How to Begin Healing Your Inner Niña as a Parentified Latina

Patricia Alvarado is a psychotherapist and owner and director of the group practice, Alvarado Therapy & co-founder of Latinx Healthy Minds providing mental health programs for Latinx professionals

Inner child parentified Latina

Photo: Unsplash/ Julio Lopez

Healing comes in many ways. Healing can occur even when we did not know that we needed healing. Oftentimes that healing comes at inconvenient times or just at the right time. Healing is unique. Healing is challenging. Healing is necessary. Growing up as a Latina, you may have found yourself having a unique set of responsibilities that other family or friends did not have. You may have noticed that expectations were different for you or simply that you had more responsibilities than your male counterparts. As a child, you may have found yourself caring for younger children, preparing meals, or simply taking on adult responsibilities. At the time, this might have felt very normal however looking back, you may now begin to question if you were a parentified child.

Parentification occurs when a child begins to take on adult responsibilities. This is a common occurrence within the Latinx community, specifically among Latinas and especially eldest Latina daughters, because we are often expected to become caregivers at a very young age. While this can speak to the resilience that we have, parentification can bring up feelings of grief and loss as we begin observing the missed opportunities within our childhood because we were too busy being adults. 

Before healing can take place, it’s important to understand why parentification is most notably seen amongst Latinas. As I reflect on this, I think about my own experiences as a parentified child and the responsibilities that were instilled in me since at early age, I acted as a caregiver to my younger siblings. It’s important to note that I am the oldest daughter (not the eldest though), and because I am female, my mother gave me the same set of responsibilities that were instilled in her. Girls/women are caregivers. This message comes from generation upon generation of women being the caregivers, and I was no exception. 

As an adult, I have found myself in spaces where I have had opportunities to hear stories of other parentified children, of other parentified Latinas. I have heard how many have felt indebted to their elders because of the messages they began hearing at a young age. Due to this, Latinas began sacrificing their own emotional development to take care of family problems. Many have acted as translators or mediators instead of creating space for play, creativity, and exploration. What is interesting about this is that for the most part, many young children do not have the emotional capacity to identify what is going on in the moment. Yet we had to adjust and normalize this way of life, which included less time for play and a lot of responsibility. 

While I have only discussed some examples of what parentified Latinas have faced, it’s important to note that parentification comes in many different forms. It can be present through financial responsibilities, caring for the household chores, the family cook, the need to excel academically, handling legal matters, or being an emotional support — to name a few. This may have caused you to deviate from a “normal childhood” and instead you had to sacrifice your own needs for the sake of the family. You may have experienced depression or anxiety but were unable to understand these feelings because there was no space for you to do so.  There might have been a lingering feeling that you can never do things right because the burden has always felt so huge and chances are, you were not allowed to ask questions. 

As we begin to understand the huge emotional impact that Latinas have faced as a result of parentification, it’s equally important to explore ways to begin healing that inner child so that this same inner child can be a fulfilled adult. To start this healing journey, I encourage you to keep these things in mind:

  1. Self-Compassion: Practice self-compassion by being kind to yourself. Speak to yourself as though you were speaking to a friend and remember that you are not responsible for others’ happiness at the expense of your own.
  2. Setting Boundaries: Learn to establish healthy boundaries in your relationships as this might not have been something you were taught in your upbringing. It’s important to have a balance between caring for others and caring for yourself. You are equally important in any relationship you find yourself in.
  3. Self-Awareness: Start by noticing and naming how parentification has created an impact on your life. Look back to your childhood and notice what you wish you had and what you needed. Notice the emotions that come up and allow yourself to feel.
  4. Therapy Services: Seek therapy from a mental health professional to help you explore  these emotions in a safe and supportive environment. There are many therapists that specialize in inner child work and parentification/reparenting yourself. This is often found within their specialties or it’s a question you can ask during a consultation call. A competent and skilled mental health professional focusing on parentification can help you navigate the complexities of your experiences and guide your healing journey.
  5. Begin Reconnecting with Your Inner Child: Allow yourself to be silly and play. Participate in games or hobbies that speak to your inner child. You’ll know it feels right when you feel warmth and genuine joy within you.
  6. Break Cycles: If you see parentification currently occurring within your own family dynamic, name it and educate those around you. Discuss the emotional impact that can occur if the cycle of parentification continues. Be patient during these conversations. It can be difficult for others to notice that it is occurring and it may feel like a very common family norm when it can really cause a great amount of trauma and distress. 

As you begin to nurture your inner child, remember that healing takes time. Allow yourself to be present with yourself as you notice what you need to feel happy and fulfilled. Notice the small wins and give yourself a big hug every step of the way. 

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