Well-defined parent-child roles contribute to well-adjusted children.

What Are Generational Boundaries in Child Development?

by Genevieve Van Wyden

Parents nurture, teach and raise their children. This is the norm society expects of adults who choose to become parents. Generational boundaries are clearly established in some families, while in other families, these roles are not clear or are completely absent. Children growing up in families with no clear parent-child boundaries might be parentified or even spousified, write Anne Schaffer and L. Alan Sroufe in a University of Georgia study.

About Generational Boundaries

Generational boundaries exist so that children in a family can be cared for by their parents. Healthy boundaries allow the children to live their lives, learning, playing and going to school. Parents who have developed healthy boundaries with their children do not allow their children to take on adult behaviors, roles or problems, according to Ask Dr. Gayle. If parents don’t maintain strong generational boundaries, children might feel they have to take on more of a parental role.

Healthy Generational Boundary Expectations

In a healthy family, parents expect that they will hold and carry out their roles as parents. They will provide physical care and emotional support to their children. Both parents expect to provide discipline to their children when needed. The children know they can look to their parents for love and support.

Breakdown of Generational Boundaries

In some families, the boundaries between parents and children might be unclear, leading to the confusion of the roles between both generations. The dissolution of boundaries between parent and child can increase the risk of mistreatment of the child. Whether caused by parental illness or inability to sustain the parenting role, prematurely shifting this responsibility onto the child increases the risk of neglect and abuse. In cases where parent-child boundaries between a father and daughter are ignored, the child is at higher risk of sexual abuse, according to the University of Georgia study.

Role Reversal

Role reversal describes just what happens between parents and children -- when the parents give up their parental responsibilities and the children take them on, according to a 2004 Family Relations journal article. While expecting children to help out around the house and teaching them simple chores is beneficial, shifting the entire burden of responsibility is not. The child begins parenting her parent, and other issues develop within the family, such as triangulation or enmeshment. As this pattern progresses, the child begins to suffer emotionally. Her own need for emotional support goes unmet as she becomes her parent’s caregiver.

Generational Boundary Breakdown and its Effects on Children

When a child is expected to take over a parental or spousal role, her emotional, psychological and social development stop. If the excessive expectations placed upon her are not addressed by child protection authorities or psychologists, when she becomes an adult, she might not have the ability to parent her own children. As she has children, she might expect them to parent her.

About the Author

Genevieve Van Wyden began writing in 2007. She has written for “Tu Revista Latina” and owns three blogs. She has worked as a CPS social worker, gaining experience in the mental-health system. Van Wyden earned her Bachelor of Arts in journalism from New Mexico State University in 2006.

Photo Credits

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