Learnings From the Past: How South Asian Parents can Stop Denying Their Kids

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As a child born to an immigrant South Asian family, I have observed and experienced, firsthand, how South Asian parents deny their kids when they experience strong emotional conflicts. Growing up in a South Asian family was not easy and I always felt that my emotional needs were not addressed, understood or accepted by my family.

Living in North America and maintaining a unique, yet secure, cultural identity can be a challenge because we are exposed to a myriad of cultures and people that influence us. The disconnect that immigrant South Asian kids often feel from their parents and families is quite common, and can have long-lasting traumatic effects.

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When I was in school, I always had my peers and teachers calm me down when I felt the need to cry and share my overwhelming responses to my surroundings. I felt like my parents couldn’t relate to the issues I faced at school and this left me feeling quite isolated.

I grew up in a very tight-knit family and attended a public school that was diverse. And while I relish diversity as an adult, my younger self was embarrassed to hear my parents speak in our native language in front of my white counterparts. I felt like the odd one out…the only one who grew up in a traditional religious Hindu family.

I always thought the girls around me at school behaved conspicuously and had a set of values completely different than the ones that I was raised with. At school, there were always some desi girls who never liked me or accepted me into their group. I remember getting eye rolls from peers in my class. Why was I so different? I craved to be in an environment where I was fully accepted and understood. Slowly, I became a mere shadow that just followed everyone.

My parents were first-generation immigrants, trying to settle in a new country. And because they were dealing with their own set of challenges in a new place, they were not really able to commit to their children’s emotional growth. I have observed a similar trend in other South Asian immigrant families and wondered why desi parents don’t acknowledge their kids’ emotions. Why aren’t they able to provide a safe, loving and non-judgemental space when their kids really need it?

According to many psychologists, South Asian parents have been raised to follow tradition, be strong and not lean into their emotions. Connecting to one’s inner, emotional self was, and still is, considered to be a sign of weakness. This is why previous generations like our parents’ and grandparents’ can’t really understand the emotional needs of their children. Both my grandmothers were oblivious to what I was going through in my life and they never understood the caterpillar in me that was waiting to morph into a butterfly. I felt a constant disconnect from my family and therefore, I easily became depressed when my peers at school neglected me and rolled their eyes at me.

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Although South Asians in America have gone through a period of growth, successfully evolving into a better-educated, more aware community, the immigrant South Asian parent’s journey is marked by generational trauma from colonial-era oppression. Our ancestors went through an extremely harrowing struggle, fighting for their freedom and cultural identity while facing discrimination and displacement.

During the time of immigration, most South Asian parents’ lives were rooted in conflicts. Settling down in a new country mostly meant starting from scratch and getting a high-paying job. Like many other immigrants, my parents felt a sense of displacement coming from a small village and transitioning into mainstream American society. This is an acculturation conflict that remained with them as they navigated through life in America. This often led to feelings of rejection and sometimes even isolation.

Many of my young, South Asian clients share a feeling of disconnect from their parents and complain that their parents don’t understand them. After examining and assessing family dynamics in South Asian immigrant families, I have realized that unresolved, trans-generational trauma passed down from our ancestors is one of the major contributing factors leading to this disconnect between immigrant parents and their children.

To this day, my parents don’t really understand or acknowledge why, as a child, my emotional needs were not met. Going to therapy has given me insights into my parents’ own ancestral trauma and struggle as immigrants. I no longer blame them for the way they neglected and dismissed my mental health. If you are feeling neglected, or ghosted, by your parents, please reach out to your local crisis hotline for crisis counseling.

[Read Related: I Think you Should Start Therapy: Processing Trauma as a South Asian ]

As a therapist, I can highlight the following tips for immigrant South Asian parents to support their children’s mental health and acknowledge their emotional needs.

  1. Pay close attention to the behavior of your kids, especially if you enrolled them in a public school. Don’t be surprised if they act out, because sometimes they may feel like a misfit or an outcast. Counsel them whenever you realize there is a change in their grades and performance. Middle school and high school can be big life transitions for adolescents and can cause changes in performance. Acknowledge their emotions as they go through these big transitions.
  2. Don’t hit your children. South Asian parenting can sometimes encourage spanking, physical punishment and becoming dismissive, but this is something one should avoid at all costs because it emotionally distances you from your children.
  3. If you are going through career transitions and do not have time for your kids, have them talk to a mental health professional because it’s worth a third party examining your kid’s feelings, thoughts and emotions. The third-party support also helps the parents understand their kids and fostering a nurturing environment of support.
  4. Learn about kids growing up in America and the public school system because most problems happen during childhood years. It’s fragmented and the children become a result of this system. Their attitudes reflect school performance, teachers, and the environment around them. Don’t blame them for their immaturity. Maturity and wisdom come with age and exposure to real-life experiences.
  5. Try to be mindful of the differences in the environment that you were raised in and the world that your children are growing up in. Be open to your child’s journey and understand that the new generation has challenges that can be entirely different than yours. The more accepting and empathetic you are as a parent, the more secure your child will feel in their relationship with you and consider you their safe space.
By Rupal Gadkar

Rupal Gadkar is a Masters in Clinical Psychology and is interested in exploring mental health issues within the South Asian … Read more ›