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Parentification of Children in Divorce and Child Custody Cases

By: Curtis Wiberg

Divorce and child custody cases can be emotionally traumatic events for an entire family, which can result in behaviors by parents that can affect children for a lifetime.  Family law courts in Colorado are cognizant of the lasting psychological scars a child custody case can leave on children, as well as the scars parents’ words and actions can have on them stemming from subtle or overt behaviors not even intended to damage the child by the parents.  One such behavior is the parentification of children (also known as “parentizing”), wherein a parent treats a child as an equal, confiding in a child with adult issues, using children for emotional support, and/or leaning on a child to assume a parental role for younger siblings.   In these cases, a parent might turn to the child to fulfill the parent’s emotional needs or sense of loss as a result of the marriage ending.   In other cases, a parent might burden the child with actual physical tasks, such as caring for that parent or siblings in on form or another.  In essence, the parent places adult emotional burdens and concepts onto the child. When parentification occurs, lines and boundaries get blurred and an enmeshment can exist which, though comforting to the parent seeking to soothe his or her emotional wounds, can negatively impact the child and his or her own identity and sense of self.

While the parentification of children does not occur only in the context of a Denver divorce or child custody case, a divorce or custody battle definitely creates a temptation for one or both parent in seeking to fill the emotional void created by a deteriorating romantic relationship by using their child. This is made even more damaging to a child when one or both parents are seeking to have their child take sides in a conflict – more commonly referred to as “alienation.”

For instance, a 2012 Washington Post article on parenting indicates,  “it’s not appropriate for a mother to say ‘ Your father never follows through on anything, he’s always disappointing me — I’m so fed up with him,’ says Juli Fraga, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco. Experts believe this kind of behavior creates an atmosphere of neglect, because children are made responsible for looking after the emotional and psychological well-being of the parent while suppressing their normal childhood needs, such as play or friendships with kids their own age.”

That same Washington Post article referenced above touched on the consequences of parentification by noting that researchers have found that “that people who experienced early parentification are at an increased risk for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance misuse as an adult.” Accordingly, parentification of children during a divorce or custody proceeding must be avoided for the sake of the children and their long-term emotional development.

Colorado courts are well aware of the dangers of parentification, requiring every parent in a divorce or custody case to take a 4 hour  co-parenting-after-divorce-class before the court case can be completed.  Many of the agencies providing the service of these parenting classes offer parents a second level, more intensive parenting class for families struggling getting past the emotional hurdles of a divorce.  Sometimes parents agree to do the “Level II” classes, while in highly contentious child custody cases, the court might order it. There is also the option of private individual or family therapy should you feel your family needs a little extra help getting through a divorce or custody case.

That Colorado courts are aware of the dangers of parentification should also serve as a warning to parents. Colorado law requires courts, when making parenting time and decision-making orders, to consider, among other things ”the interaction and interrelationship of the child with his or her parents” and “the ability of the parties to encourage the sharing of love, affection, and contact between the child and the other party.” C.R.S. § 14-10-124 (1)(a)(III, V).  Accordingly, a parent engaging in parentification can find their parenting time or decision-making responsibilities curtailed in favor of the parent who does not involve the children in adult issues.

If a parent suspects the other parent of engaging in inappropriate parentification, that parent can request a Child Family Investigation or a Parental Responsibilities Evaluation to look into whether the other party is acting appropriately with the children. An expert opinion confirming the existence of parentification would likely be taken very seriously by a judge.

In your divorce or custody case, it’s important to have an experienced attorney who has knowledge about the emotional issues that can affect the well-being of your children and can address the existence of parentification, among other things, with a court and a court-appointed expert.

Author Photo

Stephen Plog, co-founder of Plog & Stein, P.C. in 1999, is a dedicated family law attorney with almost two decades of expertise in Denver. Focused exclusively on family law since 2001, he excels in both intricate legal writing and courtroom litigation, having navigated cases in all Denver metropolitan area District Courts. Steve’s comprehensive background, including a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a law degree from Quinnipiac University School of Law, underscores his commitment to providing insightful and personalized representation in family law matters.