.

      I'm not sure how "unresentful" and "unbitter" I am. I never minded helping. But I can look back now and see how much shouldn't have landed on my shoulders. That my mother created a very unhealthy dynamic between me and my sister as me being the "second mother". She continues to want me to step into that role and it does make me angry. And it's frustrating that my sister equates me taking care of her as loving her. Truthfully, I believe she equates it with me abandoning her, which is very sad. But I could no longer continue to take her on as a 30 year old child who refused to grow up or accept ANY responsibility for herself. And both my mother and my sister see my refusal to take on my sister as refusing to love her. They will not tolerate our relationship changing or growing in any way.

      As for your siblings, I wonder if they somehow can not see through the fact that you were, indeed, just their sibling. That, like you mentioned, they can not view you through the lens of you being just a child yourself and that NO child can effectively mother other children. I do think children having responsibilities in the home (even in caring for other children) is good, but it should be appropriate and spread around. (For example, I sometimes have my younger son help out with something for my older son. My thought is that they are learning that family sometimes steps out of appointed "roles" in order to help out.) And I try not to put my older son "in charge". He may have responsibilities, but I remind him often that he is NOT my younger son's parent.

      My MIL often made my husband responsible for his brothers and I saw it as a way of her shirking the really hard tasks that she didn't want to do. She often expects DH to parent her too when she doesn't want to do something. She often goes "helpless" and "incapable" when it's something she wants him to do for her. She doesn't just ask (which would be different) but manipulates him into care taking her. Making him feel like he is needed and doing something important for her. She used to lay responsibility for many decisions in the family (from simple things like were the family would eat dinner to family vacations, to much more important things). Then, when her other sons complained or had a gripe, she would direct their hostility at my husband. They (especially their wives) grew to resent my DH, whom they felt was taking on "privileges" and being controlling, when all he was really doing was offering his mother, who ASKED for it, advice. Then, she would do whatever DH suggested. It was all very manipulative. It took a long time for DH to step out of that role and not feel guilty for not "helping".
      Parentification is a tricky subject, that I agree is a continuum. It pokes up in so many areas of my relationships with my Ns and has created such unequal balances in the relationships that they have difficultly sustaining themselves outside of our "roles". And as you said, if the parent maintained responsibility for the house (even if they doled out some of the duties) than the siblings would be able to clearly tell where the resentment should be directed should they have any. It's hard to stand as a parent and say, yup, I was in charge, I was the final decision maker, and if CZ served bologna that's because she was doing the best she could. It's hard to absorb that you may make mistakes with your children, but I think it's just part of the job.

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    3. You've done so much "recovery" work, Jessie and it shows. What you've written about people defining love as "doing whatever they want" is common. Telling someone "no" can trigger their narcissism and then they hate your living guts. Somehow, you have managed to squeeze yourself out of the enmeshment and it sounds like your husband is in sync with you.

      It's very interesting what you've written about being your family's "therapist." Being the one they come to for understanding--like a peacekeeper maybe. I don't blame you for telling your mother that you won't take responsibility for your sister and the awful things she does. She's not your responsibility. That your mother feels incompetent to handle her daughter suggests to me that she oughta take advantage of the parenting books and classes we have today. She needs to educate herself instead of leaving that up to her daughter!

      Assigning family chores to children is a good thing. They learn to be responsible AND they feel good about themselves when they're cooperating. That's not parentification which is tricky to define. Maybe it's kinda like porn. You know it when you see it. ha! I think it's terrific and awesome that you're teaching your kids to work together, to cooperate! The skills they learn in your home will benefit them throughout their lives.

      As I'm typing, it occurs to me that you are a very competent and intelligent woman and perhaps this is why your mother depends on your expertise. But don't feel guilty about your skills because your mother is NOT too old to learn how to parent effectively!

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    4. I really appreciate your kind words and acknowledgment of my work. NM never would call me competent or intelligent (she says I'm smart, but only in relation to how "stupid" she feels). It is nice to be "seen" on a day when I've felt very invisible. She considers my recover work as selfish and an act of rebellion.
      I've often suggested therapy to my mother. She used to throw it at me as a suggestion that I somehow don't measure up and that something was wrong with me. She believes that "family support" is all that my sister needs. But family support means sacrificing myself over and over and over. I've suggested that she could use some help with my sister, who is quite difficult. NM chooses instead to just believe she'll "pull out of it" and that nothing is REALLY wrong. She has pushed my father and I for years to continue enabling my sister the way she wants us too (when she's too "tired" to do it). She has never felt that I have a right to choose how I interact with my sister. I'm expected to always give in, accept, tolerate, and gloss over the bad behavior.

      I think parentification is so hard because it is tricky to define. Some people see giving their kids ANY responsibility as being wrong. And others, like my mother, see it as "teaching responsibility" and "helping out". And others, like my MIL, see it as "showing love" and "helping your parents". It is a very subtle and covert manipulation on the part of many parents. They shirk responsibilities and claim it's in everyone else's best interests.
      You know, you hear a lot about single moms whose kids idolize their mothers. And even though they helped out, took on siblings, or had more chores than their friends, they never resented it. There is something about the way some parents go about this that changes the dynamic to dysfunctional. I'm guessing that, even though those single moms let their kids shoulder burdens, they always made sure those same kids had time to be kids, or that it wasn't their fault if they made the wrong dinner, or that they appreciated all that the kids did....or that if they could, they'd change it. I'm guessing my NM (because she was a "good mom" and did it all right) would do everything exactly the same way.

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    5. I used to think people were strong when they didn't need help. When they only relied on themselves and pushed their feelings so far deep inside that they never cried. I used to think people were strong when they made fun of people who read self-help books and went to group support and talked about their navels. I used to think lots of stupid things.

      When someone talks about their feelings and their struggles and their mistakes and successes, that's strength. When they are able to bear the guilt and shame of imperfection without pretending, that's strength. Walking in to therapy and telling the therapist that you're a total mess and you need help, that's strength. The people who can't do these things may lie to themselves and mock other people but they are not strong or admirable or courageous. Think about that the next time your mother suggests something is "wrong" with you because you go to therapy. No. Something is very "right" with you.

      You're so right about kids helping single mothers at home. As I read Judy's comment below, it seemed to me that maybe one of the differences is that "parentified" kids are not recognized for the work they do. These kids manage the cooking and chores without appreciation, without being allowed to "shine." That would be the difference between a child who was "parentified" and one who was not. Maybe. Still working on this concept. ;-P

      I know families with lots of children and each child was in charge of a younger sibling. Large families (8+) are fairly common in my family and location. Those kids did not grow up hating each other though. What was the difference? Why are they grateful to each other and closely bonded as adults? Is it children's fault when they resent each other or is the animosity caused by ineffective parenting? There likely aren't any perfect answers here but it's always good to think about these things when we're parents ourselves. That you are questioning the way you were parented (your husband, too) is good to hear. We must change unhealthy patterns in our families and that means educating ourselves and caring enough to try. <3

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  2. As the eldest, I find this post very resonant. Oddly I posted this morning as well about feeling "awake." I love it when our journey's coincide. I am sorry that you had to deal with a grenade on the table as recently as a few weeks ago. How pathetic that a few sibs still do that. It's a way to rope you back in. Your question to your brother was brilliant, though, and he answered it honestly. I wonder, did your parents speak up at that point and say, "yes it's true, she was one in 100,000?" Or did they remain silent? I think your sibs probably regard you as an authority figure in a negative way precisely because you are kind of a moral authority NOW, as an adult. They don't want to grant you that, now, perhaps? I suspect that my FOO has similar issues with me. It's hard to keep the unconsciously needed use of the scapegoat going long after that scapegoat has proven to the world how competent and decent she actually is. Parentification. I had to do it with my sisters when I was a teen; and I had to do it with my parents emotionally most of my life. Sucks, big time. Nice to step off that track, finally, no? Bologna soup--they're lucky you thought to add some protein to it. Jeez. Your parents did leave you alone with them, with an inadequately stocked kitchen. Who does that? I know, I know. But still? I get the patriarchal authority, believe me. xo CS

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    1. I will read your post gladly, CS! It is most fascinating how people heal, realizing similar insights as they talk and share and learn together. It's another way for us to realize we're never alone. Other people are on the same track as ourselves. I love it when journey's coincide, too.

      I'm sure, and this is not putting-myself-down, that I lob enough of my own grenades. The good thing is that I'm aware of what I've done and can figure out why. The even gooder thing is that insight leads to change. I've called it "catching myself in the act" but it may take a few days. Since I really really hate making people feel bad, I reign back my vengeance to a tolerable level before blowing the whole place up. I think some people have a hard time admitting they were wrong and tend to leave a trail of blown-up buildings behind them. Of course, it's always someone else's fault that they HAD to pull the pin, right?

      You've never written about parentification that i can recall. If you have, please link me.

      What did my parents do when my brother said, "One in a million?" I think my parents are scared. They don't want to pick sides and try to sit on a picket fence though it's very uncomfortable. Who can blame them? They're in their late eighties and the kitchen gets mighty hot when their kids start arguing. The competitive dynamic is so ingrained in our family at this point, I'm not sure my parents could intervene. The time to do that is long before siblings are in their fifties. Fifties to me are a proving ground. You've either worked your way out of your childhood, or you're living in it.

      The scapegoat serves a bonding purpose. Dysfunctional family members draw close to one another by evacuating their anxiety onto a third part (the scapegoat). They create a pseudo-intimacy that isn't grounded in love and isn't secure because everyone knows that scapegoats are selected. It's a form of triangulation, isn't it? As long as YOU serve as the scapegoat, nobody confronts their Mother's behavior. This is the dynamic I was writing about: blaming me instead of confronting parents. People want to love their parents so badly...whether they realize this or not.

      p.s. I'm sure there was plenty of food in the house. We always kept a year supply but we didn't want to eat powdered milk and dry pinto beans. haha! I may have been teasing my siblings by throwing in the bologna...I really can't recall. At least it wasn't earthworms, right? Now THAT is something to complain about.

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  3. Thanks for the post, CZ. You asked for other perspectives. I'm not sure if this is what you're looking for. In our house, the girls were responsible for taking care of NM. We were also responsible for keeping peace in the house, keeping the house, helping younger siblings, and not doing so much NM felt threatened. I love cooking and am good at it, but was forbidden to make dinner for the family when I received compliments for the meals I prepared.

    Much of our sibling rivalry was instigated by NM. She pitted us against each other, not in obvious ways. She'd say one thing to one sibling and something else to the other. Little things to cause riffs between us, jealousy, inadequacy,belittling.

    I sought counseling, and though it helped me it didn't change the rest of the family or the long habits. My sister sought counseling, and things changed. We started to talk and compare notes. We discovered the lies used to pit us against each other and isolate us from each other. Then it was the "girls against the boys." The boys were raised in a very different house.

    This year, everything changed again. NM overstepped, pushed my sister too much, and my sister decided on the truth campaign. No more lies. No more deceptions. No more games. No more pitting us against each other. No more gaslighting. My sister started group emails; siblings and spouses were included. We talked about events and behaviors in the past and the present. Well, mostly my sister and I talked, but we were given feedback.

    It hasn't changed NM or EF. The oldest sibling never responds to any of the emails, but no one can say they didn't know. Not anymore.

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    1. Hi Judy!

      So you were expected to do the grudge work without showing up your mother? See, just knowing as a kid that your mother had to be 'the best' is so defeating. That she couldn't let you take center stage and shine is hurtful. Children need to feel special, especially when they've done something for the family like that. They need to be recognized! But your needs came secondary to hers...It doesn't sound like she could see you as a child or even as an individual which is HER failing, not yours.

      Another of my girlfriends was expected to take care of the household in the same way you've described and she never wanted to have children of her own. She said, "I already raised five kids!" How sad that a narcissistic mother would ruin a daughter's desire to be a mother. (not that every woman should want to be a mother, just to be clear).

      I appreciate your comment about getting therapy for yourself, yet not achieving the results you may have hoped for because your family didn't change, too. At least there were two of you who started talking and sharing notes. I think siblings can be enormously healing for one another, sharing the same experiences--bearing witness for one another. When people start talking after keeping everything "hush hush", they need someone to validate them when their knees buckle! Siblings can do that for each other but unfortunately, the legacy of most dysfunctional families is that siblings are disconnected and competitive. Each sibling vying for approval from their parents. When you finally open the door wide on abuse, some of your siblings will hate you. It's like shooting the messenger who brings bad news.

      I think it's fantastic that you've stopped obeying the "NO Talk Rule" governing dysfunctional/narcissistic families and I'm sure you've suffered some weak moments when you wonder if what you're doing is right. It is. It definitely is, so stay the course and open the doors to let in fresh air.

      I imagine you had to do a fair amount of recovery work to get to the point you could bear the backlash and the rejection. Most people "hope" that telling the truth will change the family dynamics but it doesn't. It may even make things worse but NOT for the people who dare to speak up. At some point, you must do this for yourselves. You've set the path and your siblings can choose to follow or not. Thank goodness you have your sister. <3

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  4. Hi CZ, I haven't written about parentification. That's why it's so helpful reading others about it. I knew my mother was using me in this way emotionally when she had problems with her second husband, while I was in college. I've written about having to "forget" things she'd told me about (the tacit agreement to forget what you had to shoulder when the narc decides they didn't really 'mean it.'). Your FOO put a big burden on you, and because you have an innately nurturing personality, you didn't find it burdensome, or at least not cripplingly so. The issue for you is more why your sibs resent you so much when you did so much for all of them. That's a very weird dynamic, and crazy making in its own way. I understand why your parents left the grenade on the table. No point turning the entire dinner into a bloodbath, eh? xo CS

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    1. I would like to do a few more posts on parentification as the theory becomes clearer to me. In the resource section of my post, one of the papers discussed two types of parentification: emotional and instrumental. It sounds like your mother used you as her emotional intimate and then turned on you when you no longer said what she needed to hear. If you had played that role with her, then being rejected by her would be even worse, I think. In your mind, you had created a deep bond with your mother as she shared the intimacies of her life with you AND relied on you for emotional support. With that emotional support comes "commitment" yet she D&D'ed you.

      As far as my sibs go, I can see how I played into the dysfunctional dynamic because of my emotional needs. There are sure to be a few follow-up posts about deconstructing my role as an authority figure in their lives---ME seeing THEM as my peers. Me realizing I couldn't manage my own life that well much less manage theirs. (do you hear Alanon in my words? ha!) I have learned to let my siblings help me and yes, that was not an easy thing to do.

      My mother confirmed afterwards that she hadn't been able to stock the kitchen before she left and she has always been appreciative of the help I've given her. She's the one who reminded me about the hours upon hours I spent taking care of my younger sisters and brother. I'm beginning to see what an unhealthy dynamic this can be for both "giver" and "receiver." You probably noticed one of the quotes in my article suggesting parentified daughters marry men who need parenting. That's another post I'd like to tackle.

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  5. Hi CZ,
    I don't remember being made to "parent" my siblings as a child. Pretty much it was a case of "every man for himself", we all did our own thing. I was well into my thirties when in a conversation with my mother, she piped up: "Well, you have to come to terms with the fact that you have to daughters: your sister and your niece". This she said in reply to my complaining about my sister's constant demand for favours. Until then I hadn't been aware that this "role" had been thrust upon me, nor can I pinpoint at what moment this had become expected of me. I remember that at the time she said that, I thought: "No, I am not their mother, YOU ARE". It is an odd thing to expect of a child. I imagine that a lot of it depends on the circumstances, i.e. you having to look after your younger siblings because your mother wasn't there makes sense, because your siblings were younger and not being able to look after themselves; on the other hand, me having to look after a sister who is only a year younger than me, in our thirties, when my sister is perfectly capable to look after herself, makes no sense at all. I suppose that's when resentment might creep in, in that you know that there is no real need behind it but that you are -like J. Ashmun put it- "being used as an appliance" :P

    I loved the way you handled the hand grenade. The skill of knowing how to reply is so hard to master when there are so many emotions and tension running through the room.

    Love,
    Kara xx

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    1. Hello Kara,

      You have to come to grips with having two daughters? Enmeshment, much??? One can only hope your mother was joking but even if she were, it's obvious she sees you as more responsible than your sister. That you even had the thought, "I'm not their mother!" is healthy and I wonder if at this point, you would confront your mother about her comment?

      I can't ascribe my response to the grenade as "a skill", yet. ha! But something was different in that I wasn't triggered to react. Maybe overtime I can let my Inner Joker take charge and turn the conversation around with a few laughs. Hummm...still thinking optimistically, aren't I?

      I didn't add this to the post but after my brother's comment, the conversation changed. One of my sisters said, "What was I doing? I was thirteen at the time. What was I doing?" She wasn't focused on me and my faults. She was reflecting on herself. (where she ought be focused, right?) A couple of us have discussed this conversation as liberating...we "felt" a change had occurred though exactly what, it was hard to say. That's why I spent some time thinking about the situation and trying to pinpoint exactly what had happened to break this decades-old pattern.

      Love,
      CZ

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  6. I may have been Emotional Parentified in my teenagedhood, to my kid brother who showed up when I was 11! I gave up alot of hobbies so my mother could do her sport thing. I don't see why I couldn't go back to dancing or take up guitar as a 16 Y/O. (I did some random sport I hated from 14-16) I'm still doing it now a little. I d be way more stabler now had I had more outlets and places to find friends in the ages 12-18. Hell I might've fallen so hard into my absurd investment with my N x bestie.
    Another thing to unlearn.

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  7. Same nony as above, I also had to motivate and inspire my mom, a few times and have to chase her up to remember to do some healthcare and hobby's for me. She promised to help me get back into music after I'd done my cert, but somehow, it's not happening. I'd do it myself, but she's a little controlling, she'd get mad....and the brother thing, I am his rock, but imagine a world were I pursued my goals sometimes too...

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    1. I don't know how old you are, anonymous, but your brother may be able to support your interests out of his willingness to reciprocate the time-and-energy you gave to him. Until you believe you deserve to take care of yourself and meet YOUR needs and wants, other people are unlikely to even notice. You have to do something different in order to break the unhealthy pattern established in your family. This pattern creates dysfunction in all members of the family. You are supposed to be "needless" and other-serving; other people are groomed into believing they deserve to have their needs met by someone else and the next thing you know, you're in a narcissistic marriage that replicates the same pattern. Or as you mentioned in your first post, your "absurd investment with a Nx bestie."

      You may have done such an exemplary job taking care of your little brother that your mother was willing to let you continue to carry the load, long after she needed your help. Competent children are their own worst enemies in a way. ha! If you'd done a lousy job and hadn't tried to please your family, she may not have expected you to continue to be "needless" once your brother was no long an infant. She probably got used to "her" freedom and didn't want to give it up.

      However, it's very unfair and wrong to rob you of life experiences you wanted such as playing the guitar and dancing. These special interests children have 'create' our identity, define us as individuals. They should be encouraged and supported by our parents as we are attempting to construct our uniqueness.

      The point of understanding psychological theory in my view, is giving a 'name' to something we couldn't explain. Once we grasp the significance of being "parentified", then we can undo some of the damage done. It may take many years (in my case: decades) of self-help work but it's so thrilling when we have another insight, another breakthrough, that it's definitely worth the work.

      Thanks for reading and commenting and come back anytime. We can compare notes on our progress!

      Hugs,
      CZ

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  8. I don't have words to tell you how wonderful this is....so I won't.

    But it goes deep....for your readers and a further 'fleshing out' of a marvelous woman. You.

    Love, Jane

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  9. Hi CZ,
    This post really deepens my understanding of family systems. I like how you handled the grenade and that you didn't JADE. I hadn't thought of the scapegoat as how the family system is 'bonded'. My DH says to me (since I started limiting contact with my in-laws) that it feels so weird that I'm not there. And I totally get that now, as I'm slowly discontinuing my role as the scapegoat.

    I don't have personal experience as I am an only child however, I talked to DH about this post and his experiences with his brother since he deals with sibling resentment gravely.

    In my DH's FOO he is first born GC. I think there was more emotional parentifcation from our discussions. He fulfilled the role of 'partner' with his mother and communicating to other members of the family - even between his mother and his maternal grandmother. DH is the one that is put to work when we would go back to his parent's house for visits. His younger brother (BiL) is scapegoated however, I haven't found him to be conscientious. BiL relishes in the fact that we (DH and I) get roped into doing the physical work for the family - making comments about 'how he got out of the work'.

    There is plenty of sibling resentment and competition between DH and BiL to the point that I feel so uncomfortable around it – even early on in our relationship before I understood anything about narcissism. One of the things you spoke of in the post is perceived favouritism. When I met his FOO and got to know friends of origin - everyone made comments (overtly and covertly) that DH was clearly the favourite (but never in DH's presence). DH not feeling that how he was treated was favouritism.

    What DH and I realised is that we promote this split. Not only does their father, BiL's wife, DH and I play into the system but also aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents all speak to DH as GC and BiL as scapegoat. From our discussions, we had guessed that BiL viewed all of the parent's love and attention going to DH and is resentful. Maybe even the fact that DH was given the work/responsibility is perceived as favouritism and more love? I think that what you say about the fact that as children we want to love our parents and not question their parenting makes more sense as to what drives BiL's resentment towards DH today - after all, BiL continues to give DH insulting gifts (something I hadn’t put together until everyone’s comments!). Their sibling resentment (as a derivative of long-term repressed anger) may also come from the fact the sense of self is stifled because of the ‘roles’ prescribed for them. This continuous infringement on the true self leads to resentment and not evaluated fairly in regard to parents’ influence in it. And then is misplaced between siblings because of not wanting to view parents in that way when we were children?

    What I understood on a deeper level from this is that the sibling rivalry could be put out to pasture if both BiL and DH recognised their own inner child and that in each other. It is equally constraining to be put on a pedestal as it is to be down in the rabbit hole.

    This post was insightful in helping me piece together elements of the family system. xxTR

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    1. I'm so sorry about taking a week to get to your comment, TR. I always look forward to what you have to say! I've been away from my computer.

      I think people want to fit siblings into 'rigid roles' and leave them there but that's a fallacy. Roles shift. All the golden child has to do is make a mistake and suddenly find him/herself tied to the whipping post. The roles shift to meet parental needs.

      One thing that is glaringly obvious is the jealousy/envy between siblings based on perceived unfairness. And as others have mentioned in this thread, narcissistic parents create tension between their children, pitting them against one another. It may be overt or covert. The reward for N-parents is that the kids act out the family drama and parents can "watch" them fight with one another; and the attention stays with the quarreling siblings and NOT the parents! It's a distraction from the original dysfunction in the family and it's a sad thing because siblings can be enormously validating for one another. But first---they have to wake up from the collusion and that's a scary and painful thing. I wonder what the statistics are on each sibling realizing the problem was "the system" and then setting about correcting the dysfunction. Probably not very likely.

      My sister who lives with me has gone to therapy for several years and she also started doing "recovery work" during the Bradshaw years. I think this is the reason why we have been able to live together for 18 years now...At least she understands most of the self-help "lingo" and we were always able to talk about childhood. My relationship with her has been validating and comforting which is why I talk about siblings helping each other work through dysfunctional behaviors.

      If your BIL could do this work, he would be able to see that his perceptions are those of a child and then he could relate to his brother as an adult. It doesn't happen with a single insight...it takes years undoing the damage done as children.

      Hugs,
      CZ

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  10. I am 69, was in the parenting role most of my life; and have just discovered the word 'PARENTIZED' ! --
    This is a very accurate description right down to the sibling resentment and scapegoating and marrying a man who often put me in the Momma role too!
    Now I'm trying to learn to play (and it don't come easy) -- I've shed my frugal responsible ways and feel like family looks at me and judges me like they're thinking I should have never gotten a turn to play or to spend-- just clean and cook and leave all pleasure to them.
    I think I'm finally finding me and I like what I'm finding!
    THANKS FOR BEING A STEPPING STONE IN MY JOURNEY!

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    1. Hello there, Stuff!

      I'm glad you were able to see your own story in mine and I hope this will give you some peace. It's time to enjoy having lived 69 years and gone through everything you have without losing your spirit, your joy. Yes, it's hard on family members when we change and we don't behave the way we always did. They'll have to adjust and think about what "we" want, rather than themselves.

      Caretakers are the salt of the earth but we deserve to take care of ourselves, too. We deserve to treat ourselves as well as we've always treated others. I'm so happy to read that you're finally finding "YOU" and that you like what you're finding!

      Hugs,
      CZ

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  11. Hello, Everyone,
    I grew up as a very serious child. My parents had a very tumultuous relationship, and expressed their dislike for one another as long as I can remember... Dad wanted a partner to help him in his business) and understand him; Mom wanted someone to take care of her, let her get dressed up, and take her out on the town. At age five, I remember my father huffing and puffing on cigarettes, and telling me my mother didn't understand him at all--he was angry--and I remember so well how helpless I felt. From the time I was eight years old, I worked with my father after school in his meat market. I was the only one of my three sisters to do so. My mother never worked outside the house. My father relied on me to help him with his accounts payable, wait on customers, and even do meat cutting after school. This transferred to the home, where I started to help with the finances. My mom had no interest in helping with the finances, and so my Dad "trained" me. As the eldest, I was a straight A student, and got into UCLA in 1980. I couldn't live on campus, however, because I still worked in the family business and was responsible for my two sisters, moving them in and out of their dorms in their college. I worked all through college; my sisters didn't. This was expected of me. Now, I am an educator myself, and at 52, I am caring evenings for my 88 and 82-year-old parents. They still fight daily and can't stand each other. I feel great resentment that I am responsible for so much, and even provide a good deal for them financially, with all the stress they continually put me through. My mother only approves of me when I do whatever she wants and dotes on her. It's like she has no conception of what I did growing up and even what I do for a living. She doesn't seems to care. My Dad still complains day and night about my mom and how she doesn't understand him. Today, he threw his metal cane in frustration. My sisters stay away because they "can't take it" and don't want to hear about my stress in this situation. Please pray for me. I am so filled with hurt and resentment. I also do all the paperwork for my parents and my disabled brother. He has been in and out of the psychiatric hospital numerous times, suffering from OCD which is exascerbated by all the fighting between my parents. I was told as a young adult in college that I had the potential to succeed in graduate school (very high SAT scores, straight As at UCLA); but I would have had to leave home, and I wasn't "permitted" to do so. I am so hurt now at age 52 about all of this. I keep wondering how my life would have been different if I would have been a bit selfish and actually lived a childhood. I still have a hard time having fun; I don't know how to play card or board games, or sports, or such pastimes children my age engaged in. I am prone to depression and anxiety. Thank you for listening-- Perhaps someday, after my parents have passed on, I will finish my Master's Degree in Psych (I was half-through) and study the healing of parentified children.

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    1. Dear Anonymous,

      I was clearing my emails and found this comment from you. I am so sorry for having missed it when you posted. I will reply in the morning after some sleep but thank you so much for reading my story and sharing some of your life with me/us!

      Hugs,
      CZ

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  12. Dear Anonymous

    you must look out for yourself. Your parents have programmed you so well that you don't even think you deserve to have your needs met - hence all the anger and resentment. All of us deserve to be loved and valued. So starting from today, start asserting your needs, without shame, without guilt and start living the life you deserve and which has been stolen from you. The sky will not fall in, your parents will not fall apart, your siblings will not crumble, but you will be finally being true to yourself. God bless you.

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    1. Helpful comment, anonymous! You must have gone through a lot yourself, in order to have this perspective. Yes, all of us deserve to be loved and valued and we can, at ANY POINT, change our behavior by being as compassionate to ourselves as we've been with others.

      Thanks for writing this,
      CZ

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