Child Family Translators: The Burdens and Benefits

Child Family Translators: The Burdens and Benefits

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How you can help children make the most of this common role

For a recently arrived immigrant family, the acquisition of language is paramount. For families who are led by Solo Moms, gaining access to opportunities to study English as a second language (ESL) may be especially difficult, as they often face additional logistical barriers and burdens. As such, the children of immigrants often are affected by their special role as translator for their family. For the children of Solo Moms, these considerations are especially critical to consider, and the purpose of this article is to identify these issues and how to turn them from burdens into gifts.

Children tend to learn second languages far faster than grown-ups. Given the neuroplasticity of their developing brains, they make linguistic progress more efficiently and more fluently. In addition, they are more likely than their parents to be enrolled in school full time, who must work and manage a household. For a Solo Mom, considerations of earning money and responding to day-to-day pressures may take necessary precedence over establishing fluency (or even proficiency) in English. The immigrant Solo Mom is often living moment to moment as she acclimates to all that is new while trying to do right by her children.

These factors create a potent brew for the children of immigrant Solo Moms. These children can be inadvertently “parentified” in a role as family translator. They often are put into situations where the substantive content to which they are exposed may be age-inappropriate. For example, they may be asked to translate medical information for a parent. If the medical issue is of concern, the child of a Solo Mom may experience even greater anxiety about the medical information because of the unique importance of the relationship between a Solo Mom and her child. The child may be called on to translate in academic situations—and may be overly involved in discussions between parent and teacher concerning the child or a sibling.

This dynamic can and does create a blurring of lines and roles between parent and child. For a Solo Mom, the challenging dynamics of these situations are further amplified by her understandable wish to present to her child that she is fully in charge. Such blurring of lines can be challenging for both parties.

Solo Moms need help but often don’t know where to turn. Children of Solo Moms understand their important role as such—they can sometimes take on too much responsibility within a family unit too early. As time goes by, and the Solo Mom in question does begin to speak English with more confidence, it can be hard for the roles of parent and child to easily realign.

Learning to find the gifts and benefits of a less-than-ideal situation will serve family dynamics in the long term. Children of Solo Moms who serve as an important link between cultures and generations may offer unique insights into both of these things. In the long run, these mechanisms may be adaptive in a positive way as children discover transferable skill sets including multitasking, navigating different worlds, and stepping up to responsibility.

There are, however, maladaptive coping mechanisms that may also emerge as children are asserting their roles. They may become anxious or feel inadequate to deal with grown-up problems (because they are children).

Additional challenges may present themselves when a Solo Mom has established a level of comfort with the language and tries to return to the more traditional role of parent. The child may resist and look for other places to establish roles of leadership, such as in gangs, which can target children with precisely this skill set, stressing leadership.

If you are a Solo Mom who needs language support, realize that the seemingly impossible choices you might face can be overcome.

1. Recognize the added burden of language for your child. Be aware of this as a factor in your family dynamics. Do the best you can to play up the positive aspects of your child’s unique gifts.

2. Be selective about the situations your child is called on to translate, and drive the narrative. If you are at the supermarket and looking for an item, positivity about your child being helpful is appropriate. Your actions may suggest that learning things is hard but necessary. They can learn that forward motion is possible and need not be as scary as it might appear (even when it is).

3. Try to protect your child from too much information. If you are meeting with a doctor, see whether you can find an alternative option other than using your child to translate. If a teacher wants to meet about your child’s academic progress, see whether the school is able to provide a translator. Ask around—immigrant communities are often willing and able to help.

4. Be mindful of the long-term effects of a translating child. The intense relationship a Solo Mom shares with her children is magnified by the blurring of roles in language acquisition. As Solo Moms become more comfortable in a new culture, the children may not so easily relinquish the benefits that come with their familial roles and responsibilities. Find the positive, and provide productive outlets.

5. Seek opportunities to study English as a second language. Some online opportunities exist, such as 5 Minute English and computers at public libraries that can be used for free. If you live in an area near a college or a university, see whether any clinics are available—many of these, such as Columbia University’s ESL program in New York City, are free of charge to qualified applicants. Take a look at websites run by reputable sources such as for classes near you.

Tara Shafer is the cofounder of Reconceiving Loss, an online resource center for families coping with pregnancy and infant loss. She is a contributing blogger to the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and BabyCenter. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. You can follow her on Twitter at @reconceivinglos.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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