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10 Types of Childhood Emotional Trauma in South Asian Families

Updated: Mar 27


South Asian boy looking off in the distance and smiling
Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary(Monty) on Unsplash

***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services


Trauma involves going through a distressing experience that can affect your mental health and well-being. These experiences can range from such incidences as: a serious accident, the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, war, assault, abuse, neglect, witnessing abuse and violence, and other types of situations.


If you have been through something traumatic, you might find that your mental health is affected – it may be hard to focus or concentrate at school or at work, your mood and energy might be low, you may struggle in your personal relationships, or you could be noticing challenges in other areas of your life.


This article is part 1 of 2 posts and focuses understanding childhood emotional trauma in the parent-child relationship, specifically in the context of South Asian families. It describes what childhood emotional trauma could look like within this cultural lens and how it might continue to affect you now as an adult.


The next article – part 2 – is How Do I Heal From Childhood Emotional Trauma?


What does childhood emotional trauma look like in South Asian families?


Childhood emotional trauma in a South Asian families could look like any of the following scenarios:


1. Silent treatment

If you said or did something to upset your parents, they may respond with silent treatment. This can be very hard for a child to cope with as children need love, care, attention, and support from parents to feel safe, secure, and supported. Silent treatment can lead children to feel anxious, scared, ashamed, and guilty.


As a child, you might have done whatever your parents wanted you to do so that the silent treatment stopped – along with the isolation you may have felt during these moments.


You might have also learned to put aside your own needs, desires, goals, and interests to maintain harmony in the parent-child relationship.

 

2. Passive--aggressive behaviour

In addition to silent treatment, you may notice that your parents engage in other types of passive-aggressive behaviour as a form of punishment if you didn't meet their needs or expectations.


Passive-aggressive behaviour could look like your parents doing the following:

  • appearing upset but saying that nothing is wrong when you ask them

  • sulking, pouting, sighing loudly, closing doors and cupboards loudly to express their frustration

  • showing with their vocal tone, body language, and facial expressions that they are upset with you without communicating directly about their feelings or the issue  

  • shutting down emotionally

  • ignoring you when you talk, pretending that they didn’t hear you, or acting like they don’t notice you when you enter the room

  • using sarcasm or complimenting you in a way that feels more like a subtle criticism

  • avoiding responsibility or deliberately not doing a task well so that you take it over

  • sabotaging you in some way to get what they want

 

3. Not being allowed to have a different opinion or belief

In South Asian culture, speaking your mind – especially if it contradicts your family's views – is often discouraged. Communicating alternative beliefs and opinions may be seen as rude or disrespectful.


To maintain a sense of family unity, you might decide to keep new ideas and suggestions to yourself in order to maintain the status quo or to avoid being shunned, outcasted, or isolated in some way.


4. Feeling unheard and unseen

In the parent-child relationship in South Asian families, there is often a hierarchy where parents expect obedience and respect from their children.


You may have felt that your needs and wants were not acknowledged or met. This may have led you to shut down, stay quiet, and disconnect from your needs for the sake of maintaining your family values.


As an adult, you may have difficulty understanding what you needs actually are because your uniqueness was not recognized or valued while you were growing up.


5. Unrealistic expectations

South Asian parents tend to place high expectations on their children to succeed in their academics, career, and personal lives in terms of achieving certain milestones reflected in South Asian cultural and societal norms.


If you happened to grow up in the Western world with immigrant parents, you may have felt the pressure to be perfect – a “model minority” – or else you faced a fear of failure and worried about disappointing your parents or bringing shame to your family.


You may have also felt guilty about how much your parents sacrificed to give you a better life with more opportunities and so you internalize this pressure to succeed in order to show your parents that their sacrifices were worthwhile.


Choosing an alternative or lesser-known life path may have been discouraged and not allowed in your South Asian family. You may have conformed to your parents’ expectations and, as a result, feel unfulfilled, unmotivated, disengaged, and unhappy in your life now as an adult.


You may also feel anger, resentment, shame, helplessness, and other emotions toward your parents for not allowing you to engage in self-exploration or self-determination.


Comparison between siblings, cousins, and other people in your community in terms of their success, achievements, and status may have led you to feel like you were “never enough” and negatively impacted your self-esteem.


It can result in a never-ending cycle where you push yourself so hard to reach certain goals that your perfectionism makes you feel anxious, stressed, and burned out.


You may also feel that you only received affection, love, and support when you met your parents’ expectations. This kind of conditional love may keep you trapped in a people-pleasing behaviour pattern where you focus on what your parents want for you rather than what you truly want for yourself.


While many South Asian parents have gone above and beyond for their children to create a life for them that is safe, healthy, and secure, it is also important to remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to fulfill your parent’s every wish, request, or need.


Focusing on your own needs isn't selfish – it is your basic right.


6. Emotional and verbal abuse

You may have been emotionally or verbally abused by your parents as a child.


This type of emotional trauma could involve criticism about your appearance, intellect, abilities, skills, and other parts of your identity, personality, or ways of being in the world.


Emotional and verbal abuse can have long-standing effects on your self-esteem. It may be hard for you to love yourself, see your strengths, or feel that you deserve to be treated well by others.


As an adult, you may also engage in unhealthy relationships with people outside of your family because that is what is familiar to you and what you are used to.  


7. Lack of autonomy, sense of personal control, and independence

In traditional and patriarchal South Asian households, many of your major life choices and decisions may have been controlled by your parents. As a result, you may have not been able to develop a unique sense of self-identity.


It might have been ingrained in you that your parents know what’s best for you and that you should listen to them, which may make it hard for you to feel that you can make your own choices, have full control over your life, or practice self-advocacy.


Understanding what you truly want, need, or value may be something you struggle with because you didn’t have the space to explore different aspects of your sense of self when you were young.


You may also struggle with learning how to be independent as your parents may encourage you to depend and rely on them for financial, emotional, social, and practical support so that you continue to live in the family home.


However, learning how to live independently as an adult is still possible and can be something you work towards with support from people you trust and with professional support if needed.


8. Not being allowed to access external supports and resources

Mental health stigma is a common issue in South Asian culture. Older generations tend to not believe in reaching out for professional help as they worry about what other people will think in their South Asian community. They may also feel that getting help from within the family is all the support that they need.


If you grew up with a parent who had mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, an addiction, or other challenges, you may have felt overwhelmed taking care of and supporting them.


You may have also felt that you had to keep your parent’s issues a secret and this could have stopped you from receiving therapy services yourself or leaning on your own social supports outside of the family.


You may have difficulty regulating your emotions, building healthy coping skills, and developing positive ways of communicating because you haven’t been able to get the support that you need.


You could also observe that your South Asian parents assigned you the role of being their friend, mediator, or therapist because they were not willing to get professional help or expand their supports beyond the family unit.


This can make you very uncomfortable because you feel that, as their child, they should be caring for you and giving you support – not expecting you to take care of them.


9. Guilt--tripping

 

Guilt-tripping can be a common issue in many South Asian families and is a way of manipulating you to meet your parents’ needs and expectations of you.

 

Guilt-tripping might look like:

  • being discouraged from making life decisions that go against South Asian cultural norms and expectations because it could lead your parents to experience stress and health issues due to shame and embarrassment in their social network and community

 

  • observing your parents using a victim or martyr mindset to suggest that you should be grateful for the opportunities that they have given you and that fulfilling their dreams is your responsibility and duty as their child

 

  • saying that you should meet a certain milestone (e.g. marriage, starting a family, choosing a career path that they approve of, following religious beliefs and customs, etc.) before they die so they can feel a sense of peace

 

  • implying that some of your decisions mean that you don’t care about them or that they don't matter to you as a way of trying to convince you to do otherwise


10.  Lack of physical affection

In many South Asian households, it can be common for parents to not express physical affection. However, affection is important to help you feel emotionally connected, loved, and cared for as a child.


If this is missing, then you may feel insecure and distressed in your relationship with your parents while growing up. This is even more complicated if the physical touch you did receive was connected with punishment and discipline.


As a result, it may be hard for you to give and receive physical affection as an adult in your romantic relationships. You may also feel anxious and uncomfortable when trying to show affection or when you are receiving affection from your partner. This is something you might decide to work though in therapy so that you can build a happy, healthy, and fulfilling relationship with your partner.


Final Thoughts

The emotionally traumatic stressors listed above are just a few examples that might relate to your experience growing up in a South Asian family.


It isn’t a complete list and it is also important to note that it doesn’t reflect every South Asian child’s experience. Many children grow up in South Asian families where these types of issues do not exist. This article speaks to those adults who did experience some kind of emotional trauma during their childhood.


While trauma may sometimes feel impossible to overcome, it’s important to maintain hope that you have the capacity to recover and rebuild your life.


The next article – Part 2 – is How Do I Heal From Childhood Emotional Trauma? Please take a read as you focus on your healing process.


Wishing you well on your mental health journey.



Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT

Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist



If you are an adult in Ontario or Alberta seeking online therapy and would like to request a free 15 minute phone consultation, please Book An Appointment.



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