Guilt-Tripping Parenting Styles Lead to Emotional Stress

By Yaling Hou

In the Asian American community, some parents use guilt to guide their children and that can lead to some kinds of emotional stresses.

“I have responsibilities here, you know? I’m your caregiver.”

This line comes from the Asian American Movie Always Be My Maybe. It shows a scene that Marcus Kim, one of the main characters, eats dinner with his dad every day after his mother passed away, in order to make up for his dad’s loneliness. Marcus doesn’t go with the woman he loved but uses the guilt-tripping as an excuse not to live his life. And that hurts everyone’s hearts.

This is a stereotype of Asian (American) immigrant families that often appears in film and television dramas. Parents or their children, sometimes even both, use the moral responsibility to bind themselves to their parents or children, making sure that everything is secure and has a low risk.

There are all kinds of parenting styles and each family and individuals are different. Do parenting styles really impact children’s emotional lives? And how does that kind of guilt-tripping trigger mental stress?

Hyeouk “Chris” Hahm, a School of Social Work professor at Boston University provided a study at her presentation that she addressed in Newton Free Library this May.

SOURCE: Hyeouk “Chris” Hahm’s study. (graphic produced by Yaling Hou)

The study surveyed Asian American parents who have children with low academic pressure, high GPA, low depression symptoms and high parent-child communication to look at what kinds of parenting styles these parents used. The results are as follows: “supporting” (45%) > “easygoing” (27.8%) > “Tiger” (19.5%) > “harsh parenting” (7.7%). Supporting parents tend to raise mentally healthy children more often than other styles. And the harsh parents raise them more rarely.

“So, this is very interesting to me,” Hahm said, “because it means that easygoing is much better than Tiger. You don’t have to do anything and your children will be better. When my children are watching TV, I will think about this study. ‘Ok, fine’.”

Amy Yang is a member of Asian Creative Network (ACN) and now a Northwestern University student majoring in computer science. She wrote and posted an article Math, My Mother and Me on the ACN’s Facebook page to share her personal feelings about how she is passionate about library arts but had to struggle with math. She was supposed to be good at math in her parents’ eyes, especially her mother who was a math genius when she was at school.

“I am good at math, so my daughter… she should be,” Yang mimicked her mother’s voice.

If you have time, you can listen to this podcast (1:11:44) about Amy Yang’s stories growing up. She has a quite unique background. She was born in the United States but moved back to China with her parents when she was young. She spent years in China to finish her elementary and middle schools. During the time in China, because of her identity–an American passport holder, she also participated in summer camps and schools in the United States very often. She returned to America to go to college two years ago. This unique growing-up experience brought confusions to Yang especially when she was too young to criticize the advantage of cross-cultural education. And this is her stories:

On the one hand, she does appreciate her mother who pushed her so hard in math. She recently realized that computer science offers more job opportunities and can support her artistic dreams in a realistic or financial way. She can work in computer science while also doing arts on the side. However, on the other hand, that “hard push” gave her a painful memory.

“I feel something she did was hurtful to me and I kind of wish she didn’t,” Yang said. “She had trouble seeing how I was feeling.”

Cindy Liu, a psychologist, said “Sometimes emotions are invisible. Particular for Asians.” She pointed out in the same event at the Newton Free Library: “We hide our emotions. We hide our smiles. We don’t say how we feel. So, that makes it all the challenges for children to be able to share about what’s going on in their lives.”

Mind and body are two separate distinctions in Western culture, but many Asian cultures do not think so. It’s not good or bad, but the philosophy impacts the mindset of how Asian society thinks about mental health. When mental healthcare faces problems, Asian people usually omit it and turn to seek physical help. Also, in Asian cultures, maintaining social and familial harmony and avoiding the exposure of personal weakness defines mental illness as highly stigmatizing in many Asian cultures.

Even though some Asian Americans are open to sharing what’s going on in their emotions, they don’t know how to describe the bad feelings.

According to Yinan Liu, an emotional wellness promoter, based on her personal experience, Asians and Asian Americans compared with other races are harder to describe their feelings and emotions in details.

“I asked them ‘how do you feel specifically?’,” said Liu. “They looked at me and don’t know how to answer that.”

The traditional education rarely taught Asians how to express their emotions. Some of the patients have feelings of depression, but they themselves don’t realize that is depression.

“It’s not only happened in our Asian community. I have American patients who also have troubles to tell specific emotions as well,” said Yi Yang, a psychologist, “But Asian American children and their parents definitely have a hard time to talk about this issue, like depression. The children find difficult to tell their parents because their parents don’t know how to react.”

Instead, the parents blamed their children. They thought that it is because their kids are too lazy to focus. They never thought it could be a disease just like other physical diseases that needs to care about. People can ask for professional therapies or medical helps to improve.

In a therapy room in downtown Boston, people will feel comfortable and relaxed because of the smell, the light and the private feeling of the room. It offers a safe space to talk about the tension from the heart.

With Ming Chang at a therapy room in downtown Boston. (image courtesy of Yaling Hou)

“Sometimes Asian or Asian American parents and children may feel too connected to each other. The parents may feel like ‘I need to take care of the kids’ but in some ways of controlling and dominating,” said Ming Chang, a licensed-bilingual mental health counselor. “But then there is a sense of missing their own personal, unique, opinion and gift.”

Chang said that during her over 10 years of counseling experience, she noticed that the guilt-tripping and other parenting conflicts happened in a mutual way. The children are kind of used to this dynamic. They are scared of their own unique voices, and they don’t trust themselves.

Trying to feel their own voice and trying to describe who they are as a person, that is the real-life and development happen, according to Chang.

“Because every kid is different. Everyone is different,” said Chang.

About Yaling Hou 5 Articles
Yaling is a videographer and a bilingual writer who accept journalism education both in China and America. She is passionate about education, cross-cultural communication and youth development. She writes, produces, edits and assists multimedia stories for organizations like Sampan Newspaper and Chronicle, WCVB in Boston.