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South Asian Family Issues: 10 Common Beliefs, Values, and Expectations

Updated: Mar 24


A woman, two children, and an elderly woman smiling at the camera with a garden in the background
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


Cultural beliefs, values, and expectations have the power to shape how generations of families live their lives – whether that involves how they think or feel about certain issues, what behaviours they engage in, or how they relate to and communicate with others.


In South Asian culture, there appears to be common assumptions that are deeply rooted in family life. These views may be present whether you are currently living in a South Asian country or if you are an adult child of immigrant parents from a South Asian country and are now living in the Western world. You may be dealing with a clash between Eastern and Western values while growing up in an environment that strongly differs from your parents’ experience of their own childhood.


The aim of this article is to shed light on themes that are part of South Asian family life for many people. It’s important to note that this isn’t necessarily everyone’s experience but it could help clarify common challenges for some people.


1. Respect your elders


Respecting your elders often means following through on your parents’ requests and those of other elders (e.g. extended family – aunties and uncles) or not speaking up if you disagree with something they have said or done.


You may still feel that you need to show respect as an adult by doing what your parents ask you to do, even if this conflicts with what you want to do yourself at this phase in your life.


2. Positive reinforcement, love, and attention are given when you meet expectations


You may have noticed that you receive praise, support, and encouragement when you act in a way that is expected of you, whether this involves assisting with household chores, achieving academic goals, obtaining a prestigious job, getting married and having children, and other milestones that could be prioritized by your family.


On the other hand, you may be criticized, shamed, ignored, or treated negatively when you don’t fall in line with your parents’ expectations.


3. Your self-worth is tied to your school or work performance


If you learned that you receive attention and affection when you meet expectations, then this could lead you to link your self-esteem to your grades during your childhood or youth or your performance evaluations at work as an adult.


In your school age years, if you didn’t get an A or an A+ or if you didn’t make the Honour Roll or Dean’s List, was that met with criticism or disapproval from your parents?


As an adult, if you didn’t get the performance review rating or annual income increase that you wanted, did you criticize yourself or blame yourself for not working hard enough? If this negative self-talk entered your mind, then you may feel inadequate, unworthy, or not good enough.


Consider where some of your self-esteem challenges may have stemmed from – and what keeps it going.


4. Your emotions and any opposing views need to be contained


The expression of emotions – even positive emotions such as excitement – may have been discouraged while you were growing up. Common themes such as staying quiet, being seen but not heard, and not talking back could stand out to you.


This lack of emotional expression may make it hard for you to identify, name, and express your emotions as an adult. It might also be hard for you to regulate your emotions if you didn’t have much experience processing your emotions when you were younger and if you didn’t have had an adult role model show you how to express your emotions or cope with them in a healthy way.


5. You may have been a parentified child - you grew up too fast because of your family responsibilities


The parentified child role may be most felt by the oldest child in the family, as they likely were tasked with the role of taking care of younger siblings while their parents worked a few jobs to cover the bills. Perhaps you babysat your younger siblings, prepared snacks for them, or helped them with their homework.


While you may have understood the importance of your role as the oldest child in the family, you may feel a sense of sadness, regret, and grief for not being able to be as carefree as you wanted during those early years.


6. Enmeshment – an overly close relationship with your South Asian family – is encouraged and expected


Maintaining a close connection is a common expectation within South Asian families. As an adult, your parents may call you every day – sometimes even multiple times a day. Or they may want you to keep living in the family home as long as possible, even though you might want to move out on your own, with a friend, or with a partner.


Perhaps you are supporting your parents’ mental health by providing emotional support on a regular basis because they don’t see the value in seeking out therapy for themselves or are worried about being stigmatized if anyone in their family or local community found out they were getting professional help.


You might also feel that you need to act like a referee between your parents during arguments – or worse – you might be asked to take sides. You may also find you are fulfilling a role of being like a best friend to your parent, particularly if they feel isolated, don’t have a lot of social supports, or are hesitant to explore activities or interests in the community that might lead them to meet more people.


7. Follow the rules - and don’t take risks


Behave. Be responsible. Set an example for others (including younger siblings or cousins). Don’t take risks. These may be just a few of the types of messages you could have heard over the years from your parents.


Being carefree or going against the norm is discouraged. If and when you do act in an alternative way, this may result you being criticized, blamed, shamed, or ignored, and this might push you to revert back to acting in a way fits within accepted limits even if this doesn’t feel true to you.


8. The world is a scary place


If your parents immigrated from a South Asian country to the Western hemisphere, they may have faced so much culture shock and challenges adjusting to their new home that they may have put up shields to protect themselves and their family out of fear.


This fear may have led them to develop a belief that the world is a scary place. Your parents may have a hard time trusting and opening up to people outside of the family circle or they may hesitate to travel to new places or explore new things.


Your parents may have shared this worldview with you and this idea might pop up in your mind from time to time when you are facing new experiences. It may take some time to reassure yourself that you are safe, you can deal with issues as they come up, and that you don’t need to live in fear.


9. Self-sacrifice is praised and recognized by others


Being of service to others, including putting others’ needs before your own, is often encouraged in South Asian culture. It sometimes can even feel like a competition – whoever is the most self-sacrificing might receive the most praise or recognition.


This approach may make it hard for you to feel that you can live your life in a way that suits you or put yourself first if everyone around you is doing the opposite. Try to remember that you aren’t doing anything wrong by prioritizing yourself and know that self-care is necessary for your well-being.


10. Keeping up appearances is important


The common question “what will people think?” may cross your mind often as it may have been ingrained into you by your parents and the South Asian community around you.


You may have been told that you need to do what is socially acceptable in order to avoid bringing shame or embarrassment to your family – even if this contrasts with what you truly want to say or how you want to act or show up in the world.


This might lead you to compromise your own values, needs, or goals for the sake of your family and feel that you are living life for them rather than yourself.


Summary


The South Asian beliefs, values, and expectations outlined above and its connection with family issues may be hard for you to read and come to terms with. It’s difficult to acknowledge the challenges you have faced and that you might continue to face in your family life and in your South Asian community.


Please know that you are not alone. There are many people out there who have gone through similar experiences. And there are also many mental health professionals who can help you understand your life experiences and support you as you become more comfortable making decisions and choices that align with who you are and how you want to live your life now.


Don’t be afraid to reach out to a mental health professional that serves your local area if you need assistance. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.


Wishing you well on your mental health journey.



Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT

Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist



Read more blog posts about South Asian / BIPOC Mental Health.


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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