Two Generations; Two Cultures

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Q: My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Syria about 30 years ago. They had three other daughters, all born around the same time, and then me, ten years after the one closest to me in age. Because of this, I feel out of touch not only from them but also my siblings, which they constantly nag me about. I consider my mom and dad to be extremely strict (I’m not allowed to date, not allowed to hang out with the opposite sex, not allowed to go to school dances, usually in before 9 or 10 as long as they know every detail of where I’m going, etc.) Of course, this has led me to resort mainly to lying about nearly everything I do. This has left me feeling guilty, paranoid, and depressed.

I was seeing a psychologist for a brief period of time but it didn’t work out. I want help for myself and my family, because I don’t like feeling this way and I wish I could have a better relationship with them. However, there’s a huge communication problem. My dad is getting old (in his 60s) and seems spaced out all of the time, and my mom is so emotional and never seems to want to have a rational conversation. For example, this morning she told me to go with her to visit my sister who lives about 35 miles away and I said I didn’t want to. She said that she knew I didn’t want to so I could spend time with my friends (true, but should that really be a problem?) and that if I didn’t go she would stay home too and follow me wherever I went. I told her that was fine and that I wanted to stay home and she said I was ruining her life.

Anyway, I’m losing my patience. They’re clinging on to their culture too tightly and resent me for not leaching onto it although I was raised in a completely different one. I don’t think my parents would be willing to consider family counseling. I was wondering what my options are. Should I just tough it out another year and move out when I turn 18 in order to be happy yet feel guilty for completely disobeying my parents? Or do I have to do what’s best for the family and not live my life the way I want?

A: Neither. Both of your solutions leave you feeling miserable. Let’s see if we can do better than that. My guess is that your parents feel like their own culture is slipping away from them. By imposing the values and culture of their own youth on you, they are holding onto something that is dear to them. They don’t realize that by doing so, they are losing you.

If you were seeing me in my office, I’d first ask you whether one of your siblings might be helpful. Since they are so much older than you, they might be able to help bridge the gap between you and your parents. Are any of them sympathetic to your situation? Would any of them be able to help you and your parents make some compromises around rules during the rest of your high school career?

Another route is to go back to the idea of finding a counselor. You may have given up on psychology too soon. Not every psychologist has the training and experience to deal with cross-cultural issues. Please talk to your school counselor about how to find a therapist with experience in helping immigrant parents and their more Americanized children get along. You live in an area that has a number of large mental health centers. Chances are there is one that specializes in helping families like yours.

Once you have identified the names of a few therapists, take the time to interview them either on the phone or in person. Many counselors offer the first session or a first phone call free of charge. When you find someone you think will be helpful, invite your parents to go to a few sessions with you. Explain that you love them very much, you don’t want to hurt them, and that you want to get along better. Suggest that a counselor may be able to help you all communicate better.

Your conflicted feelings about how to manage the situation are evidence of your good character and your love and empathy for your parents. You obviously have the maturity to understand that they don’t mean to hurt you. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to take the lead. But your situation isn’t unusual. It’s often the kids in immigrant families who assimilate more quickly and who help their parents find ways to adapt.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 13 Oct 2008

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2008). Two Generations; Two Cultures. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 29, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/10/13/two-generations-two-cultures/