From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
3. Thou shalt be an adult.
Sample Situation: Children were made to take care of their parents emotionally, physically, or sexually and to meet their parents’ “childish” needs for power, attention, sex, and belonging. The children submitted to avoid physical and emotional abandonment by their parents. Children in these environments can't really remember a “childhood.” For this reason, children were always expected to be adults.
Application: Being child-like and spontaneous is irresponsible and bad. You must act like an adult at all times and be responsible, even if you’re only five years old.
Motto: There’s no such thing as child’s play. It’s all serious stuff.
This is similar to parentifying but expands a bit. When your parent expects you to take on adult responsibilities, either emotionally or physically (like being a surrogate parent to your siblings or being the maid), that parent is parentifying; when you become responsible for your mother’s moods, when you have take care of her emotionally either because she will fall apart or fly into a rage if you don’t, that parent is parentifying…and it is dysfunctional. But there are some parents who take it even further, expecting adult behaviour and emotional maturity out of their children, and more.
One thing that used to puzzle me about my NM is how she would assign me a chore…something I had never done before…and expect immediate and flawless performance. “Go wash the kitchen floor!” and from that I was not only supposed to know to remove chairs, trash can, and rugs, I was also supposed to know to sweep first, pre-treat particularly dirty areas, what floor cleaning product to use, how to mix it up, apply it, rinse, and dry. And if I couldn’t figure it out and get it done in the same amount of time it would take her to do it (or less), I was stupid, defiant, a malingerer, or intentionally pissing her off.
You can reasonably expect an adult to be able to figure it out…or tell you if she needed some information. But if I complained “I don’t how,” NM would answer something to the effect “You’re supposed to be smart—figure it out!” or “I’m not asking you to build a rocket to the moon, just wash the goddamned floor!” One of the downsides of having a high intelligence and your NM knowing about it is that she presumes knowledge you don’t have, or an ability to figure things out despite a lack of applicable information.
In a dysfunctional family, children are expected to behave like little adults. When I was married to my NHusband, my six year old son wanted to learn how to play monopoly. My husband was recruited to make the game more than just the two of us, and we began to play. Less than 30 minutes later, my son retired to his room in tears as NH chortled joyfully over trouncing a six year old who had never played the game before. Minutes later, he was the upset one because I refused to continue the game with him, after giving him a set-down for taking unfair advantage of a child. His response? The kid shouldn’t play if he doesn’t know how and leaving the table in tears was the sign of a poor sport! That man truly expected that little boy to be an adult, both in his game strategy and in handling his loss.
If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you surely can think of other examples in which you were expected to show adult judgment, adult skill, adult maturity when you were still just a child. I remember being put in dangerous situations, often because I was afraid to refuse—the penalty for refusal was certain, predictable, and once the punishment for my insubordination was over, I would still be tasked with whatever it was I had refused to do…crossing that busy 4 lane highway to buy bread and milk and cigarettes for NM, who was too lazy to fire up the car and do it herself, was no more dangerous than defying one of NM’s commands.
Sexual abuse is, at its very core, an abuse that forces a child into doing things appropriate only for an adult. And we are all aware of the more blatant kinds of sexual abuse of children but there are more subtle forms, things we may not initially think of as sexually abusive. Sexualizing children is inappropriate and in my personal opinion, programs such as Toddlers and Tiara encourage the sexualisation of little girls. When I was about seven, my NM was obsessed with turning me into a famous entertainer. I was cute, blonde, had a big singing voice and perfect pitch. I was singing in talent shows and county fairs and nightclubs and doing well—at least I assume I was doing well since NM was not berating or beating me after my performances (although she wasn’t praising me, either) and she was encouraged enough to take me to Hollywood to audition for parts in movies. I was not really on board with all of this, even though I pretended to be to spare myself her wrath.
After one audition, NM instructed me to go to the producer, a sweaty, half-bald, paunchy old guy who smelled like onions, stale cigars and old sweat, climb up in his lap and kiss him as a thanks for allowing me to audition. I was repulsed and while I successfully resisted her cajolery and threats, I didn’t escape unscathed: I got a tongue lashing the whole way home (a two-hour drive) and a beating with The Strap once we arrived. In retrospect, I can see that NM was sending me to, essentially, flirt with him, to be precociously seductive. I was to suppress my own revulsion of his person and sit on his lap and kiss him—the kind of thing a young women might do to entice a man to do her bidding and hardly appropriate for a seven year old. The costumes she sewed for me were provocative rather than “little-girl cute,” and I had to learn to cock my head and wink or smile seductively…in short, to look and act like a tiny sexy, seductive adult. These were lessons I did not forget in later years, lessons which actually impeded my ability to deal with men in anything other than a flirtatious, manipulative, seductive manner.
Sexualizing children…placing them in positions in which they learn sexually suggestive behaviours at an inappropriately young age…is just one of many ways in which a dysfunctional family may expect children be behave as adults. Boys learning to drink and swear, girls are encouraged to flirt and be coy in order to get what they want—too often such behaviour is seen as cute and is rewarded when, in fact, it teaches children behaviours work against them in later years.
When a child is expected to act like an adult, whether it is to be precociously seductive or inappropriately restrained, the child loses her childhood and the joy that is supposed to be a part of it. Unsurprisingly, these children may grow into shallow, provocative Lolitas who see their personal power linked inextricably to their ability to seduce what they want out of others or into solemn, sombre creatures who take everything seriously, including light-hearted teasing. Expecting children to behave like adults, forcing them into roles for which there are not sufficiently emotionally mature, is no less an abuse than beating a child, because it stunts…even kills…who they really are inside, forever damaging their ability to achieve the potential with which they were born.
There is a reason humans have a long childhood—it takes many, many years for the human animal to grow, physically, intellectually, and emotionally, into adulthood. Forcing children to behave like adults short circuits the natural order of things and leaves them deeply injured.
Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
4. Thou shalt keep secrets from others.
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.