Article by Aldo Brina published in the Journal of the Centre social protestant (CSP), 27 September, 2018

2018 09 20 ED familleThe experience of migration often causes families to reverse roles, which they are not prepared for. This process needs to be managed.

In the migratory journey of a family, children usually integrate more quickly with their host society than their parents. They go to school immediately, learn the language more easily and understand social norms and administrative procedures faster.

As a result, children will take on roles in the family that are normally not their responsibility: from translating street signs or official letters, acting as interpreters at meetings, accompanying a parent to the doctor, to worrying about the rights of the family and the outcome of the asylum procedure, etc.

This phenomenon of role reversal, also known as "parentification" of children, has been around for a long time in various migratory contexts and is also observed in the CSP's permanent shelters for refugees. It is not just teenagers, it can happen earlier, with children as young as ten years old who, as they support their parents, become the de facto link between the parents and the host society.

A process that creates anxiety

Because the implications of parentification are numerous and not always positive, it is therefore necessary to set a limit. The CSP acts to protect children from issues that are beyond them, for example by requiring the use of an adult interpreter in certain situations.

At the individual level, "parentified" children inevitably take on the burdens of the adult responsibilities they assume. These children get in the habit of dealing with more and more problems. If this process causes too much anxiety, it damages the child. Moreover, by being responsible for the fate of the family, some children neglect their own needs with barely time to draw breath.

Understanding a multicultural society

However, it would be alarmist to see only the negative repercussions of this phenomenon: if children are supported by their family or a network, parentification can produce more mature children, who can then become responsible adults. A scientific study (Weisskirch, 2012) notes that acting as mediators between their parents and their host society is an opportunity for migrant children to practice and understand the linguistic and cultural heritage of their parents, and the differences in values between their two homelands. These are valuable skills for reflecting on their identity, and later, knowingly working in our multicultural society.

Loss of parental authority

Parentification also has important effects at the family level, because it disturbs the balance. In the context described above, parents are forced to rely more on their child. Increased confidence in a child has its good side; on the other hand, if the child becomes accustomed to making more decisions and the parents become confused about the loss of authority they experience, the situation can turn sour and create tension. This phenomenon can exacerbate the situation of parents: being far from their original culture, what they have to convey may seem less relevant. They may then be tempted to roughly exercise authority over matters that are perceived, by their children, as all the more illegitimate because they relate to social codes from their country of origin - the imposition of dress codes, is an example.

However, on arrival in Switzerland, immigrants have so many preoccupations that they don't expect to be confronted with these sorts of issues. The professionals who accompany them, especially psychologists or social workers, can ensure that this process is understood and goes as smoothly as possible. Respect for the best interests of the child, guaranteed in law but often undermined in practice, as well as preserving some form of carefree childhood, are particularly important to protect, for the good of future generations.

Picture: vasse nicolas, antoine / flickr, creative commons

NB: The editorial does not necessarily reflect the opinion of IDE board and team.

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