Common Experiences Among Asian Families
Many Asian cultures are collectivistic and center the needs and goals of the family over the desires of the individual. This tends to result in specific standards and expectations for the various members of the family. In the case of siblings, these standards can be very different. In our podcast episode, our panel of Asian therapists discusses familial and cultural expectations of sibling roles. We also discuss its impacts on mental health.
Our Asian American therapists shared that sibling position, or birth order can lead to significantly different experiences. For younger siblings, they may find themselves having less of a voice in the family. Older siblings may find themselves responsible for their younger siblings and also for their entire family.
As the oldest son in his family, Jeff Yeom, MA (he/him), talks about the weight of responsibility from a young age.
“I’m the eldest boy of my family. When my dad passed away, there were a lot of responsibilities that were put on me. That made me feel not only really frustrated because I couldn’t live my life as a free child, but also a lot of guilt and shame when I couldn’t follow expectations. I felt like I grew up at a very young age.”
Connie Yang, MA (she/they), the youngest child in her family, shares that she did not have the same responsibility or weight that their older sister had to carry. She found that she was expected to keep her head down and observe how others were acting.
“I felt a little bit invisible,” Yang expresses. “It wasn’t necessarily in a bad way. It was more ‘don’t worry about it.’ But as I got older, I realized the heaviness that my older sister had to carry. I thought ‘oh, thank god, I would hate to be the older sibling.’ That sounds selfish, but I think there’s truth to it.”
The Impacts of Sibling Roles
Sibling position doesn’t only impact each child’s role in the family. It also each sibling’s dynamic with another. As many Asian American children are immigrants or children of immigrants, they are often learning about American society alongside their parents. This can mean many things. It means interpreting at appointments and translating important documents. It means handling their own schooling applications and more. The bulk of the learning and assistance often falls on the elder sibling. In turn, the elder sibling often acts as another parent to their younger sibling.
Yeom shares that growing up, he often had to write his own sick notes for school and have his mother sign them. As he became more and more accustomed to the bureaucracy of the American government, he found himself trying to teach these things to his younger sister. “I felt like I had to be the parent, and I put a lot of pressure on my sister to do things right,” Yeom explains.
Jack Lam, MSW (they/them), as the youngest child, expresses the simultaneous frustration of not being trusted to do anything, and the relief of having someone to help guide you.
“When I first immigrated here, as an international student at 18, my eldest sister had been here for 8 years,” Lam shares. “I remember her being so frantic about having documents ready. Now looking back, I know how much labor and anxiety she probably went through because she felt completely responsible for me.”
Shifting Sibling Dynamics
As children grow older and parents age, sibling roles and family dynamics can begin to shift. Many Asian American families hold the expectation that children will care for their parents. In many Asian cultures, it is a common norm for children to financially support their aging parents, or to have their parents live with them in a multigenerational household. The responsibility of caring for parents often falls on the older sibling, but the younger sibling can share the responsibility too. Tammy Kealey, Ph.D., shares how responsibilities have shifted for her and her older sister.
“I think my older sister always bore the responsibility. As I’m getting older, there are more expectations to help my parents, but it’s not the weight that an older sibling would have. I think, culturally, we would invite aging parents to our home. But even my husband was like, isn’t that something the older sister would take on?”
Yang shares that she too began taking on additional responsibilities for her parents as they grew older. When they began to feel overwhelmed, they found themselves needing support from their older sister. “When my sister was back in charge and calling the shots, I was able to go back into my default position,” Yang expresses. Some older siblings may find themselves without someone to call for backup. Yeom advises finding ways to “set lines for yourself that still help your family but also still help you.”
Tips from Our Therapists About Navigating Sibling Roles
As you navigate the different roles that you and your sibling(s) experience, our therapists had these additional tips to share:
Try to avoid black-and-white thinking. You do not have to embrace only the culture of your ethnic background or the culture of your place of residence. You can know and honor your roots and nurture your individual identity.
Learn to be cognizant of the differing impacts of American individualistic culture and Asian collectivistic culture in your family dynamics. When your family members act out of both love and responsibility, you can show them appreciation and thoughtfulness in return.
Notice when you are acting from a place of obligation and resentment. Notice when you are acting from a place of authentic desire. It’s okay to feel guilty, but don’t let guilt take the steering wheel. Be aware of your own capacity and boundaries.
Written by: Angela Nguyen, MSW
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