Understanding Parentification in the South Asian Diaspora
Learning new psychoanalytic concepts brings the blurry photograph of our lives into focus. We can use these frameworks to better understand those around us, and most importantly, ourselves.
One such framework is parentification: a parent-child role reversal in which the child performs caretaking responsibilities for the parent in response to the parent’s failure to fulfill those responsibilities for the child, leading to long-lasting psychological issues for the child. Of course, parentification has been studied and shown to be prevalent in all cultures, but although the data is sparse and incomplete, I would hypothesize parentification takes place at higher rates in the South Asians diaspora. The diaspora, of course, refers to any South Asian who no longer lives in their country of origin. Essentially, my exploration of parentification pertains to how it relates to South Asian immigrant families.
The parentification of South Asian children is so commonplace in South Asian immigrant households that many South Asian adults wouldn’t even recognize it as dysfunction.
The Basics of Parentification
There are two types of parentification:
- Logistical/instructional — Child provides logistical or financial support to parents (e.g., paying bills from a young age, financially supporting younger siblings, running errands on behalf of a parent who may be unable/unwilling to do so on their own)
- Emotional — Child provides emotional support to usually one but sometimes both parents that may be developmentally inappropriate or overtaxing (e.g., mediating conflict between parents or serving as a confidant for one parent)
One of the major reasons for parentification is boundary disturbance, which refers to need fulfillment taking place in inappropriate subsystems. Subsystems are smaller dynamics within larger family systems (e.g., couples, siblings, and parent-child). The opposite of boundary disturbance is boundary maintenance, which, as one might assume, refers to needs being met within the most appropriate/healthy family or interpersonal relationship.
To illustrate with an example, a boundary disturbance might be a mother routinely seeking comfort for her marital troubles from her daughter. Boundary maintenance would be recognizing her child may not be developmentally equipped to provide that support and seeking that comfort in her other adult relationships.
Why Diasporic South Asian Culture?
My perspective is limited by my lived experience as a diasporic South Asian. It’s entirely possible many other immigrant cultures experience high prevalence of parentification, but this discussion will centre around the immigrant South Asian family.
In South Asian immigrant families, emotional parentification is disturbingly normalized, resulting in lasting negative consequences for the child. The literature is sparse on parentification in South Asian households, immigrant or otherwise, but I have my personal opinions as to why it seems to be so prevalent.
South Asian culture is group-based, meaning that saving face is paramount. Saying or doing something the broader community might find shameful is among the greatest fears. This incentivizes parents to keep their marital, financial, familial, and health problems private and within the nuclear family.
This is compounded in the diaspora. Many immigrants are no longer in touch with their friends after emigrating or in a position to make new friends (i.e., cultural/language barriers, work demands, fear/discomfort, etc.), making it impossible to find healthy forms of support. Unadjusted South Asian parents routinely struggle with feelings of loneliness and isolation, and are desperately in need of people with whom to connect. For those that have large networks of friends, these social structures may not be psychologically safe environments that promote vulnerability.
A lack of a reliable social network, whatever the cause, pushes South Asian immigrant parents to seek support where they feel most comfortable — with their kids. In other words, it’s more common for these parents, like many others, to vent about their spousal issues with their kids than it is for spouses to seek support and validation from age-appropriate friends.
Further, many children of South Asian immigrants are pushed to be cultural tour guides, translators and interpreters, best friends, mediators, marriage counsellors, financial advisors, and tech support, wrapped into one. When not made explicit, many children willfully take on these roles to lessen the burden on their parents voluntarily. “It’s just easier if I do it,” is a routine justification for taking on the parental role in an immigrant family.
Detriments of Parentification
To the uninitiated, children who take on caretaking responsibilities may seem mature and capable of managing responsibility, but there are long-lasting and severe detriments of parentification.
- Low sense of identity/self: A self-concept begins to develop when a child has freedom to gravitate towards preferences and develop unique competencies. In a home environment that expects the child to take on caretaking responsibilities, they may not have the space or energy to build this confidence through trial and error.
- Loneliness and attachment issues: When the parent-child subsystem is compromised because of disregarded boundaries, children can struggle to feel a sense of belonging and develop insecure attachments. They may feel alienated from other kids who struggle to relate to their experience and may subconsciously assume caregiving roles in their other relationships, resulting in dysfunction.
- A fear of inconveniencing parents: Children who take on a caretaking role feel responsible for their parents’ emotions. They feel extreme guilt in knowingly inconveniencing them and therefore avoid situations that require their parents to expend effort on their behalf. Making their needs and wants known becomes exceedingly unnatural, even in relationships in which doing so would be welcomed.
Although all three are severely detrimental to healthy psychological development, the rest of this issue is dedicated to the fear South Asian children have of inconveniencing their parents. I may tackle the other two byproducts in future LWH🏡 issues.
The hesitancy to inconvenience parents is uniquely strong in South Asian children. Under the guise of being respectful, they routinely undermine their own needs and submit to the preferences of their parents to model good behaviour. The best kids, we’re told, are those that are respectful and academically excellent, but are otherwise invisible.
Of course, we can follow this thread much deeper — being well-behaved is often equated with being worthy of love and affection and being wanted. South Asian children are taught from a young age that love for them is conditional, contingent on their abilities to make their parents proud.
For clarity, the logic is as follows:
- Well-behaved kids don’t inconvenience their parents.
- Well-behaved kids are worthy of their parents’ love.
- If I inconvenience my parents, I will not be worthy of their love.
Parentified children have an even stronger commitment to being a source of calm for their parents. They’re intimately aware of the stressors in their parents’ lives and therefore feel extremely guilty when they knowingly behave in a way that may burden them further. These children may not feel like they have a right to express emotional or logistical needs that may compromise their parents’ peace of mind.
Some ways that parentified children may avoid inconveniencing their parents:
- Asking their friends for rides, even if their parents are home and available to drive them
- Keeping bad news (poor grades, minor car accidents, school and work and school challenges) to themselves to avoid adding to their parents’ stress (not concerned about punishment)
- Keeping their own relationship challenges from their parents
- Refusing to ask parents for money, regardless of how big or small the amount
- Pretending to be their parents on the phone to handle logistical matters like bills and negotiations from a young age
- Training younger siblings to come to them for support and guidance instead of going to their parents
Although all parents have their struggles, parentified children over-represent their parents’ struggles in their worldview because of how early and seriously it is introduced to them. For these children, it’s a major part of their parents’ identity and thought to affect them on a daily basis, whether true or not.
It seems entirely reasonable to ask a friend to make a 20-minute detour to pick them up because their mom may have had an argument with their dad the previous day. Where non-parentified children may feel like it’s not their problem, parentified children may feel that conflict is always as much their problem as it is their parents’.
Not Just Theory
Avoiding emotional outbursts that follow being inconvenienced is not a hypothetical exercise. There is usually a history of backlash from parents in response to requesting effort. Requests that are met with frustration or anger can quickly condition children, making it less likely they will ask for things in the future.
Before long, these children learn to anticipate what their parents will have to do if they were to request something and self-filter the vast majority of requests, opting to expend their own energy instead.
Years of these mental acrobatics breed a low self-esteem where children may feel like they’re not worth being inconvenienced for and feel extreme discomfort when others willingly sacrifice their comfort or convenience.
Not An Inconvenience
Through the unhealthy process of parentification, children in South Asian families are extremely familiar with their family’s challenges, and feel obligated to do everything within their power to lessen the burden on their parents. Countless times, they’ve seen their parents respond negatively to new stressors, however small, teaching them that the way to avoid their parents’ ire is to inconvenience them as little as possible.
Being aware of the ways early childhood experiences shape our thought processes can help disarm them. We can find the self-confidence to invalidate feeling like an inconvenience when we realize there is no truth to the feeling, just years of conditioning. It takes time to reconfigure our self-talk, but realizing we are inherently deserving of effort can be a massive paradigm shift in our self-concept.
The downstream effects of this may be setting boundaries and speaking or behaving in a way that is more visible (and more of an inconvenience) to our parents, but the benefits of living an authentic life are unparalleled. It is undoubtedly stressful, knowingly counteracting every instinct to make life as easy and straightforward as possible for our parents, but sometimes, these instincts perpetuate and enable the problem, kicking the can down the road for us to deal with another time.
We forget that our parents are adults. They did the best they could and we are eternally grateful for that, but our lives cannot be dedicated to removing barriers for them. If that’s all we do, we miss living our own life.
And what a shame that would be.