Immigrant parents often teach only what they’re taught. So how can their first generation children feel seen and supported in their mental health struggles?
Being raised by immigrant parents can come with numerous advantages. Our families are tight-knit; we’re connected to our roots; and we receive exposure to multiple cultural perspectives. This kind of background enriches kids’ lives.
In some circumstances, however, being first generation creates mental health hurdles. Our parents have high expectations of success for us. But many of our parents simply haven’t engaged with their own emotions, and don’t see why we have to address them. We can’t ignore the mental health challenges specific to being a child of immigrants–many of which come from avoiding emotional talk altogether.
What’s it like to be raised by immigrant parents?
Immigrant households tend to emphasize the importance of family, cultural connectivity, and religious heritage–all of which can bolster mental health. Having a clear cultural background helps define your identity, and helps you connect with others who share the same heritage. Being raised by immigrants, in some ways, helps you to stand out in a world of conformity, bringing important differences to the table.
But while all of these qualities are positive, some traditional values can negatively impact a young adult’s mind. Some emotionally straining traditions include strict discipline, limited autonomy, and academic or financial pressure. The increased expectations of first generation kids, combined with our parents’ reluctance to address mental health, can set us up for major emotional struggle.
Controllingness is a negative trait common to immigrant parents that hurts a child’s development. Take a couple examples from my own childhood: I wasn’t allowed to have a sleepover with anyone as a child. I also never attended anyone’s birthday party because my parents didn’t know the other child’s family, and didn’t want to interact. I understand that my parents were being protective, but I know I missed out on key childhood experiences.
This type of controlling behavior can extend past childhood, into young adulthood, too. Traditionally, young adults in a first generation immigrant household only leave the house to get married. However, a new generation of college students has been pushing the limits on autonomy and independent living. We’ve begun to set our own path, which, in a way, threatens tradition.
When I moved away for college, my parents wanted me to come home every weekend. I understood that I was the first to leave home for reasons other than marriage, but to come home every single weekend was a major demand on my newfound freedom.
Limiting autonomy is another normalized negative value common within immigrant communities. Control and limited autonomy go hand in hand. For example, when I turned 16 and got my license, my mom started tracking my phone. Sure, I got a little bit more freedom, but it soon turned to paranoia because I felt my parents watching my every move. Loss of autonomy like this can lead to to depression and loss of identity.
Academic pressures include pushing success onto the children of the family. As the daughter of immigrants, I understand the sacrifices behind my parents’ story; perhaps a little too well, in a way that induces guilt and pressure.
They have told me repeatedly that my education and success is the only way out of poverty–the same poverty they escaped from in their home country. Their wellbeing is on my back since their sacrifice, in theory, laid the foundation for my success.
The education systems in our parents’ home countries are often not the best in the world, at least in my family’s experience. Instead of receiving a proper education, immigrant parents often began work at a young age in order to survive.
Therefore, education is seen as the way out for the children of immigrants. My parents never directly pressured me, but I understood their expectations. The dependence on our success leads to a strain on first-generation American students. Due to our parents’ hard work, we have the privilege to be able to attend higher education institutions. Even if it doesn’t feel like the right path, we feel pressured to get the education our immigrant parents always imagined for us.
High expectations and fear of failure
My parents look to me to succeed, which adds an additional pressure on top of maintaining mental health and having a healthy social lifestyle.
As we children of immigrants grow older, we begin to fear our parents’ disappointment. We begin to fear failure. You might have the intrinsic motivation to succeed, but knowing that your parents’ future relies on your success has can send you into a depressive episode or worse.
As first-generation Americans and first-generation students, there is no room for error. We cannot afford to fail. Our parents’ stories, their struggles, their sacrifices have given us incredible opportunities, and immense expectations to live up to.
Clashing expectations from family and mainstream culture
Many immigrants’ backstories consist of having to work from a young age in order to make a sustainable living in their new country. Thus, generational differences between immigrant parents and their children are significant. First-generation Americans grow up in a completely different environment and society than their parents did. There are different norms which immigrant parents aren’t aware of, or don’t care about.
For example: the normal American teenage experience is something our immigrant parents were never introduced to. Immigrant parents tend to lack familiarity with the typical experiences of a high-schooler here. American standards can even clash with traditional norms, especially when it comes to the treatment of daughters versus sons.
Gender-based double standards
First generation hispanic households tend to be more strict with the daughters of the household in contrast with the sons. Treatment of daughters tends to be more protective, strict, and controlling. The difference between this reality at home and mainstream assumptions underlie deep emotional struggle for daughters of immigrants. We don’t always have the same freedom as our peers, and comparison highlights the pain in that difference.
Living in the constant clash between cultures is an exhausting experience. From academic pressures to dissonant cultural values, the mental strain on first-generation Americans and students is a significant one.
How do immigrant parents see mental health?
Many people who come from an immigrant family recognize that parents tend to turn a blind eye to the negative values embedded in their culture. We tend to highlight the positives and hide the negatives, even behind closed doors, within our families. But when it comes to mental health, we desperately need openness.
Due to the lack of awareness among immigrant parents, they may see depressive symptoms and mislabel them. They may call your symptoms “laziness” and dismiss the struggle. In their eyes, there’s no room for depression. The values they grew up with never let them consider what “mental health” really means.
That brings up another unnamed pressure put on the first-generation Americans: to educate our immigrant parents on what our unimagined struggles consist of.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: immigrant edition
One concept I’ve personally thought about and have connected to my immigrant parents is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This concept depicts the different levels of human needs, and the idea is that you can’t address higher-level needs before meeting the more basic ones.
When immigrant parents arrive in a new country, their struggle revolves around meeting the most basic of needs. They work hard, deny themselves comforts, to put food on the table and pay rent. In trying to secure these foundational survival needs, their emotional needs became low-priority. All of their hard work and sacrifice was needed secure the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid.
Where do we, children, fall into this picture? Our parents covered an important level of basic needs for us, and now, we have the ability to grow and strive for self-actualization and self-awareness. Since they could not satisfy this level of emotional need, themselves, the lack of emotional fulfillment translates into their parenting styles.
They may experience depression symptoms, but they probably aren’t cognizant enough to realize their own mental health struggles. They won’t make a bridge towards an actual solution. They’ll only teach what they have been taught. Repression and moving on without healing is an example of the way that immigrant parents react to mental health struggles.
This cycle of generational repression is another negative emotional value within the Hispanic/Latinx community. Families don’t seem to have a way to communicate emotional needs. We don’t talk about it. We let it happen until the need to talk it out is gone. This cycle can lead to serious problems in a family’s dynamic; parents get involved once it is too late and the child’s mental state has worsened.
How do I start the conversation with my immigrant parents about mental health?
First, you have to work up the courage and patience to gain their understanding. This is a serious topic, even though immigrant parents seem to dismiss it often.
After working yourself up to start the conversation…
Lay out points about what depression is and the symptoms that accompany it.
What is depression?
Depression varies from person to person. Different symptoms may arise differently. You might experience a single depressive episode or suffer from chronic, clinical depression. One person’s depression may leave them fatigued and hopeless, while another’s drives them to keep busy to ignore the pain. Again, symptoms vary.
Signs of depression include but are not limited to:
- Changes in sleep
- Changes in appetite
- Lack of concentration
- Loss of energy
- Hopelessness or guilty thoughts
- Lack of interest in activities
Tell them how depression has affected your life…
Talk about which symptoms have been prominent in your experience. Some examples can include:
- Not wanting to go to school
- Not wanting to eat regularly
- Struggling to maintain a daily routine
- Struggling to get out of bed
Show them you’re not alone in your struggle…
Although the focus should be about your own struggles, it is sometimes easier to understand a new concept when it’s related to a larger population. For example…
- List statistics relating to your community’s mental health
- Do a little bit of research about your community’s mental health
- For example: In a study, it was found that U.S. born Latinos were at a higher risk of depressive episodes than those who immigrated to the U.S
Introduce the differences brought on by culture and society…
There is an obvious difference in societal upbringing from your parents generation to yours.
- There are different expectations.
- Although you are from a cultured household, American society has different norms that you experience no matter how traditional you may be
- Different norms bring up identity issues, which may lead to a larger problem
Are there any potential ways your family contributes to your mental health?
The pressure to succeed is a huge weight to carry, but think about the other causes. What have your parents gone through that blurs their way of seeing the importance of mental health? What behaviors of theirs contribute most to your wellbeing (or lack thereof)?
Ask for what you want and need
Think about solutions to what you’re going through…
- Family support and understanding
- Greater freedom and autonomy
- Professional help including therapy
If you can’t make them see your struggle….
Seek help. Help doesn’t always have to be therapy. Finding someone who understands your struggle can be a useful way to air grievances. Whether it be a friend, a mentor or a sibling, it’s important to find someone who can help ease emotions.
Slip in statements about your feelings. Depression and mental health in general can be a very hard topic to speak about. If over time, parents begin to see a negative pattern, they’ll be sure to bring it up because it should concern them.
Understand their struggles. Immigrants have often had a difficult childhood of their own. They might not be able to understand your struggles if they never had theirs addressed either.