When a parent gets his or her needs met through her child, the child carries the burden of knowing that letting go means harming Dad or Mom.
The child may not be able to put it in words, but the implicit emotional message is, “my parent depends on me. I can’t leave her.” This is an impossible and destructive bind for any child at any age. It either means becoming consumed by the parent’s pathological need or finding the emotional strength to break free and to tolerate the rage and despair that will likely follow.
When specialized therapies and carefully crafted court orders and well-intended social services fail to rescue the infantilized, adultified, or parentified child, sometimes the anchor rope needs to be cut. The child needs simply to be removed from the dependent parent’s care at least temporarily while multiple convergent therapies try to help all involved. In extreme cases documented in U.S. and Canadian courts, abrupt removal into the care of a healthy parent sometimes proves to be exactly the right remedy, but other times is associated with tragic outcomes.
Unfortunately, we don’t yet know which remedies are right for which children. We do know, however, that it’s better to respond sooner rather than later and that the response will require the concerted and collaborative effort of numerous health care professionals.