How I became my family’s translator and emotional support system

Parentification, a term often used to describe children who had to grow up quickly and take on adult responsibilities. Read Cecilia’s personal story.

“Can you translate this for me?” This is a common request from my parents – when they are not asking me to help them with technology.

My family moved to Canada when I was nine years old. Thanks to a young sponge-like mind, I became the designated interpreter for my family. Children pick up languages quicker than adults, so it is not unusual for children of immigrants to assume the role of a language broker. 

Like many immigrant families, we encountered various hurdles, including communication barriers, job difficulties, and cultural shock. Even as the youngest member of the family, I was instilled with a sense of responsibility to help ease the burden, by taking on tasks that were perhaps uncommon for my peers. Not only was I translating language, but I had also inadvertently become a cultural and emotional guide for the family as we navigate unfamiliar grounds together.

See also: Forbidden sleepovers and tampon usage: how my Asian upbringing shaped me as an adult

The term parentification is often used to describe children who had to grow up quickly and take on adult responsibilities, which leads to a shift in parent-child dynamics where the roles are reversed. The responsibilities fall under two categories: instrumental parentification, which involves physical tasks, and emotional parentification, when the child fulfills the psychological needs of the family.  Levels of parentification are higher in immigrant families, due to the acculturation gap.

Growing up, I struggled with the push and pull between living my life and prioritizing my family’s well-being. Over time, I have learned to embrace my past experiences and appreciate how our journey has made us stronger as a family.

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Translating Language & Culture

The excitement of moving to a new country is often coupled with loss of the previous life and home. The growing pains of finding community, restarting a career and forming a new identity, also come with stress and loneliness.

It was not an easy transition, but my parents worked hard. My dad owned his own shop. My mom was learning English and taking care of me full time. Meanwhile, I focused on my school work and studied English, to carry on my parents’ hopes and dreams.

As I honed my new language skills, I put them to good use, starting from simple tasks like interpreting conversations at the bank, writing out cheques, and ordering at restaurants. Then, they evolved to deciphering complex government documents, negotiating better deals on cable, and making critical decisions at strata meetings.

It was stressful at times. I wrestled with choosing the best words from my elementary-level Mandarin vault and grasping social contexts that were beyond my years. Sometimes I was nervous because an erroneous translation could lead to loss of a government-issued ID or extra cost on the bill. Most service workers we interacted with were pleasant and helpful, but a child does not always garner the same type of respect as an adult.

There were moments when I dreaded this responsibility. All I wanted to do was to be left alone to study or to play with my friends.

Once I became more mature and confident in my abilities, I began to enjoy the responsibilities more and welcomed the opportunities to practice my mother tongue.

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See also: How eating plant based connected me to my extended family

Becoming an Emotional Support

When I started high school, my dad traveled out of town to pursue better job opportunities. Meanwhile, my mom held down the fort at home.

The isolation and financial pressure became insurmountable. Without family close by, she had no support network to lean on. The physical distance added tension to a relationship already strained by the move. Around that time, we received news her brother and father passed away within a short period of time. This had pushed her over the edge.

One day, my mom booked a trip out of the blue back to Taiwan. After a visit to the doctor’s office, she was diagnosed with a mental illness.

I did not quite comprehend the gravity of her illness. All I knew was that I needed to make her feel better. This meant becoming her primary source of emotional support. 

Our daily conversations at bedtime became our ritual. Even when I had an assignment due the next day, I would drop what I was doing to listen. Because of our close bond, she also confided in me the details of her personal life, family, and marital issues. I was constantly wearing multiple hats, as a counselor, confidante, and mediator, which required a great deal of maturity. 

Emotional parentification can cause children to feel responsible for the parents’ happiness and well-being, and neglect caring for themselves.

Because I was always thinking of others, I was unaware of my own needs and priorities. 

See also: Reclaiming my Filipina hair through the Curly Girl Method

Building Resilience and Empathy

To offset the emotional stress at home, I immersed myself in school and extracurricular activities, saying yes to anything and everything. I was on the fast-track to a major burn-out. 

During a midterm exam at university, I was suddenly overcome with intense anxiety. As the clock ticked by, my heart pounded faster and faster. My mind drew a blank, like the paper I turned in.

I had previously failed a course, and I was scared of failing again. There was the fear of disappointing my parents. I just want my parents to be happy.

In an attempt to manage my stress, I devoted my time into what brought me joy – volunteering.

I applied to work on the crisis lines because of my personal experience with mental health. Through the training, I discovered my aptitude for empathy. It has opened doors for me to foster more profound connections and relate to individuals from different walks of life. In fact, other people with parentification experiences similar to mine often possessed a heightened sense of empathy and capacity for resilience and self-efficacy.

More importantly, I also became more in tune with my emotions and learned to set healthy boundaries, so I can fill my cup before filling others’.

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Embrace Your Experience

Looking back, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to my family in a significant way. It is not easy for an adult to place their trust in a young child. Not only has this journey made me more independent and resilient, but it has also deepened my connection with my family.

Our life experiences will always be ingrained in the fabric of who we are. However, whether you are the child of immigrant parents or parents encountering unexpected hardships, just know you are not responsible for anyone’s happiness but your own.

The other day I had just finished explaining some paperwork to my parents.

“We are proud of you, you know,” they said.

I know. Me too. 

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