As a systems therapist, family roles and dynamics are an important area of exploration. Developing a deeper understanding of the roles directly or indirectly assigned in childhood helps therapy clients reflect on how such roles are internalized and carried into adult careers and adult relationships. Developing a grasp of how past roles play out in the present makes the space to cultivate the adaptive elements of such roles and to challenge the maladaptive elements.
In this mode, the term “parentified child” is quite common. A parentified child references a child in a family unit who is directly or indirectly assigned an adult-like role. This assignment represents a family’s effort to compensate for parental shortcomings, limitations, adversity or absence. Many children raised by alcoholics, for example, will describe memories of caring for drunken parents or being sent by the sober parent into mature missions such as extracting the inebriated parent from a bar. For obvious reasons, memories of a parentified childhood may be quite painful and traumatic. But like so much in human relationships and in memory, relationships are complicated, families are unique, and parentified childhoods might also be laced with genuine happiness, joy and love.
Best picture academy award winner Coda is a beautiful film on many levels. From a therapeutic perspective, it captures the emotional complexity of a parentified childhood. The term Coda is an acronym standing for a child of deaf adults. (The word coda is defined as a concluding passage of a musical movement.) Coda’s protagonist, Ruby, has deaf parents and a deaf older brother. The film opens aboard the family’s fishing boat. Ruby and her father and brother are reeling in the day’s catch and preparing the fish for market sale. Music plays loudly, but Ruby’s father and brother seem oblivious. Only Ruby sways to the rhythm of the robust tunes. Viewers soon learn that Ruby is needed on the boat each day to meet regulatory requirements. All boating vessels must have a hearing individual aboard who can respond to coast guard alarms and notifications. Each morning, Ruby sails before sunrise and then dashes to high school where she doses off in class and struggles to balance the demands of academics with her familial obligations.
Ruby acts as her parents’ translator, protector and price negotiator. She must accompany them to doctor’s appointments and union meetings. The family’s livelihood seems completely dependent on Ruby’s engagement and support. Ruby embodies the quintessential parentified child. Her accountability toward her family is extreme. And yet, what makes Coda such a captivating film is the deep rapport and love and depth of Ruby’s family bonds. As Ruby and her parents struggle with the essential task of separation, the strengths and the complexity of the family dynamics are as challenging as they are endearing.
Ruby signs up for choir and the revelation and expression of her musical talent is entertaining and elevating. But Coda’s more substantive contribution is the complex portrayal of the strengths and dilemmas imbedded in the characters’ familial emotional life. Ruby is overly-responsible for her brother and parents’ welfare and safety. She cannot realize her full potential if she remains fully devoted to this parentified role. But the bonds framing her parentification demonstrate how sometimes one’s most unfortunate family role simultaneously illuminate both beauty and pain. Coda challenges a conventional understanding of what it means to operate in the parentified role and celebrates that sometimes our heaviest burdens also illuminate defining strengths.