Addressing Generational Trauma & Parentification in the Latinx Community

Trauma is a term that we hear often, especially in conversations on mental health

Generational trauma parentification

Photo: Unsplash/ Kristina Paukshtite

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.

It describes a response to a distressing experience that transcends a person’s coping ability. The experience of a traumatic event impacts every individual differently. However, the impact of trauma can often be felt beyond the individual who experienced it, this is known as intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma, generational trauma, and transgenerational trauma are terms used to describe a type of secondary trauma. One passed down through generations within a family system. In simpler terms, this refers to trauma you inherit from your parents or primary caregivers. This trauma may manifest itself physically (e.g. trouble sleeping), emotionally (e.g. anxiety), and/or behaviorally (e.g. alcohol abuse).

As a therapist, one of my goals is to support my clients in breaking these generational cycles of trauma. I specialize in working with first-generation professionals and my clients are often children of immigrants. One of the most common cycles that I have observed within my clients is parentification aka when a child is expected to take on the role of an adult. It is often the result of parents who were also parentified as children.

My parents, similar to many immigrants, experienced parentification. My mother was expected to take on adult responsibilities from the moment that she was physically able to. She was treated as an adult because that is just, “how things were.” Most of her memories are of doing laundry “en el rio,” carrying that load of laundry on her head, taking care of her younger siblings, and fulfilling other household responsibilities. My father also had to do what he could to help his family survive. When he was 11 years old he started to sell Canel’s chewing gum and had other odd jobs. He did not finish middle school because he needed to start working  more to help his family.

This pattern continued with expectations that they placed on me as their firstborn. In my case, my parents depended on me to help them navigate U.S. culture and customs and help with caring for my younger brother. For children of Latinx immigrants, this is a shared experience. Their parents/ primary caregivers expected them to fulfill their “role” in the family, just as they did when they were younger. This role is often about what is needed for survival. As a result, these children become cultural brokers. They are tasked with translating and teaching their parents/ primary caregivers the cultural norms and customs of their new home while navigating it for the first time themselves.

One of the challenges with parentification is that the children are also expected to hold the emotional stress that is tied to these experiences. The stress of translating a scary medical diagnosis or the fear of making a mistake on an important government form. At times also being burdened with the emotions of their parents.

I reached out to my father while writing this article and he guiltily recalled how irritable he and my mother would be with me when they were asking me to complete tasks for them. This is one example of the many emotions that parentified children are expected to hold and navigate.

This state of chronic emotional stress has several physical and mental health consequences. Regarding mental health, these experiences may lead to anxiety and depression symptoms, relationship conflicts, and challenges with setting boundaries. Keep in mind that parentification is only one of the cycles that perpetuates these experiences. There are other cycles that further perpetuate the state of chronic emotional stress. For example, the cycle of overworking.

In the cycle of overworking, there is the value of having a strong work ethic that often translates into working yourself to exhaustion with no rest. In fact, individuals who experience this cycle will often feel that they are “lazy” when they do take a moment to rest. Experiences of being woken up early on a weekend to clean and do household chores, and tolerating comments such as, “no seas huevón,” are just a few examples of how individuals begin to internalize that message. That state of panic when you finally had some alone time, and then you realize that one of your parents is about to be home and you had not done any chores. This can create a state of anxiety and panic when you find yourself with free time as an adult.

These are just two examples of common generational cycles that are commonly experienced by my clients. There are so many more to unpack. If you identify with either of these, remember that it is possible to shift previous behaviors you learned from experiencing parentification. It is also possible to stop feeling guilty when you take time to rest. If that is something you would like to do, I recommend you do so with the support of a mental health professional. If that is not something accessible to you, consider journaling to help you gain more insight into the cycles you experienced and reaching out to trusted loved ones for that emotional support. Let’s keep breaking those generational cycles together.

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