The Science Behind the Early Maturing of the Eldest Hija

We are learning that there is a biological component to intergenerational trauma that may impact maturity levels

Eldest Daughter biology

Photo: Pexels/lucas mendes

Did you know that growing up too quickly as the eldest daughter of Latinx immigrants may be influenced by factors beyond your immediate environment and upbringing? This phenomenon isn’t solely about cultural or familial expectations but may also be rooted in biological changes that occurred before you were even born. Being the eldest daughter in a Latinx immigrant family typically comes with its own unique challenges, such as taking on adult responsibilities early on, known as parentification, alongside feelings of isolation, heavy burdens, and strong familial duties. The spotlight has recently been cast on these experiences, particularly with the viral “Mi hija es muy independiente” trend on social media. As a therapist specializing in working with first-gen professionals, I’ve explored how environmental factors, like needing to fill adult roles due to limited access to resources or longstanding family traditions, impact these eldest daughters. But what if I told you that there’s a deeper layer to this?

I recently delved into an article published in the Journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology, detailing a study conducted over 15 years in Southern California led by Dr. Molly Fox, an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at UCLA. This research revealed that biological factors linked to a mother’s stress during pregnancy could play a crucial role, particularly affecting the timing of puberty in their first-born daughters.

Spoiler — it can lead eldest daughters to experience puberty earlier, essentially physically mature sooner to be more prepared to step into a caregiver or helper role than their similarly aged peers. Again this is not just a response to an environmental pressure or familial necessity but related to the stress their mothers experienced while pregnant with their first-born daughters. This concept highly resonated with me, as an eldest daughter of Latinx immigrants myself. We understand the pressures that lead us to mature early, often stepping into large family roles without hesitation. Although this ‘parentification’ isn’t exclusive to eldest daughters, the biological factors discovered by this research offer a new perspective. According to the study, these biological changes lead eldest daughters to physically mature faster due to the prenatal stress experienced by their mothers. Reflecting on this, I remembered stories my mother shared about her pregnancy with me, marked by considerable stress.

As an immigrant with limited English, she, like many others transitioning into a new country, faced heightened stress levels and was in a constant state of fear. She frequently recounted a story with me about an incident that happened to her on her commute while she was pregnant with me. She shared that she was walking home from work when she suddenly felt a hand on her shoulder. An unfamiliar man had grabbed her, however, when she turned to face him he ran away. My mother likes to say that it is because he realized she was pregnant and I was protecting her in some way. I like to think that I was protecting her from the womb somehow. However, this experience only reinforced the chronic fear that she always felt. In fact, my mom was so afraid that something would happen to me that she chose to go to a private hospital for my birth to ensure my safety and her peace of mind.

The findings of this study also provide additional evidence supporting the biological transmission of intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma refers to a secondary type of trauma that is passed down through generations, resulting in a ripple effect in how trauma impacts you and your future generations. Typically, discussions of intergenerational trauma focus on social, environmental, and psychological behaviors. For example, parentification often emerges as a generational cycle of trauma linked to upbringing (i.e. your parents also had to step into adult roles as children themselves) and social resources (i.e. the parents limited English literacy may lead them to lean on their child to translate important documents).

However, with this new research, we are learning that there is a biological component to intergenerational trauma that may impact maturity levels. The biological change of maturing earlier for the eldest daughters of immigrants essentially prepares them to step into a parentified role. In other words, the trauma that your mother experienced may not only impact how she raised you but may also lead to biological changes within you.

This is a lot of information to digest, but I hope you feel like I do, empowered by this knowledge. These personal reflections, alongside the study findings, deepen our understanding of the multifaceted immigrant experience and its intergenerational impacts. But what does this mean for us, la hijas muy independientes, and our comunidades? It helps us better understand how our experiences of stress can lead to biological changes in the next generation. It can encourage us to explore our histories and health in new ways, helping us on our journeys to break intergenerational cycles of trauma. It also emphasizes the importance of supporting mental and emotional health within our communities.

Taking care of ourselves isn’t just about setting a positive example for future generations; it can also have a biological impact on the next generation’s health and resilience. By recognizing these underlying factors, we can foster a more nurturing environment that addresses the psychological and physiological needs of immigrant families. Furthermore, this knowledge empowers us to advocate for ourselves and our loved ones, seeking appropriate care and interventions when needed. Ultimately, understanding these dynamics can pave the way for healing and growth.

Dr. Lisette Sanchez is a bilingual licensed psychologist and founder of Calathea Wellness, a virtual practice providing individual therapy in California. She has a passion for working with BIPOC folxs and first-generation professionals.

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Dr. Lisette Sanchez eldest daughters first gen first gen mental health Latina mental health latinas
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