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Dysfunctional Asian Family Dynamics

As a therapist, I see a lot of my Asian-American who have negative feelings about growing up in an Asian household and don’t have permission to talk about it. Sometimes it’s because they don’t want to dishonor their parents–and I can understand that. Respecting our elders and our parents– listening to them and obeying them–is a part of our culture that I really am proud of. However, there are instances where this cultural value can be taken too far. For example, maybe you are feeling something that your parents did was unfair, and you’re not allowed to express that. You’re keeping that inside, you’re questioning it, you’re confused, and you’re just overall stuck.

This article is not intended to bash Asian parents. I don’t want to bash any parents because as a parent myself I know that we’re all trying to do our best. But I do want you to feel validated for what you went through. And then maybe share some of your feelings with a trusted friend, a asian therapist, maybe a pastor at your church, and find some healing.

Also, this is not meant to be a sweeping generalization; that all Asian families are like this. All families are different. There are definitely some patterns I see, but I don’t want anyone to think that all Asian families are the same. A lot of Asian families hold the values of filial piety and respecting elders in a very healthy way that serves the people in the family. So this is also not a bash on the values themselves. This is more about those who take the values and use it in a way that is not serving the well being of the family.

So let’s dive in. Here are some ways that I see family dysfunction manifested in Asian households:

Parental identity in children, coddling and lack of boundaries

Asian culture emphasizes family, selflessness and sacrifice for others. One often hears about people leaving their jobs in China as doctors or professors to come to the US for their kids to have a better life. Asian parents are admirable for their selflessness and sacrifice for their family. However, things feel burdensome for children when parents find all of their identity in their children. This can look like putting all of their hopes and dreams on their children. The parent may have a “vision” for what their child will do in life, who they will marry, how their kids will be. And if the adult child veers away from that vision, this causes anger and rage for the adult parent who put all of their identity in their children.

asian therapist

On the opposite end, parents can often coddle their children, which is another form of not being able to let go of being a caretaker. So what can happen is they end up doing things for kids that they don’t need. I understand needing to do things for kids when they’re younger but I often see parents struggling to relinquish their care of their child past when they need it. The kids may be in their 20s and 30s and parents are doing their laundry and cleaning their rooms. And also telling these adult children how to live their lives. I understand many of these adult children are struggling with adulthood, so I understand the frustration by parents. However, the solution that many take is to go into their room and clean their room and read their journals and invade privacy. The parents have a hard time setting boundaries and letting their adult children learn the consequences of their own actions.

Another way that Asian families often don’t have good boundaries is when they coerce the children to stay at home when the children want to go out and be independent. I’m not judging people that stay at home as this is very normal in Asian families. However, sometimes the adult child really wants to leave–maybe they want to find work in another state or another country or maybe they want to just live their lives and be on their own. Sometimes the parents will look down on that and say, “you’re wasting money.” At the end of the day, sometimes parents just want their kids to be close, which is not a bad thing, but I think there’s a way that the adult children get stunted in their growth when they are not allowed to leave the nest. Many times in these dysfunctional families, adult children are not encouraged to be independent. Maybe they feel so comfortable because their parents do everything for them, and they just end up being at home and develop the Failure to Launch syndrome. They don’t go out, they don’t have any motivation to do anything because everything is provided for them at home.

Parental Control Over Choices

The other thing I see is Asian parents not letting adult children make their own choices. They might not be happy about their adult child’s choice of spouse, religion, or job, and there’s control they have on their children. I once knew somebody whose father said they had to go into Healthcare or else the adult child would be disowned. I knew many more whose parents did similar things.

A lot of these Asian parents also had to obey their parents or get disowned, so I understand that it’s a generational issue. The value behind it is that parents know what is best, they have more wisdom and experience, and the parent only wants the very best for the child. And the child is to respect that. However, it does clash with American culture which values freedom, independence and choice.

I’ve seen people get disowned because they didn’t choose a spouse with a certain job, status or education. I understand as a parent, it’s very very anxiety-provoking, and rightly so. However, the boundary crossing happens when parents manipulate or guiltrip children into doing what the parent wants vs. letting them live and make their own choices. (Caveat: if your adult child is doing something dangerous–abusing drugs, dating someone who’s already married, or joining a gang, for example, I think that parental involvement is warranted, and necessary. I’m talking more about choices that have to do with preferences, status, and anxiety.)

The other way that parents exert control is by giving unsolicited advice. Telling kids what they should do, especially when raising kids– giving them unsolicited advice when the adult children are clearly saying, “we don’t need that advice; we already know what we want to do; we’ve already talked to our doctor,” etc. Asian parents may have heard that from their parents and they had to just receive it and say “okay.” They may have even received the advice as something that is loving or helpful. However, for people growing up in the US, this kind of advice often feels judgmental; like the parents don’t trust you. So I think there’s a difference between giving a suggestion, making a judgment, or giving advice when it’s not warranted, especially if it’s not a safety issue or something that’s going to really hurt you or the child.

Making The Child A Surrogate Spouse

Making a child a surrogate spouse is subtle. It doesn’t have romantic undertones but there is an emotional component that makes the child feel drawn into the life of the parent and therefore responsible for the parent. This is also a boundaries issue. And I see it happening in many of my adult clients who have been parentified children or surrogate spouses.

An example of this is where a parent is not close to their spouse and so they turn to their kids to be their listening ear. The one that they can count on, the one that they complain to about their spouse. This boundary crossing is not appropriate for a child because that is not something that can handle. A child is learning to develop their own sense of self but if their sense of self is wrapped around keeping mommy or daddy happy, it will stunt their emotional growth. In addition, it’s a lot of power and it puts a lot of pressure on the child to take sides and it pits the other parent against the child. It’s very confusing and it can be very damaging.

As a child, oftentimes you don’t know what’s going on; you might just think, “oh Mom or Dad is just sharing with me, and I can make them feel better,” but it’s actually a crossing of boundaries because your mom or your dad should be talking to each other. They shouldn’t be talking to you. They shouldn’t be looking to you for advice– that is too much pressure to put on a child.

Unaddressed Anxiety

The next thing I want to talk about is the unaddressed anxiety that Asian parents put on you as a child. So Asian culture does not prioritize feelings and to be self-aware. We’re often times told that “feelings are just selfish” or we should “just stop thinking about it.” Which I think in some cases, distracting oneself from ruminating throughs is a very good and healthy thing but I think in some cases, distracting from feelings can also be detrimental. What happens is a lot of Asian parents have anxiety about their kids. A lot of times they’ve come from a different country– immigrated here, started as a dishwasher, very poor. Other times they come from countries where if you don’t get into a good school it’s the difference between becoming a professor or being homeless; like you only have one shot. So a lot of those anxieties– a lot of that baggage–gets brought here and put on the child. A lot of this looks like school pressure: if you don’t get like all A’s, if you don’t get perfect SAT scores– a lot of that gets put on the child and the child feels this immense pressure to perform. I I talked a little bit too about finding the right spouse. A lot of that is anxiety that the parent holds for their children.

Anxiety

Parents also feel anxious about money. So spending money, being frugal, like being able to buy a house– those are things that they feel anxious about. And rightly so! However, that anxiety can sometimes go to the extreme– they might put a pressure on you like, “why are you buying that, why don’t you let me just cook for you, don’t go out to eat.” It stems from that extreme scarcity mindset. I’m not opposed to being frugal. I think it’s a very good value to have. But when it’s an extreme scarcity mindset where it doesn’t allow you to go out to eat once in a while, or you feel stressed out because you took a 10 minute shower vs a 3 minute shower, it’s just adding extra stress. And that’s where I think it goes into the dysfunctional sphere

The anxiety that parents have for their children comes from a place of love and care so I admire the deep and intense love that parents have for their children and the desire for them to have happy, healthy lives. However, the anxiety that some parents carry are too heavy for the child to bear. Sometimes the anxiety is unwarranted, and sometimes the anxiety is so much that it turns into control and manipulation. Parents with anxiety need to 1. Be aware that what they are feeling is anxiety and 2. Find healthy ways to deal with it and 3. Find healthy ways to communicate your concerns with adult children so it strengthens the relationship vs breaks it.

Lack of Emotional Awareness

The next thing that I think that happens a lot in Asian families is not being aware of and encouraging the expression of their emotions or feelings. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing all the time– I think sometimes we just need to get over ourselves and we just need to do something– do the right thing without asking ourselves what we feel. However, I think there’s a way in which when we can’t acknowledge how we’re feeling, it really does impede our growth. When I work with Asian families, the older generation is so used to stuffing their feelings, they often don’t even know what they’re feeling and they may do things because they’re feeling a certain way but they can’t access what that is. They will maybe give explanations of what happened (without feelings), or they will be in denial about how they feel. They can’t really get to an “honest” place. I put “honest” in quotes because dishonest oftentimes implies deception. I don’t think they are purposely trying to deceive. I just don’t think they know how to get there.

Guilt-Tripping and Shaming

I personally feel that the guilt tripping and shaming stems from a good place– the value of honor and obedience to parents. In filial piety, there’s a very heavy emphasis on obligation (vs feelings). A lot of times, the guilt tripping will come out of place of, “I know you don’t want to do that but you should because I’ve done all this for you,” or “I’ve left my home country and everything that’s comfortable for me so that you can have a better education.”

A lot of times parents will use that as a way to, for example, force kids to spend time with them, love them, or listen to them. I don’t think parents mean to be forceful–don’t think they know any other way to do it. This sense of obligation is very strong, this value system is ingrained. They don’t understand the reciprocal nature of relationships– earning respect and building a loving relationship; loving a person because love has been fostered and maintained over time. It’s a very different way of thinking about things because of the way that they were raised but I think that’s hard when you’re of a different mindset and you hear, “you should come and visit me or you should love me because I’m your mom or I’m your dad (no matter what I’ve done to you or no matter how you feel about me).” I think in some sense this is noble–honoring our parents even when one doesn’t have a relationship with them is an admirable thing, but the guilt and shame and obligation can feel taxing on a person. In a healthy family where there are genuine bonds and a sense of trust and love, this can be a good thing.

Knowing that there are healthy expectations and feeling a sense of obligation to honor your parents that you love and trust can be a good structure to maintain relationships on. It’s when the relationship has not been fostered or maintained, or there has been continual abuse or hurt, coupled with guilt and obligation where this can be detrimental.

Over Concern With Saving Face

I see this day in and day out as a therapist. May adult children of Asian parents keep the fact that they are going to therapy a secret. Their parents would be horrified. They may hear, “don’t go to a therapist, don’t share problems with anyone outside of our family because we don’t want to look bad,” or “don’t share anything with anyone else” period. Another one is “you need to go to this certain school, have this certain job, marry this certain person because it will look bad if you don’t.” This can strip people of their own sense of self—they might doubt what they feel is best for them because they always feel like they have to worry about what other people are thinking of them. So they’re not living a truly authentic life.

I think being mindful of what you share with other people and being mindful of the consequences of the choices that you make are good. However, if all it is is about worrying about what other people want I think that’s where people can feel stifled and inauthentic.

Excessive Value on Performance

Asian families can be highly performance driven. Now, there is nothing wrong with being a high achiever and studies show that parents who have high expectations of children actually have better mental health and are just overall more successful. However, studies also show that the high expectations need to be coupled with high warmth. And where I see some Asian families go awry is when Asian parents are not in tune with their children’s innate limits, gifts and weaknesses, and expect a certain standard based on the parents’ own standard and not their children’s capabilities. I also see the pressure to perform coupled with low warmth, or warmth only when performance is up to their standards.

I’ve heard some people say, “the only time that my parents would ever say anything nice to me is if I brought home straight A’s,” or “the only time that I was praised was when I won an award in piano.” I knew somebody who who had finally like achieved like she got her PhD she was like doing so well in life like she was basically perfect and it took that for her I think she was in her 30s for for her father finally say I’m proud of you and I remember her telling me that she broke down at the dinner table weeping because she had never heard her dad say anything like that to her in her life even though she was like a really great kid. She was stellar and everything that she did she had to be like the perfect person. For her to hear that came with mixed feelings. It was beautiful but also sad at the same time. I think that can take a toll on a person’s self-esteem because you feel like you always have to perform; you feel like you can’t make mistakes, you feel like who you are as a person is not good enough. I’m not saying that children should be enabled to be lazy and not work hard, but I I think that if all a person’s worth is in their performance and that’s all that they were praised for I think that can be detrimental.

Overemphasis on Conformity

There’s this box that Asian children get put in as a “good Asian kid;” you play piano, you speak Chinese, get straight A’s, you always listen to your parents, and there’s no room to form your own identity. A lot of your affirmation is based on fitting into a box. I think also that comes from the culture–sometimes I watch these videos of people in China and they have these like rows and rows of people like doing exercise all together, all in sync, and a lot of that is the value for conformity and being uniform. There is power in unity, so I understand that. However, when the value is unity over everything, this is where creativity gets stifled, individual identities and a sense of self and choice gets stifled.

I think a lot of times Asian families have a one-track mind of how things should look. There’s a right and a wrong; there’s not a lot of room for things that are different; for critical thinking and ways to be creative to solve problems. That can oftentimes hurt a child that maybe doesn’t fit the mold.

Authoritarian (Harsh) Parenting

Authoritarian parenting is very harsh, with a lot of rules, and low warmth. I often see verbal and physical abuse. You hear things like, “I’m the boss and what I say goes.” There’s a lack of love, affirmation and praise. There’s a lot of criticism. There could be name-calling like “stupid, dumb,” those things can cause a lot of damage. So if any of these resonate with you use this as a time to really process your feelings to talk to somebody that’s supportive. That can really help you open some of this stuff up and get some healing. You may not be able to talk to your parents–for a lot of Asian parents it’s hard for them to admit their faults and I think this comes from their parents–they were taught to just obey and not question and so they oftentimes expect the same thing. If you tell them they’ve hurt you, oftentimes they will come up with a justification or tell you that you’re the problem–too sensitive, weak, etc.

What To Do Next

A lot of well-meaning therapists who don’t understand Asian culture will often tell their clients to “just have an open conversation with your parents.” While this is great advice in general, a lot of the time, for Asian families, this is unrealistic. It can be hard and sometimes not worth it to talk to Asian parents because if you open up to them from a vulnerable place and they don’t receive it well, dismiss or rationalize, it can cause more hurt and pain. However, if you’re one of the lucky ones, and I have seen some Asian parents who really do listen– I would say maybe this would be helpful for you to share with them. I have seen a handful of families in therapy with the older generation and the younger generation coming together to talk and work out issues. This is huge considering the stigma associated with therapy in the community.

Conclusion

I often will ask my clients, “how do you think your parents will respond if you tell them everything you just told me?” You know them the best, as you lived with them for many years. If the answer is favorable, this is a great time to open the conversation with your parents. However, if the answer is not favorable, you can still find your own healing. Find safe people to process with, whether it’s friends, a religious leader, or a therapist. And learn more by reading, listening to podcasts or watching youtube videos on the subject. You can find the healing that you need.

Lia Huynh San Jose and Milpitas

About

My life’s work is helping individuals and couples get better. I help couples restore their sense of togetherness by rediscovering their strengths as individuals, and their collective strength as a duo. And I help my individual clients to negotiate the sources of depression and anxiety, while moving them gently toward feeling a deeper sense of connection with their world. This is all done through our counseling and therapy together. 

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