Jack, the Parentified Child - This Is Us, episode 5
I really might be too invested in this show. Should I be calling my psychologist peers to see if they have room in their practice? Kevin needs help! I need to Google some substance abuse treatment facilities before next Tuesday! He’s got the money for some nice ones – maybe in Malibu where other celebrities go. All I know is we are seeing a downward slope with Kevin’s bourbon drinking and Vicodin dependence and ...I just need to call Kate so she can do something! [searches phone contacts for Kate Pearson]
This episode gave us a little more insight into how Randall and Kevin interacted as children. Sidebar – how much more can I love the overthinking, problem-solving, note-taking behaviors of Randall?! His little book of tips to himself to “not ask to use Kevin’s Gameboy” are the best! It is so hilarious and endearing because he is trying SO HARD. In the end Kevin sees this effort and finds it in his heart to connect to his brother on their camping trip. As Kevin noted later “You care too much, you feel too much. And I try not to feel anything at all.” We see indeed that Randall still cares too much and has trouble giving space, and that Kevin is trying in very destructive ways to avoid his feelings.
The episode is titled “Brothers” but as always the writers throw us a curveball and we learn that it is Jack who had a brother! Here we have Kevin trying to avoid all types of emotions and memories, but he is not nearly as good as his father who has locked away the life of his younger brother (whom he clearly deeply loved) from everyone - including his wife! As I watched the snippets of Jack’s interaction with his little brother Nicky, I was struck by how caring his voice became when his little brother woke up. And then it all hit me – THIS is why Jack is such an amazing father and caretaker. This is why Rebecca told Jack his fathering and spousal support was a “miracle.” He was a parentified child.
What does parentified mean?
Parentified is simply explained as a reversal of roles. The child takes on roles and responsibilities of a parent while the parent essentially shirks their parenting duties. In some instances, the child will experience instrumental parentification, where they take on functional roles of parenting like supervision, bill paying, cooking, cleaning, etc. In emotional parentification, the child actually meets emotional or psychological needs of the parent by becoming their confidant, comforter, listening ear, or even a sort of substitute spouse.
The child in many ways stops having their own childhood and takes on the burden of caring for others at a very young age. The child sacrifices universal childhood needs for attention, comfort and guidance to take care of household logistics or emotional needs of the parent.
What types of families create a parentified child? Hint: Jack’s!
Any family where the parent is unwilling or unable to take on their parenting responsibilities can create a void to be filled by a parentified child. A common situation would be where one or both parents are impaired in some way – physically, emotionally, economically, even socially. Parentification is very common in single parent homes (from divorce or never marrying), homes with mothers who were victims of sexual abuse, homes where parents may have physical or psychological illness, or low-income homes. And from what we’ve learned about Jack, we see he comes from a situation where parentification would be very common – a home where one parent has an addiction so strong that maintaining their habit overshadows their parenting.
This is our first and main clue of parentification – Jack’s father stops off at a bar on the way to take his sons fishing and does not return for what seems like hours. When Jack’s little brother Nicky wakes up, Jack steps into the parent role to check on his brother and comfort him until his dad returns. Jack already has the soothing and caring voice of a parent when he tells his brother “It’s ok, I’m here,” while appearing to be no more than 10 years old.
We know now Jack was the older brother and this also fits with the dynamic of parentification. It is often the eldest child that becomes parentified (although any child can move into this role). We have yet to learn if Jack also was expected to be a source of emotional support for his mother as she tried to deal with an alcoholic (and possibly abusive) spouse. It would not be surprising if we learn Jack’s mother vented her frustrations to him or cried on his shoulder.
The Bad Side of Being Parentified
When we look back on all the things we’ve learned about Jack, we see how being parentified took it’s toll. Parentified children don’t really get to be a child – and this is destructive for their developing selves. They struggle to form an identity since they have come to believe their role is to put their needs aside to care for others. Life becomes a very lonely existence because they carry the burden of caring for their family, but have no one to lean on for support. Male children especially who reverse roles with their father can report higher social problems in general.
Parentified children are more likely to show anger, resentment, aggressiveness, substance use/abuse, depressive symptoms, difficulty with school and career choices and more. Just this small list alone matches what we’ve seen of Jack throughout season 1 and season 2. We also can see anxiety over abandonment and loss – perhaps this is what caused Jack to have such a strong reaction to finding out Rebecca was going on tour with an ex. Many parentified children have a hard time in adulthood dealing with rejection or disappointment in their relationships.
We see Jack has a hard time caring for himself or getting his needs met. Toward the end of his life, he worked harder to let Rebecca share in his emotional pain and help him through it. This is to be expected for a parentified child. He was never able to address or express his own needs, so in adulthood he struggles to do so. The parentified child has a hard time being taken care of – they cannot put their caretaker identity aside to let others in.
The Good Side of Being Parentified
Believe it or not, parentified children are not ruined. Children are resilient and find ways to benefit from family roles they did not choose. Because the parentified child may not have much of their own support, we can see that they are better able to be autonomous and independent, and are better at differentiating themselves from their family. They become “their own person” early on and this can be beneficial. Watching Jack’s behaviors as a young adult we see he began making his own decisions for his life early on and felt no need to check in with either parent.
We also see another possible “good side” of parentification with Jack. He is an excellent father and caretaker to his three children, and a loving supportive husband to Rebecca. Parentified children are often well prepared to build relationships – they have high capacity for empathy and are deeply attuned to the needs of others. Being in a parentified role can lead to stronger family togetherness. We see Jack’s ability to be emotionally present for all three of his children in the very unique ways that each child needed him – and this is an amazing skill. We now can understand how he was able to do this – he had been practicing and developing those skills for most of his life by being the father to his little brother.
Rebecca sums the good side of being parentified up perfectly when she tells Jack’s father how great of a husband and father Jack is. She says, “You think you screwed him up – you only made him stronger.”
Do you think Jack should go see his father in the nursing home?
Do you feel like we have some evidence that Kate is parentified too?