Role Reversal

With regard to attachment theory, John Bowlby noticed role reversal between parents and their children in specific cases where children refused to go to school. According to Bowlby, parents who require their own children to become parental figures and take on the role of children themselves are usually extremely anxious and ambivalent about their own parents. They grew up believing they were unwanted as children or that another sibling was favored over them. Because of this, they felt as though they always had to fight for their parent's love and attention. As their parents were often domineering, they had to suppress whatever resentment they felt in order to meet the unreasonable demands placed on them.

While the role reversal can be conscious or unconscious, parents oftentimes lack the awareness and sincerely believe that what they are doing is for the benefit of their children. Although parents may claim their children need special care and protection and are receiving it, in reality the parents are looking for the love they never had as children. So rather than being overprotected, such children are always frustrated as they are not even allowed to expostulate. Furthermore, these children may become the target of their parent's hostility. Bowlby specified three processes by which this could be understood: parents may redirect their resentment against their own parents onto their children, parents may misattribute rejecting behaviors to their own children, or parents may model their angry behavior towards their children on the angry behavior exhibited by their own parents.

Covert incest typically involves role reversal between parents and their children. Moreover, such parents may still be meeting the needs of their own parents, thereby limiting their availability to their children.