The Parentification Trap

Growing Up Too Fast as a Child of Immigrants

Magazine Issue
July/August 2024
The Parentification Trap

In my earliest memory, I’m four years old, firmly planted on the landing of our staircase, refusing to go to bed until my mom and dad agree to hug each other. They immigrated to the States five years before from the United Kingdom—and before that, from India—and I’ve just witnessed them having an argument that has upset me.
I don’t remember what that argument was about, but it was one of many my parents would have in my presence—which taught me to play the role of family mediator at an early age.

Growing up, I was often called an old soul and mature for my age. I wore this as a badge of honor because it garnered the attention I desperately wanted from my parents and elders. These characteristics helped me feel worthy and useful, gave me access to adult conversations and feelings, and meant I didn’t need support because I could take care of myself. I learned to find happiness in making things easier for my parents, in ways that were characteristic of children much older than I was. At the time, it didn’t matter that this removed my ability to just be the kid that I was.

It’s only recently that I’ve been able to do my own work around many of my childhood experiences and attach a single word to it: parentification. The irony isn’t lost on me that being parentified meant I felt good about myself when I helped others—and that I’m a therapist now and founder of Brown Girl Therapy, the first and largest online mental health community for adult children of immigrants.

When I asked children of immigrants in an informal poll on Brown Girl Therapy if they’d ever been called old souls or mature for their age growing up, 79 percent of over 6,000 respondents said yes. Suffice it to say, this means they likely grew up too quickly, without getting many of their needs met. After all, parentified kids are taught to tie their sense of self to how well they meet the needs of parents and elders. The mental and emotional gymnastics required of kids who’ve been co-opted—however unconsciously—into caring for adults has lifelong effects.

Although research suggests that parentification can be considered an insidious form of neglect, many people—even therapists—tend to overlook it as a serious issue. It’s part of why I dedicate my life to raising awareness and educating other therapists about struggles that children of immigrants experience. Sociocultural context matters. Frankly, I’ve been on the receiving end of therapy with a therapist who lacked cultural competency—which affected not only my comfort in the room, but also the depth to which we could explore my experiences. The parentified role I’d learned at home ended up replicating itself in the therapy room. I wanted to seem easy and capable with my therapist, which only added barriers to the vulnerability and honesty required to heal from the impact of my experiences.

Beyond Cultural Assumptions

There are two types of parentification: instrumental and emotional. With instrumental parentification, you’re expected to take on more practical roles in your family, such as cooking for sick relatives, making sure younger siblings get to school and bed on time, cleaning the house, being the family translator, and contributing financially to the household. With emotional parentification, you’re expected to take on emotional roles, like being the family mediator, listening to one parent vent about the other, being a secret keeper, or generally managing your parents’ feelings about situations, without necessarily having your feelings acknowledged and tended to.

If parentification in immigrant families is common and problematic, why is it so rarely talked about? In my work, I’ve found it’s often complicated by the fact that filial piety and familism—the prioritization of elders and family over individual needs—is a widespread immigrant value. Plus, instrumental parentification can be necessary for survival in a new country: sometimes only a child in an immigrant family knows enough of the new language and culture to handle some of the tasks of daily living.

One of my clients, the son of Nigerian immigrants, had grown up saddled with the responsibility of writing his mother’s emails to employers, coworkers, landlords, bank managers, and doctors. Not only had this created a burdensome role reversal in their relationship, but it meant my client was wrestling with a great deal of guilt: for surpassing his mother in cultural access and opportunity because his English was good, and for turning his back on his culture—or so he felt—because his Igbo was poor.

Another client had parents who held advanced medical degrees in Colombia, their home country, but had to take on service jobs when they immigrated to the U.S. because their degrees weren’t accepted here. This meant my client had to manage the household while his parents worked and pick up odd jobs around the neighborhood to supplement the family income, at the expense of being able to engage in traditional childhood activities like sports, making friends, and pursuing hobbies.

Many children of immigrants are parented by caregivers who experienced war, genocide, abuse, poverty, and other traumas, which can fuel children’s natural protectiveness, motivating them to take on extra responsibilities so their parents don’t have to. In my work, as we unpack childhood trauma alongside parentification, my clients will often rationalize their experiences: But my parents did the best they could. They lived through far worse than I did. I care about my family, so I had to be available to them. With one client in particular, our work consisted of making psychological and emotional room for two things being true at the same time: her parents had done the best they could, and she’d experienced profound losses in her own childhood, and even pain because of them.

Though the term parentified has become something of a buzzword these days, the experiences of those affected by this dynamic as children are nuanced and complicated. We therapists need to set aside our cultural assumptions—such as that immigrant parents are neglectful, or that parentification has only negative consequences. This often means validating the challenges clients experienced growing up without blaming their parents for them and without ignoring the positive opportunities that may have arisen from these circumstances. After all, my Nigerian American client did feel pride in the ways he’d contributed to his mother’s survival, and he was grateful for all she’d done for him.

A Clash of Values

Western therapists may not realize that many non-Western family systems have a social hierarchy, one that delineates roles and expectations based on birth order and gender. Instrumental parentification tends to occur with the eldest son, while emotional parentification tends to occur with the eldest daughter. But these tendencies can vary depending on family dynamics, and any child can be parentified, as in my family. What makes helping clients sort through these types of experiences tricky is that immigrants’ adaptive cultural norms, where the family’s needs in collectivist households are prioritized to protect them from harm within the dominant society, may be viewed as enmeshment and pathologized by Westerners.

While I normalize these experiences for my clients, I also acknowledge that a common byproduct of parentification is a lack of boundaries, which makes it difficult to differentiate oneself from one’s family and find true connection in other relationships. In extreme cases, children of immigrants feel ashamed for pursuing their unique interests or needs.

The Pakistani mother of a client of mine, for example, called her weekly to vent about other family members. Although my client had graduated from college and was living away from home, every call transported her back to her childhood, where the gravitational pull of her mother’s emotions had been inescapable. If her mom had felt bad about something her brother had said, she’d feel bad and start to resent her brother too. If her mother had disapproved of how my client had been spending her money or time, she’d doubt her choices. These interactions led to a level of codependency and low self-esteem that permeated all her relationships, making it hard for her to experience genuine connection.

A client of Vietnamese descent recently had a breakthrough in which she realized that her experience of parentification had led to self-silencing in her adult life. This behavior affected every facet of her work, friendships, and intimate relationships. She’d struggled with a deeply ingrained people-pleasing reflex, along with a core belief that if she says no, stands up for herself, asks for what she wants, or even just disappoints someone, then she has no value.

Moving Past Old Family Dynamics

Of course, most immigrant parents don’t try to parentify their kids. When parentificaton happens, it’s often because of a lack of social support, unmet caregiver needs, a focus on survival and security, and intergenerational patterns. Nevertheless, therapists can effectively work with adult clients who were parentified to help them develop healthier coping skills and unlearn conditioned beliefs and behaviors that may be interfering with their ability to prioritize themselves and have fulfilling relationships.

Because my Pakistani American client had spent so much time internalizing her mother’s feelings, I began helping her identify, understand, and process what came up for her during her interactions with her mom, and what she needed that differed from what her mother was needing in those moments. She didn’t want to cut her mom off, but she did want to disentangle her feelings from her mother’s.

By tracking what goes on moment-to-moment in clients’ interactions with family members, my clients can begin to identify feelings that get buried in the ways they’re coping with family dynamics. Simply naming these emotions can help them start to shift the dynamic, even in small ways, as they experiment with new ways of coping. From a place of increased self-awareness and a sense of agency, they can find activities to do with their parents beyond just being useful to them.

When clients rationalize behavior rooted in parentification, I often ask, “How does taking on your parents’ frustration and pain help them?” The answer is usually, “It doesn’t.” I offer affirmations that may help them distinguish caring for their parents from feeling obligated to fix their parents’ problems. These sound like: I’m not responsible for fixing my parents’ marriage. I love my dad, and I don’t have to absorb his feelings as my own. I can listen sympathetically, but I’m not responsible for my mother’s choices.

My Vietnamese American client worked on unlearning her people-pleasing reflex by tuning into her body whenever someone made a request of her. This way, she could sense into whether she genuinely wanted to do something or help someone by noticing whether her chest expanded or her stomach sank. She explored what she was saying no to when she said yes: much-needed downtime, a few moments of peace, going to a movie, meeting a friend. In short, our work involved helping her incorporate self-care into her worldview, practicing boundary-setting, managing guilt (which included distinguishing between helpful and unhelpful guilt), and building tolerance for uncomfortable emotions.

Long after I’d moved out of my parents’ house, I worked with my own therapist on connecting with the inner, younger version of myself, the one that had been planted on the landing of a staircase refusing to go to bed until my parents hugged. With my therapist’s support, I learned to care for this younger version of me. One reason I do the work I do is for her, and for all the children of immigrants who feel caught between differing cultural expectations and are unsure how to live authentically or give themselves the time and attention they’ve given others for so long.


Sahaj Kaur Kohli

Sahaj Kaur Kohli, MAEd, LGPC, NCC, is a practicing therapist, international speaker, and the founder of Brown Girl Therapy (@browngirltherapy), the first and largest mental health and wellness community organization for adult children of immigrants. She’s the author of But What Will People Say?: Navigating Mental Health, Identity, Love, and Family Between Cultures and a columnist for The Washington Post’s advice column Ask Sahaj. Her work has been featured in Today, Good Morning America, CNN, the New York Times, and HuffPost.