“Like stepping on glass”: A theoretical model to understand the emotional experience of childhood parentification

Shirley Schorr, Limor Goldner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: This purpose of this article is to contribute to the literature on the lived experiences of parentification, its long-term consequences to the self, and coping strategies related to parentification. Background: A considerable number of quantitative studies have reported on the adverse consequences of destructive or pathological parentification. Method: Nineteen Israeli women aged 30–68 years who believed that they had experienced parentification during childhood and adolescence took part. The women participated in in-depth semistructured interviews. The data analysis employed the constructivist grounded theory approach. Results: The participants described their childhood and adolescence as a horrifying, threatening, invasive, and neglectful experience that demanded constant adaptation to cope with the anxiety and fear of breakdown. A developmental relational trauma model is proposed to account for the relationships described in their responses. Drawing on convergent findings from psychoanalytic and developmental approaches, the model suggests that the participants developed a split self-structure to cope with these adverse experiences. It is argued that creating a split disconnecting the topographic structure of the self is key to understanding the sources of role reversal. By aiming to overcome the overwhelming experience of abuse and neglect, this split structure paradoxically protects the traumatized participants from the fragmentation of the self through multiple disconnections. Conclusions: Parentification can be considered a form of emotional abuse and neglect. Implications: Clinicians need to recognize the destructive effects of this relationship on self-structuring.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3029-3048
Number of pages20
JournalFamily Relations
Issue number5
StatePublished - Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 National Council on Family Relations.


  • emotional abuse
  • family relationships
  • neglect
  • parentification
  • role reversal
  • trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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