How to communicate better with my Asian parents?
I believe one of the most important things one can do to improve communication with parents is to process our feelings about them.
Often in Asian cultures, parents expect unconditional loyalty and respect from their children.
These expectations don’t allow much room for “negative” feelings that we, as adults, might have about our parents. We end up managing or suppressing these “negative” feelings on our own and maybe even afraid to fully explore them.
The problem is ignoring feelings doesn’t work. They reveal themselves perhaps in our tone of voice, our aggression, our silence, our distance, our withholding, etc... It's only when we can fully process the full range of emotions we have about our parents - anger, disappointment, hatred, love, longing, appreciation, gratitude - that we can begin to see and accept them for who they are with their strengths and limitations. This process releases tension, frees us up to choose how we want to speak to them, and what kind of relationship we want with them.
We cannot accept others, until we accept ourselves and our feelings. Therapists know this and help their clients to unpack their feelings for this very reason - it creates freedom, choice, and a more compassionate perspective, all qualities that enhance relationships with others, specially parents.
Often times, our parents won't know that we went through this whole process, but they will notice a difference in us and in your relationship.
Additional suggestions to help improve communication with parents:
- Take care of yourself. If you are stressed out or running on empty, it’s hard to be open and available to have a pleasant and satisfying conversation. This is particularly true of people for whom close proximity to parents increases their stress and anxiety.
- Communicate your needs. Often times, we agree out of respect or to keep the peace and don’t communicate our needs and preferences. We chose resentment over the risk of voicing our wants. Your parents are not mind readers. Try communicating what you need and see what happens. Start small.
- Take responsibility for your part. Communication is a two way street. What might you be saying/doing or not saying/not doing that is escalating or stonewalling the conversation? What could you be doing differently?
- Listen for the underlying message. Often our parents’ comments at face value can be insensitive, critical and offensive. What’s the context? What is underneath what they are saying? Is it unskillful communication? Do they have a different language of love? Is it more revealing of their insecurities and fears?
- Have realistic expectations. Growing up and internalizing Western values of emotional expressiveness, we might long for open, honest discussions with our parents and more emotional intimacy. Sometimes, that can be achieved. Other times, it’s just not possible. Understanding that your parents’ lived experience, which shapes their values and perspectives, is vastly different from yours will allow you to have more realistic and compassionate expectations of them and of your relationship. This is especially true if your parents are first generation immigrants or refugees who might still be processing their own experiences of loss, adjustment, trauma…
As adults, communicating well with our Asian parents can be challenging specially with a lifetime of experiences and feelings that have been swept under the rug and “sitting” between you and them. And, better communication is possible.