***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services
South Asian family dynamics often involve adult children playing supporting roles to assist their parents with various challenges and life struggles.
For many of us, our parents moved from a South Asian country to the Western world in hopes of giving us a better education, more career opportunities, and an improved quality of life.
This major transition may have also led our parents to feel less confident in their new environment in terms of learning new roles and responsibilities, making major decisions, and navigating the constant changes in an evolving society. As we got older, we may have noticed that our parents leaned on us more for emotional and practical support.
This article isn’t intended to criticize South Asian parents – we know that our parents tried their best and we can only imagine the struggles they went through uprooting their life to move to a new country to give us a life filled with more opportunities than they had growing up.
While our parents' sacrifices are never forgotten, attention also needs to be given to our specific experiences: South Asian adult children who grew up in the Western world and felt caught between two very different cultures – the ideology that comes with their South Asian cultural heritage and the values that are rooted in the Western world.
As a child, you may have started to help your parents in some areas, such as with facilitating communication with others outside of the family if they struggled to express themselves in English. This assistance, along with other assumed roles, may have become further solidified in your youth and even more as an adult as your family responsibilities increased.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
Getting praised for behaving well, getting good grades, and fulfilling your parents’ expectations
Managing conflict between your parents or between your parents and other people (e.g. extended family, family friends, etc.) and helping them avoid relationship breakdown
Feeling like you are your parents’ best friend and confidante and main form of social support
If any of these ideas resonate with you, then you may relate to some of the other points listed below. This isn’t a complete list and it also doesn’t reflect the experience of all South Asian adults. But it describes a few common responsibilities that adult children in South Asian culture tend to take on in their relationship with their parents.
Keep reading for more information on key roles — and some tips on how to reflect on your own needs as well.
1. The “Model” Child
You might identify with the “model” child role if:
your parents speak highly of you to their family regarding your achievements
your siblings and cousins (if relevant) are compared to you - your accomplishments are used to set the standard for others
you feel you have to keep performing well to continue receiving your parents’ love and attention
You may feel stuck in this role and worry about the consequences to yourself - and to your parents - for not sustaining this reputation. You may feel the weight of this pressure and it could lead to anxiety, perfectionism, and avoidance regarding learning new things due to a fear a failure. You may also experience shame if you make minor mistakes or have challenges.
While being a “model” child may feel like part of your identity, you don’t have to continue to represent yourself in this way if it no longer serves you. You can let it go and start to develop a new identity – one that reflects your true self: your desires, your goals, and your needs and wants. It may take time to figure out what these are, but you’ll learn along the way. It’s a process and a journey.
2. The Mediator
Do you find that you are often stuck between your parents when they are arguing? Are you being asked to take sides?
Do you feel the need to help your parents communicate with each other and resolve their issues? Do you also help them work through problems with their extended family -- or other people in their social network?
Acting like a mediator is an exhausting and overwhelming role given it typically requires you to negotiate and offer guidance during emotionally-charged situations. You might feel that you can’t win as you are either disappointing one parent or the other – or sometimes both. The weight of this pressure might feel like too much at times.
Learning to untangle yourself from being the referee and holding firm with a neutral viewpoint not only encourages your parents to try to address issues themselves but it also helps you to improve your mental health.
3. The Best Friend
Your parents may lean on you as their main source of social support, particularly if they immigrated to a new country and have a hard time trusting others who are outside of the family unit.
It may be difficult for them to accept that you want quality time with your partner, your friends, or time to focus on your hobbies and interests or personal or professional development.
Figure out what works best for you in terms of balancing your time between family and personal pursuits so that you don’t feel stressed and burned out.
Make time at least once a week for the things in your life that bring you joy and happiness – whatever these things may be - so that you can support your parents and while also feeling fulfilled.
And don’t be afraid to set limits on certain topics. You are their child, not their friend, and you’re also definitely not their therapist - it’s ok to not want to listen to every single concern or issue.
4. The Problem Solver
You may notice that your parents unload their problems onto you with the hope that you will support them through it. They may want you to take charge to help them navigate these issues – or possibly resolve it directly for them.
On the other hand, it may even be a scenario where you see them struggling and offer to help them, but they refuse as they feel they “know best” or they have difficulty seeing you as a capable, knowledgeable, and experienced adult and can’t seem to accept your advice – this implies they still see you as their child.
Feeling a sense of duty as a problem solver for your parents puts a lot of pressure on you when you might already be overwhelmed with your own problems and responsibilities. It’s important to recognize that your role isn’t to do everything for your parents – even if guilt tells you that you “should”.
Rather, try to see your role as guiding them or supporting them so that your parents learn how to handle certain issues themselves. The more that they deal with an issue directly, the greater confidence they will build in their knowledge, skills, and abilities - and the less they will depend on you to solve the problem for them.
If they need help from a professional or resource, you can encourage them to access that level of support without necessarily fulfilling that role yourself. Figure out what you are comfortable – and not comfortable – doing and then uphold that limit so that you protect your time and energy.
5. The Caregiver
As your parents age, they may naturally develop health issues. You may feel an internal urge to become a caregiver for them. Or, you may be directly asked by your parents to help them in various ways – with personal care, finances, grocery shopping, cooking, household tasks, companionship, and other types of commitments.
You may even start to wonder if you should move your parents into your home or if you should move closer to where they live so that you can monitor their health and/or provide support more easily.
Some of these ways of supporting your parents may be aligned with your values and skills and feel reasonable based on your unique relationship dynamics – and some may not. It’s ok to say “yes” to those tasks and responsibilities that you feel equipped to assist with and ask other family members to help with other areas. You can also explore professional and community resources for those tasks that feel beyond you.
External resources may require a financial commitment and you may need to discuss this with your parents to see what is feasible in terms of what they can afford and if you can contribute financially yourself depending on your own budget.
The reality is that you will be more effective as a caregiver if you focus on helping with a few key areas rather than trying to take everything on. Delegate when possible and access professional services if needed for additional guidance and support.
The intent of this article was to shed a spotlight on some of the common roles that South Asian adult children hold in their family unit.
Some of these roles may have been assigned to you by your parents – with or without your full approval. Or, you may have felt internal pressure to assume these roles based on the dynamic that exists between you and your parents.
It can be hard to let go of these responsibilities — especially if guilt is an emotion that has been ingrained into you regarding the importance of self-sacrifice and doing for others rather than for yourself. This may make it harder for you to revisit these responsibilities later on when they start to feel overwhelming. But rethinking your plan is not an impossible feat. You can still decide now which roles feel comfortable to you and which to let go of. You don’t have to or need to do it all.
You can still love and support your parents while ensuring your behaviours and actions are within your own personal limits. Figuring out what is important to you in your life and having healthy boundaries can help you build your self-awareness, which will enable you to make informed decisions regarding your relationship with your parents.
If you are struggling with family issues, please know that you’re not alone. Don’t be afraid to seek mental health support as you try to decide how much of yourself that you can realistically give to your family – and what you need to preserve for yourself so that you can maintain your own well-being. Asking for help is a sign of strength – not a weakness.
Wishing you well on your mental health journey.
Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT
Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist
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