Letting Go of Your Past: Chapter 2: You Are Not Your Parents’ Father or Mother

Parental Inversion and Substitute Mate

When a parent is immature, incapable or unavailable, a child may sometimes take responsibility for that parent, sacrificing their childhood in order to fulfill the role of the errant parent. This is called parental inversion. Sometimes the parent is not only MIA (missing in action) as a parent but also as a spouse. The other parent may end up relying on a child as a substitute mate.

Situations when parental inversion and substitute mate can occur:

  • a parent dies or is frequently away from the home
  • parents fight a lot at home
  • a parent is unavailable or unreliable due to alcoholism, gambling, physical problem or mental illness
  • weak or broken parent uses child as a comforter or confidant
  • parent who never receive love from his parents manipulate their children with guilt to give them love and gratitutde
  • parents take children’s misbehavior as a personal affront and so pout, act hurt, demand comfort from the child or use silent treatment
  • parents insecurity demands that that the child affirms the parent’s self-esteem
  • sensitive, burden-bearing child senses a parent’s pain and comes to their rescue

Both parental inversion and substitute mate rob a person of his childhood and leave the child with baggage they take with them into adulthood. The child is not given the opportunity to be a child. Due to the external pressures of fear, the child is forced to exercise self-control to get chores done, take care of siblings, make money for the family or provide emotional stability for other family members. These children shoulder the burden which the parent should have carried. This leaves the child without an opportunity to be carefree, enjoy a little disorder and learn naturally and internally from foolish mistakes.

Some problems in adults that have suffered from parental inversion:

  • inability to rest, even at home or while on vacation … always needing to solve other’s problems
  • compulsive peacemaking
  • overwork, over-achievement
  • the “noble martyr” syndrome – always doing things yourself because you are not able able to trust others to do things “right” … an unconscious insult to others around you
  • unable to relate properly with their spouse later on in life as an adult

Why would a child suffer for being helpful? After all they were just picking up the slack left by a parent? The Sanfords say that disrespect for the failing parent is the root cause of sin in the case of parental inversion and that it is pretty much impossible to grow up as a chid without passing judgment in some way against your parents. And for doing so, you’ll be judged with the same measure that you judged your parents. So the first step toward wholeness is to repent for judging your parents and for also possibly usurping your parent’s role.

Parental inversion and substitute mate are not just attitudes; they are habit structures. Repentance and prayer will start the healing process, but accountability from friends and family may be required to help break deeply ingrained behavior patterns.


As new parents going through the difficulties of learning patience while dealing with incessant demands of raising a young child, my wife and I have a new-found respect for our parents. This chapter is a good warning and reminder of three often-taught virtue of Christian life.

It is important it is for me to continue to nurture my relationship with my wife. We are often taught in church and in marriage classes that the relationship between a husband and wife is the most important relationship in the family … that it serves as the foundation for wholeness in children. There is a big emphasis for husbands and wives to find a way to have weekly dates, take time to communicate and continue the romance. Even the Bible specifically commands husbands to love their wives. After reading this chapter, now I know why. Beyond the fact that is feels great to be in love with my wife, it is crucial for the children. As a father, it is my responsibility, as far as I am able, to provide a stable and nurturing home environment in which my children can grow up. I must be a loving husband to my wife or else she may find it necessary to find comfort and emotional support from our children (substitute mate) or worse, outside the family (adultery). I wonder how much grief in the history of humanity can be traced back to the root cause of husbands not loving their wives?

I must be home often and available to be a parent to my children. In this day and age where people can largely determine their own futures by the choices they make, barring severe illness or death, I can likely choose a career path that will allow me to be home and available most of the time. As a man, I struggle with overworking myself in order to provide for the family. My mind is frequently consumed with my business. I need to put my eyes back on the Lord and put my trust in God for our provision. Then I’ll be able to make wise choices of how I split my time between work and family.

My wife and I must be mature in Christ and emotionally stable in order not to project insecurities to our children. I think this is a great argument for waiting until you’re “ready” before dating or getting married. Parenthood is a great responsibility and people, as far as they are able, are wise to wait until they are mature and whole before they start dating and get married. People often say getting married makes you feel like an adult but having kids makes you really grow up. It’s true. But how much better it is to start marriage and parenthood with a good baseline maturity in Christ. In any case, becoming mature in the Lord in order not to taint my children is one of many good reasons to continue seeking the Lord daily through Bible study, prayer, worship and spending time with God. In doing so, I will grow more like Him in patience, kindness, peace, love and joy.

This chapter serves as a good warning for me of how important it is to keep on (1) loving my wife, (2) being an available father and (3) doing my devotions daily. The consequence for not doing so may be to doom my children to parental inversion or substitute mate, and all the baggage into adulthood that goes along with them. I’ve heard it said that a wise leader prevents problems rather than put out fires. It would be wise for me not to neglect these three virtues now in order to prevent problems from happening later.

Letting Go of Your Past, a book by John & Paula Sanford, is part of the curriculum of the Elijah House Basic I training course which Elisabeth and I took in 2008. This is a book summary where each blog post will summarize a chapter.

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top ↑