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Asian American Mental Health: Let’s Talk About Immigrant Experiences and Complicated Relationships

Many Asian Americans are either children (or grandchildren) of immigrants or are immigrants themselves. We believe it is necessary to discuss the immigrant experience as we support these communities. Children of immigrants must reckon with the complicated concepts of sacrifice, guilt, and gratitude even from a young age. All of these concepts can have a significant impact on their mental health as a child and as an adult.

Sacrifice and Responsibility

Children of immigrants grew up hearing stories of their parents’ homeland, of the danger and conflict they escaped, and of the sacrifices they made to immigrate to their country of residence without any resources. Many parents use these stories as a way to motivate their children – they sacrificed so that their children could experience safety and stability, with the opportunity of a better life. In turn, these expectations place a significant amount of responsibility on their children, and many of these children end up feeling guilty for not living up to expectations, or for living in relative ‘comfort’ while being unable to change their parents’ circumstances.

At the same time, children in Asian American families find themselves wrestling with the knowledge and appreciation of how hard their parents have worked for them, and the realization that they are unable to be themselves around their family. They may feel uncomfortable expressing their struggles to their parents because their troubles cannot compare to their parents’ history.

Additionally, many children find themselves struggling to balance their parents having high expectations of success for them while facing constant criticism and comparison. Many parents encourage and motivate their children to reach for the stability and financial security that they were unable to attain. In an attempt to motivate their children, family members may offer criticism about their grades, their athletic/musical ability, or their bodies. These children also often face unwanted comparison with relatives or family friends.

Guilt and Gratitude

Children of immigrants are expected to be grateful and appreciative of their parents’ sacrifice. For example, since many parents wanted their children to be able to focus only on school and extracurricular activities, they often worked long hours or were unable to have time or comforts to themselves. While many do feel gratitude for their parents’ sacrifice, they also find themselves feeling guilty for the privilege of pursuing higher education. As a result, this gratitude often looks like responsibility and obligation to do what their parents ask of them, and to give up their own wants and desires for those of the family. This means they are expected to make their own sacrifices – of time for play, for friends, or for hobbies – in order to make their parents’ dreams for them a reality. If they do not follow the path to their parents’ goals, they are considered ungrateful for their parents’ sacrifice, even though they may have already sacrificed their own wishes.

Becoming an Adult

Many children of immigrants had to reckon with being seen as a ‘little adult’ as a child and as a ‘forever child’ as an adult. Many parents expect their children to care for themselves and their siblings, as well as their own physical and emotional needs. Since many of these parents had the same responsibilities as children, they believe it should not be an issue. However, due to unhealed intergenerational trauma, many children also find themselves caring for their parents’ emotional needs. In other words, they ‘parent’ their own parents’ emotional wellbeing without having a parent to care for theirs.

As children of immigrants become adults, they often find that they are expected to continue obeying their parents. For example, they may be expected to honor their parents’ wishes by agreeing to demands of marriage and grandchildren, or by providing financial assistance for their parents. They may become disheartened or even resentful that they were expected to make reciprocal sacrifices to honor their parents’. While many adult children of immigrants find themselves striving for autonomy for their own lives, they find that it can be difficult to decline their parents’ demands or set boundaries with their families, without feeling ungrateful.

Addressing These Complicated Relationships

As a child of immigrants, it can feel impossible to change the family dynamics that you experienced your whole life. However, we want to remind you that you are allowed to acknowledge and appreciate your parents’ sacrifice without sacrificing your own agency, health, and life. We recommend several strategies: recognize your own needs, value yourself and your time, set firm, kind boundaries, work on communication, give yourself realistic expectations, practice assertiveness, and engage in self-care.

In summary, our take-away message is this:

Gratitude does not equal debt.

Written by: Angela Nguyen, MSW

Relevant Resources

Yellow Chair Collective: The Podcast | 3 Dead-Easy Tips to Setting Boundaries for 2nd Gen Asian-Americans with Allison Ly, LCSW (Pt. 1)

Yellow Chair Collective: The Podcast | 3 Dead-Easy Tips to Setting Boundaries for 2nd Gen Asian-Americans with Allison Ly, LCSW (Pt. 2)

Yellow Chair Collective: The Podcast | Sibling Roles in Asian Families