Understanding Parentification in South Asian Families (#29) 👨👩👧👦
How Taking On a Caretaking Role From an Early Age Changes Us
Welcome to the Long Way Home🏡 newsletter, where I explore topics of creativity, emotional intelligence, and happiness. A special shout out to the two new subscribers since last week, bringing the total to 87.
This week’s topic is heavier than usual, but I hope you walk away with something valuable. I discuss parenting in South Asian households, but I think that anybody, regardless of cultural background, will relate to it in some way. If the topic resonates with you, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Reply directly to this email and I’ll get your response right in my personal inbox.
In this week's LWH🏡:
💫 - Understanding Parentification in South Asian Families by Vandan Jhaveri
🎙 - Seaspiracy on Netflix
Let’s get to this week’s essay.
Understanding Parentification in South Asian Families
Learning new psychoanalytic concepts and viewing our lived experience through new lenses feels like bringing the blurry photograph of all 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. The parentification of South Asian children is so commonplace that many South Asians adults wouldn't even recognize it as dysfunction.
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 diasporic South Asians.
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.
Why South Asian Culture?
In South Asian families, emotional parentification, especially, is disturbingly normalized, resulting in lasting negative consequences on the child. The literature is sparse on parentification in South Asian households, 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.
It's more common for parents to vent about their spousal issues with their kids than it is for spouses to seek support and validation from age-appropriate friends. Unfortunately, many immigrants are no longer in touch with their friends after immigrating 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.
For those that have large networks of friends, these social structures may not be psychologically safe environments that promote vulnerability. This lack of a reliable social network pushes them to seek support where they feel most comfortable—with their kids.
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 voluntarily take on these roles to lessen the burden on their parents; "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
Three key detriments of parentification are:
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 be a caretaker, 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. This has many downstream effects as they continue social and psychological development.
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.
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 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 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.
📃 - Masked
Charlie Bleecker pseudonymously writes a weekly newsletter called Transparent Tuesdays where she writes shorter pieces on whatever happens to be moving her. She usually finds a real experience of hers from the past week and yanks the thread to see what will unravel.
Her vulnerable style is a welcomed contrast to the ever-growing ocean of structured, predictable, sterile pieces about technology, startups, and cryptocurrencies. Her pieces are always beautifully written and thoughtful and her conversational tone breathes personality into her work.
Because she writes under a pseudonym, she has the freedom to rant about real life experiences and how they’ve affected her without worrying the essays will fall into the wrong hands. I think a lot about how I might self-filter topics because I’m worried about what the people in my life would think. Being authentic and vulnerable on the internet is a constant calculation.
Check out Charlie’s newsletter for a masterclass in easy reading that must be damn hard writing.
🎥 - Persuaspiracy?
I’m an impressionable person. When I’m confronted with a new idea, it doesn’t occur to me to be skeptical right off the bat unless I have a reason to be. When I watch a documentary, it doesn’t occur to me to question the science or the narrative. I assume all the fact-checking was completed beforehand by people much more knowledgeable than me.
This past weekend, I watched Seaspiracy, from the creators of the award-winning documentary Cowspiracy. Seaspiracy showcases the devastating damage of overfishing and plastic waste to our oceans. The facts are presented so persuasively and damningly that you can’t help but wonder why nobody else has told you about this before. It seemed so obvious that overfishing was wreaking havoc on our habitats.
But after Googling the documentary, I’ve come across tons of articles that caution viewers to be more critical of the facts in the film. I think the documentary is still worth checking out, I learned a lot, but I need to look into the criticisms some more.
Check out the fishing slavery that takes place in Thailand to this day.
Thank you for this great piece! For the longest time, I've always felt massive resistance and restraint, only to recently have found out that I'm experiencing the symptoms of parentification.
For much of my life I have been parentified and it's now made me that much resentful. All this time, putting myself last, trying to be my parents' savior/rescuer felt noble and virtuous, but if I'm being honest all it really did was cause me to abandon myself even more. That light at the end of the tunnel never came; and to this day my parents are pretty clueless of how, as you say, early and seriously they put that obligation and responsibility on me. It took me having to emmigrate to realize the way in which my North American peers carry themselves, how they do things with a certain conviction - one which doesn't feel bound and restrained, all because they are allowed to make mistakes. To me, they are the byproduct of having been allowed to be themselves, that they belong to themselves! They are not owned, nor do they owe anything to anybody else. As a result, they are fully allowed to unleash their potential without guilt and shame wearing them down. The individualistic society here really helps integrate the idea of boundaries and overall, societal relations and expectations factor that in vs the largely codependent muck in South Asian societies.
Yes, definitely, parentified kids have had to wear different hats for their parents and I still feel a strong sense of shame and guilt over small incidents which in my adolescent years caused me to inconvenience my parents in the past. Up until very recently, now in my adulthood, I had a massive fear of being an imposition and it definitely kept me small - and playing small. That kind of conditioning is so deeply embedded, it bleeds into all aspects of life. It's such a cancer to the soul. I'm seeing how damaging and dysfunctional parentification is, and worse, how infantile it can keep us. We are, in a sense, "institutionalized". Much in the way prisoners after serving longterm incarceration cannot fully integrate back into society, neither can parentified kids integrate into adulthood, from an emotional point of view - no matter if they are living with parents or emmigrated. By extension, I am also seeing (through a lot of self-help and therapy), that for me to have still been admittedly, emotionally immature, so have my parents.
I'm now actively trying to charter the path I was deprived of, and for that I have to do it unfettered. It's definitely brought about a change in my beliefs, values, and personality - something that my Indian parents are finding jarring. But then again, I don't think we were ever close, parentification saw to that. I am just now being validated on all this is all. Now and then, I feel bad and guilty, but also realize that I can no longer afford this duality of having selective boundaries - it's been an expensive experience! It's been very tough having to take such a hard and close look, especially now with this much needed distance and perspective, but it's offered a lot of insight and truth.
Thanks for this article - it was very cathartic. I'll be reading it again and some of your other ones too!