*Content warning: Contains disclosure of behaviors of self-harm. 

“You are too much! And you talk too much!” was what I was told as a child when I expressed my feelings.

My parents emigrated from the Philippines and wanted the best for their six children: rigorous education, fine clothing, and a spacious home. They were advised by the pediatrician not to teach us their native language, warning it would cause confusion. I pinpoint this advice as the cause for our home’s emotional deficiency. It created a dynamic of tense silences, suspicion, and rivalries about everything from chores to college choices. My siblings were not my allies or advocates. I was intimidated, ruled over, and ridiculed. 

It was a priority to maintain appearances of mastery and stoicism, even interpersonally. When I would be overwhelmed with run-of-the-mill developmental anxieties such as the first day of school, there was no vocabulary for this. Make no mistake, my parents were loving and expressive. For me this looked like being spoon-fed by my father until first grade and through shopping trips with my mother. Their care was concrete and lavish.   

When it came to mental and emotional health, however, things were compartmentalized: If I wanted to stay home from school because of test anxiety,  I was said to be “faking it” unless I had a fever. Or my itchy skin patches were treated with steroid cream when really I just hated being ridiculed for “being so sensitive.” There had to be somatic proof. Sometimes this led to self-harm: scratching to the point of bleeding or abusing sleeping pills. It was a painful cycle.  

The self-harm or cycle is preventable. It can be interrupted. How? 

1. Understand intergenerational trauma.

Intergenerational trauma is the transmission of racial distress from parent to child. It is usually unspoken. For example, a child can feel sad and scared watching her father place an order at McDonald’s or trying to help grandmother schedule a doctor’s appointment due to language barriers. These examples do not seem to be traumatic. However, they can be profoundly overwhelming. 

2. Regularly discuss internalized oppression. 

Internalized oppression is self-hatred due to perceived racial inferiority. This is an effect of colonization, enslavement, and white-centering/white supremacy. Notice how your child idolizes people with whom they are in stark contrast: “I see that you adore Rapunzel’s golden hair, but I adore your black tresses.”

3. Normalize identifying racism.

Identify racism. There can be a myth within the AAPI community that, because Asians are perceived as white-adjacent, racism does not occur. Parents/caregivers must call things what they are. It empowers children to know about microaggressions and how to handle them resiliently. 

4. Frequently ask: Is this developmentally appropriate? 

Define suffering and sacrifice in terms that make sense to your child. It is commonly said, “My parents have sacrificed so much for me to have a better life, so I must also sacrifice.” This is harmful because the term “sacrifice” is weighty and not proportional to a developing child’s understanding. Help your child create a small, manageable world in which they can flourish.  Identify and praise their effort and growth, however small.

About the Author: Maria Beatty completed Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Training and booster training under Yale Medical School’s Carrie Epstein, MA, as well as Completed Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools Plus Racial Trauma Module by the Center for Safe and Resilient Schools under Won Fong Lau-Johnson, Ph.D. and Audra Langely, Ph.D. This spring will mark her three year work-a-versary at Hall Mercer.