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How Being a Parentified Child Sets You Up for Eating Problems


If you did a great deal of care-taking of siblings or parents in childhood, the patterns you developed may have set you up for having an eating disorder today. This type of child is called parentified, that is, you were the parent figure to younger brothers or sisters and maybe even to parents who had mental health or addiction issues. How being parentified makes you seek food for comfort is fairly easy to understand.

First, if you were charged with taking care of a parent who could not care for themselves, a role reversal identity was being forged in you, that is, you began to see yourself as needing to care for others in order to get your needs met. This is not about blaming your parent but about understanding how early dynamics set the stage for later ones. Maybe you had to make sure your alcoholic dad got up and dressed to get to work after a bender. Or perhaps you felt a need to cheer up depressed mom so she’d clean the house, cook dinner or help with your homework. Without these ongoing caretaking efforts, you wouldn’t get what you needed physically or emotionally. And caretaking others to get your needs met continues to be how you meet them today.

Second, you missed out on the comfort and guidance of having parents teach you and model life skills that are crucial for coping and thriving. If they couldn’t manage life well, what chance did you have of learning from them how to do it? Instead, you winged it or modeled yourself for better or worse on how you saw other adults act, including family members, teachers or people in the media. 

Third, being parentified meant that you developed fear that if you didn’t put others’ needs before yours, say, in taking care of younger siblings, something bad might happen. You may carry this fear around with you today: that the world is scary and you are responsible for keeping others safe and secure. By being tasked with taking care of siblings, you may feel you didn’t or don’t deserve to tend to yourself. You don’t dare. 

Fourth, when you’re exhausted from care-giving and when no one is there to nurture, comfort, and support you, it’s easy to turn to food because you’re scared and helpless. It’s accessible, nourishes you and lifts your mood. You can do it in secret and need not feel guilty that you’re taking time away from others. Because you come to rely on food as self-care, you don’t develop better ways: asking for help, sharing with friends, enjoying interests and passions, and finding comfort and relaxation in healthier ways. 

If you’re a parentified child, it’s very useful to seek therapy to understand how it shaped your development, including your dysfunctional relationship with food and your body.