As someone who grew up in a pretty Asian household, I have yet to address how my culture shaped my experiences with childhood abuse and abusive parents.
I am born in the U.S. to Chinese parents. Because my parents immigrated to the U.S. at a very young age, we’re actually pretty Americanized. I didn’t have “traditional immigrant” parents. But we were still very in touch with our Chinese culture.
We savor the cuisine, speak Cantonese at home, celebrate Lunar New Year, and even had an altar with Guanyin on it that my mother would pray to (though only when she wanted something).
After speaking with others from similar backgrounds who believed their Asian culture contributed to their abuse, I thought it was necessary to write a post about it.
In this post, I will explore the cultural factors that may lead to child abuse and abusive parenting in Asian households.
While this post focuses on Asian culture, because it’s what I am personally familiar with, the cultural factors listed here may apply to other cultures as well.
Cultural Factors Contributing to Child Abuse & Abusive Parenting in Asian Households
Child abuse is a pervasive issue that affects families worldwide. However, it might be more common in certain cultures due to certain cultural factors.
Cultural values and beliefs can significantly impact how child abuse is perceived, reported, and addressed.
Understanding how certain cultural factors may be contributing to the abuse you experienced or are experiencing within your family can hopefully help you find ways to begin healing.
There are definitely some pros to a collectivist culture. People tend to be more polite, respectful, cooperative, and charitable.
However, it definitely comes with its downsides.
Since the community or society as a whole is seen as more important, many people are expected to put aside their own needs for the greater good.
Personal desires, emotions, and needs can be disregarded. And people may not be recognized as unique individuals with their own feelings, values, wants, and needs.
Children, in particular, are at the bottom of the hierarchy. They are often considered unimportant or expendable.
As a result, they may feel pressured to stay silent or tolerate their abuse to avoid bringing shame or dishonor to their family or community.
And questioning or speaking out about the abuse can warrant backlash such as retaliation, rejection, or ostracism.
Physical Punishment Is Acceptable
In some cultures, physical punishment is seen as an acceptable form of discipline.
Even normally loving parents may resort to physical punishment as a form of discipline because it’s culturally acceptable.
While physically disciplining a child may not necessarily be abusive, parents who are abusive may use their culture as an excuse to abuse.
When I confronted my mother about hitting me when I was younger, she claimed “It’s normal in our culture to do it” and “It wasn’t abuse. It was discipline.”
The physical abuse I experienced negatively impacted me. It also left bruises and lashes. And my mother’s justifications and blaming it on the culture is just another way of gaslighting me. She wants me to think I deserved it or it’s normal.
It WAS abuse, plain and simple.
Besides, well-intentioned physical punishment can lead to abuse if it’s excessive or crosses the line into physical harm.
And even if it wasn’t technically abusive, the effects of physical punishment are still detrimental to the child’s well-being. It doesn’t matter that it’s culturally acceptable.
Something being the “norm” doesn’t make it okay. Besides, it’s been proven over and over again that it simply does not work.
Children Viewed As Property
In some Asian cultures, children may be viewed as property.
Children may be seen as an extension of their parents. They’re expected to follow their rules and decisions without question, complaint, or hesitation.
As a result, parents feel entitled to have complete control over their children. They may also prioritize their own needs and wants over their children’s.
However, this isn’t exclusive to Asian cultures. The concept of children’s rights is actually relatively new in human history.
Throughout most of history, children were considered the property of their parents with no legal status or protection of their own.
The idea of children’s rights emerged in the 20th century with the adoption of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 and the subsequent Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.
Respect for Authority & Value for Hierarchies
In many Asian cultures, authority figures or elders such as parents are highly respected and valued.
They are considered wiser, more knowledgeable, and overall superior. It’s believed that they’ve earned their authority through hard work, experience, and morals. So they should be obeyed and respected accordingly.
Respect for authority is instilled in children from a young age. It is emphasized in schools, communities, and families.
Children are taught to listen and follow the instructions of their elders. They must show unwavering respect and politeness and prioritize the needs and desires of the elders over their own.
This can create an environment where children or witnesses of the abuse overlook, tolerate, or ignore the parents’ abusive behavior.
Similar to respect for authority, filial piety – the obligation to respect and care for one’s parents and elders – is deeply ingrained in many Asian cultures.
Like how respect for authority is ingrained in children at a young age, the same goes for respecting and obeying one’s parents.
Children are usually expected to blindly obey their parents even if it hurts them. Thus children are expected to endure abuse without complaint or resistance.
Speaking out against their parents or seeking help will be seen as a violation of filial piety. It could bring shame and dishonor to the family.
Furthermore, because of their authority, parents may feel entitled to discipline their children however they see fit, even if it hurts them.
And unfortunately, this concept isn’t just particular to Asian cultures. It’s common across cultures because, “honor” thy mother and father, right?
When something is wrong in the relationship between us and our parents, society usually assumes it’s because something’s wrong with us.
Regardless of how our mother treated us, many people are appalled at the idea that I called CPS on her and eventually went no contact.
My mother always complained about how disrespectful I am towards her. But whenever the same thing is said about her, her response is always, “I’m her mother”.
So basically, she wants me to “respect” her as an authority just so she would respect me as a human. In her eyes, she would always be “above” me regardless of my age.
Pressure to Succeed
Every culture places value on academic and career success. But it’s even more emphasized in Asian cultures.
Children are often under immense pressure to succeed.
Many Asian parents place a very high value on academic achievement and success.
And parents who particularly prioritize success above all else may have unrealistic expectations and standards. They may push their children too hard.
And if and when the child couldn’t meet those expectations, these parents may become physically and/or emotionally abusive.
These parents are known as tiger parents, often associated with traditional Chinese parenting.
Tiger parents are strict, demanding, and controlling. They prioritize discipline, obedience, and academic excellence. They push their children to achieve and succeed, mostly academically.
The term gained popularity after Amy Chua’s memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”. She describes her parenting style and high expectations of her daughters in the book.
There has been debate regarding how effective tiger parenting is.
However, even IF it’s effective in creating academically successful kids, tiger parents will always be toxic parents in my eyes.
These types of parents think pushing their children to succeed is a form of motivation or discipline. But really, they are creating all these negative impacts on their child.
The focus on success creates a culture where children aren’t seen as individuals with unique strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Rather, they’re just a means of achieving their parents’ goals.
Importance of Reputation and Status
Similar to success, Asian cultures often place a high value on maintaining a positive reputation or status. People often try their best to avoid shame or disgrace.
In many Asian cultures, there is a strong emphasis on saving face.
This can make it difficult for families to seek outside support for issues related to child abuse.
It can also lead to a cycle of silence and secrecy around abuse, which can prevent children from receiving the help they need.
Even if other members of the family find out about the parent’s abuse, they may feel the need to keep quiet. Or else it’ll bring shame to the family.
I’ve had plenty of relatives that were aware of my mother’s abuse. But no one did anything. And if I go to them for help, they’ll just give me the spiel of “just tolerate it” or “deep down, she loves you”.
It’s like the idea of even doing anything about it is unthinkable.
And this isn’t just specific to my family. Other relatives dealing with abuse in their own households just suffered in silence.
Some argue that tiger or strict parenting is common or even expected in Asian families, so it’s not necessarily “abusive”. I disagree, but regardless, there ARE abusive Asian parents that aren’t simply just “strict”.
Mental Health Stigma
There is a stigma surrounding mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or trauma in some Asian cultures.
Even my relatives who have lived in the U.S. for decades saw depression as some kind of “crazy” illness. They also thought my studying psychology was something very innovative or different.
Due to this stigma, parents are less likely to seek out help to cope with possible mental health issues. And as a result, they may take out their frustrations on their children.
Moreover, the stigma may lead parents to view mental health problems in their children as a weakness or personal failing.
Parents may be more likely to discipline or punish their children for mental health issues rather than seek help or support.
Children may also be reluctant to disclose issues to their parents or seek help for fear of being shamed or ostracized.
This can prevent children from receiving the support and treatment they need, which can exacerbate their mental health problems. It can also lead to abuse from parents who don’t understand or recognize their child’s struggles.
Emphasis on Family
In many Asian cultures, the family unit is highly valued and prioritized. It is often seen as the most important aspect of one’s life.
This also coincides with the other cultural factor of filial piety where children are expected to always respect and obey their parents and elders regardless of the circumstances.
The importance of family honor may also lead parents to prioritize maintaining the family’s reputation over the well-being of their children.
For instance, if a child’s actions are seen as shameful, parents may resort to abuse to correct the child’s behavior in order to protect the family’s reputation.
The emphasis on the importance of family also makes it much more difficult for those being abused to speak up about it for fear of being shunned by other family members or being shunned by society for going against their family.
And when the victim reaches adulthood, it makes it difficult for them to learn to set boundaries or limit or cut contact with their family.
The obligation to put their family above all, even when it hurts them, is usually so ingrained in them that anything that can hurt the family or their reputation is unimaginable.
This makes it difficult for the victim to ever truly move forward and discover their true self because they’re always putting their family first, even if it continues to hurt them.
Gender Roles and Expectations
Some Asian cultures have strict gender roles and expectations. This can contribute to the vulnerability of certain children like girls or LGBTQ+ youth.
While this isn’t exclusive to Asian culture, because gender and sexuality are unfortunately always risk factors for abuse, Asian cultures tend to place a lot of value on traditional gender roles.
Many Asian cultures are also patriarchal. As a result, boys are generally preferred and treated better than girls. This can result in neglect or abuse of girls since they’re seen as less valuable than boys.
Children may also be emotionally or physically abused if they’re not meeting their gender expectations or not conforming to social norms. Examples include boys not being “masculine” enough, being too “feminine”, and/or liking other boys.
In other words, parents may resort to abuse in order to “correct” or “change” their child’s personality, gender identity, or sexual preferences.
It’s crucial to note that sex from birth, gender identity, and sexual preferences do NOT cause child abuse. It is NOT an excuse for child abuse.
Child abuse is a result of abusive people who harms children due to their own issues and unresolved trauma. It is never the child’s fault.
No one deserves to be abused for being who they are or for something they cannot control.
Intergenerational trauma refers to the passing on of traumatic experiences and their effects from one generation to the next.
Many Asian families have experienced trauma, such as war, displacement, immigration, and cultural and language barriers.
These traumatic experiences can affect parents’ and other family member’s mental health and parenting styles, which can lead to child abuse.
Parents who experienced trauma may have difficulty managing their emotions and difficulty nurturing their children.
Intergenerational trauma can also lead to a cycle of abuse in which children who have been abused may grow up to become abusive parents themselves. And this cycle can continue for generations.
Furthermore, the stigma around mental health and seeking help can make it difficult for families to break the cycle of abuse, further perpetuating the cycle of abuse.
Moving Forward and Healing
While the cultural factors listed may have played a role in contributing to the abuse you experienced, please understand that it is NOT an excuse.
Learning about the factors can show you how some cultural beliefs are ingrained in your parents. But that doesn’t mean that what they did was okay. Abuse is never okay.
When you grew up feeling like the abuse was “normal” or acceptable, it’ll feel like you’re the problem. You might think, no one else is complaining about it, so why should I?
Just because something is culturally acceptable doesn’t mean it was good or even okay. And it doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt you.
Your feelings are valid.
Many people may not speak up about it because they think it’s normal or they worry about the backlash. It’s difficult to speak out or seek help especially if you’re discouraged and almost brainwashed by society to do so.
Once you can recognize the role that your culture may have played in contributing to your abuse, try to find ways to heal.
Try to accept that it wasn’t your fault, you were just put into difficult circumstances.
Remind yourself that you were a child deserving of love, patience, and guidance. You didn’t deserve to be pushed to achieve what your parents believe to be honorable or worthy.
Try to find yourself and follow your dreams.
And please try your best not to carry those beliefs into the next generation. Break the cycle with your children.
Seeking professional help
Seeking help from a professional who is culturally trained or of a similar background as you can be beneficial.
They may understand and empathize with your experiences and struggles better.
Personally, the “good” therapists out of all the ones I’ve experienced so far were women of color. And my favorite therapist was an East Asian woman.
We haven’t explicitly talked about cultural influences in my experiences. But I felt like I received better advice and support from them and felt like they cared more.
But of course, these are my experiences and preferences.
There are adequate and inadequate therapists of all genders, races, and such just like there are good and bad people from all walks of life.
It’s best to use your discretion if and when you decide to seek therapy.
Growing up in an Asian household with toxic or abusive parents oftentimes makes it much more difficult for victims to seek help, speak out, or go against their parents because of the cultural factors at play.
Understanding these cultural influences can help shed light on the issues that may be ignored, dismissed, or overlooked – on a community and individual level.
If you have abusive Asian parents, I hope this post provided some insight into how your culture might’ve contributed to your abuse. And I hope you can come to accept that the abuse wasn’t your fault and find ways to begin healing.
Hi there, I’m Estee.
Having been raised by an abusive mother, I developed an interest in mental health to better learn, understand, and manage the effects the abuse had on me. My experiences inspired me to create Hopeful Panda.
In my free time, you’ll find me cooking, organizing, playing video games, writing, or spending time with my family. You can read more about me and my blog here.
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