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Writing by Leonie Akhidenor // Illustration by Danzhu Hu

Parentification is a term often heard but seldom understood. A complex phenomenon that for the most part is unconscious and not intended to cause harm. It is deeply rooted in familial dynamics and is known to be very common within immigrant families.

Not only were my parents immigrants, but they were also biracial, which comes with its own set of complexities. As the eldest daughter of a Greek mother and Nigerian father who came to Australia with little money, friends and family, I found myself taking on the role of caregiver, mediator and emotional anchor for our family – a narrative all too familiar to many second generation immigrant children.

The manifestations of parentification are multifaceted, woven intricately into the fabric of your everyday life as a child. Emotional labor becomes a burden carried disproportionately by the child, as you navigate conflicts and tensions within the familial unit. It was very important to me to be a ‘good’ child and help the family run smoothly which sometimes meant that caretaking responsibilities overshadowed  typical childhood pursuits. Simultaneously, the weight of responsibility bore down heavily on my young shoulders, blurring the lines between childhood and premature adulthood.

From the age of 5, I was hyper aware of my parent’s emotions and I felt responsible for how they felt. I was there to look after my two siblings and help make my parents’ lives run more smoothly as they built up their own property development company. So I became the hyper vigilant parent number 3. I also took it upon myself to excel, to ‘be perfect’ in a bid to do everything in my power to make my parents happy. To ease their pressure. I became a people pleaser. Because I looked different to everyone I knew, growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, my ‘pleasing’ nature  extended to friendships. If I made everyone around me happy, then maybe I could be happy too. At home, when an argument would erupt, not only would I scold myself for not having prevented it, but I would be the mediator and peacemaker.

Transitioning into adulthood, the echoes of parentification reverberate through my interpersonal relationships and self-perception. The tendencies towards people-pleasing and codependency, once survival mechanisms, now pose obstacles to my  personal growth and fulfillment. Boundaries blur, and toxic patterns persist as remnants of childhood dynamics continue to shape adult realities.

When we have our own children, we aren’t given a manual to tell us how to parent and so we often rely on inherited notions passed down through generations. The silence surrounding healthy familial discourse inadvertently perpetuates cycles of dysfunction, allowing parentification to seep through generational crevices unchecked. For me and countless others, the absence of open dialogue can leave you grappling with roles meant for adults at tender ages, shaping your identity and interpersonal relationships in profound ways.

Today as a certified relationship coach and host of my own parenting podcast, I  have often been challenged to confront my own layers of unresolved emotions. Getting to share our parenting experiences have been a blame for my soul, a beacon of resilience and self-discovery that has  illuminated the transformative power of self-awareness and compassion. Through other parents sharing their stories I have learnt that I get to set the boundaries for my own wellbeing and I am now an independent woman who can choose to parent my children how I chose to be the parent they need me to be.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some wonderful things to come out of learning to be responsible long before you need to be.  I am an absolute asset to any organisation or project I tie myself to, not to mention how important I am to the general running order of my family!  In the tapestry of human experience, parentification serves as a poignant reminder of the resilience inherent within us all. Through introspection, self-reflection and the resources and language to share our struggles with others gives us the power to transcend the confines of our upbringing and rewrite the narrative of our lives.

I am often reminded that the journey towards healing is not linear, but it is transformative—a testament to the indomitable spirit of the human soul. (insert a note about parents bravery and thanking them for the gifts they gave you of education etc)

In the bold silence of generations past, people didn’t have the tools needed to have the necessary and healthy conversations needed to build a healthy foundation for their children. This lack of dialogue and communication was the conduit that allows generational curses, such as parentification, to flow from generation to another.

Danzhu Hu

Danzhu Hu is a New York-based illustrator from China. She loves exploring the infinite possibilities of visual storytelling by experimenting with different media. For her, it’s all about playfulness. Find more of her work on Instagram

Leonie Akhidenor

Leonie Akhidenor is a certified relationship coach, model, and host of  the Parenthood Pod. She is also the mother to two boys and works in property development and business consulting.

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