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South Asian Therapy

Dealing With Parental Expectations As An Adult

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Prerna Menon

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Published On 27 June 2024

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Date Last Updated: 14 July 2024

Do you have a little voice that sounds an awful lot like your parents perched on your shoulder?

 

That voice perks up when you're making big decisions and small, experiencing success and failure. It shows up when you want it to, but also when you can do without it. In this blog, we're unpacking parental expectations. We will discuss what they are, how they influence us, and how to deal with them.


If you're like me and live in a fast-paced environment like New York City, you may juggle multiple obligations throughout the week. Whether those responsibilities are personal friendships and relationships, career obligations, navigating dreaded public transportation, or self-care, the weight of parental expectations trumps them all. These expectations are typically deeply rooted in cultural traditions and values. They may evoke a sense of stress among adults, particularly if the adult does not entirely adhere to those same values, traditions, and norms (APA, 2017).
 

Being a therapist of South-Asian descent, in New York City, I frequently come across individuals who are grappling with the challenge of reconciling their parents' expectations with their own aspirations and dreams. In this blog post we delve into strategies for navigating this balancing act, with self-compassion, acceptance and understanding.

Understanding Parental Expectations And Where They Come From

Parental expectations are complex, layered, and often culturally-rooted. Societal and other extended familial expectations or historical experiences may also influence these evolving expectations. Given that family is the central pillar at the core of most of our lives, we cannot escape its influence. A common occurrence I have come by is parents projecting personal aspirations onto their children. This runs the gamut of ideas around career path, lifestyle, marital choices, and financial decisions - often reflecting a blend of personal wishes, social pressures, and cultural norms (Kawahara & Espín, 2018) (Lamb & Peterson, 2012).
 

We must also consider that these expectations most likely stem from deep concern, love, and protection, with our parents wanting us to succeed and find stability, particularly from their fears of not being around forever to help and support us. Although these expectations mustn't be classified as inherently harmful, we can recognize their profound impact on us. It is when these expectations are unyieldingly rigid that they can become the root cause of significant emotional pain, anxiety, and stress. Clinical findings suggest that when parental expectations do not align with an individual's own goals and values, psychological tension begins to grow, which can manifest as confusion around identity, psychological distress, and emotional overwhelm (Ingoglia et al., 2016).

The Impact of Parental Expectations
 

  1. Emotional Distress: The fear and anxiety that arise from disappointing one's parents or being judged by a community, mainly if you originate from a collectivistic culture, can greatly impact the relationship that we have with our parents itself. For example: disagreement over chosen partners, career choices, financial decisions, etc can lead to conflict in the family system itself resulting in further personal overwhelm which trickles down into all aspects of our lives.

  2. Identity Conflict: Adulthood is a time of transition, growth spurts, and changing dynamics. With that comes an evolving identity. Individuals tied to a collectivistic upbringing may find themselves torn between their individual desires and cultural roots, particularly if the two are at odds.This conflict can seem especially acute in a diverse, global city such as New York, where contact with other lifestyles and values threatens to make bridging the gap between these two worlds even more difficult (Lamb & Peterson, 2012).

  3. Relationship Strain: Parental expectations may also impact our relationships with our friends or partners and may also show themselves as impacting our relationships with our parents. For example, disagreements over chosen partners, career choices, financial decisions, etc. can lead to conflict in the family system itself, resulting in further personal overwhelm, which trickles down into all aspects of our lives

How to Manage Parental Expectations

 

  1. Open Communication: Effective communication is crucial in navigating parental expectations. Engage in honest and empathetic conversations about your goals and aspirations with your parents. Share your feelings and perspectives, and listen to theirs. This dialogue can help bridge understanding and foster mutual respect.

  2. Setting Boundaries: Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries supports your well-being – not in a selfish way, but by tactfully and assertively affirming your autonomy. We often run away from the word "boundaries" because we feel like they are mean or selfish. However, I encourage you to reframe boundary setting as an effort to conserve and nurture a relationship rather than pushing it away. Parents won't always (or even often, initially) like it and might interpret this assertion as rejection. But boundaries are about keeping our minds and hearts safe, not about keeping our parents out.

  3. Seeking Professional Support: All of us could use a little bit of extra help and support, particularly when dealing with family. When our emotional troubles center around family, it is easy to forego our better judgment as we feel overwhelmed by charged emotions. A therapist allows you an unbiased perspective, guiding you towards inner reconciliation and familial reconciliation if you want it. A therapist can help you establish new ways of coping with the people in your life, for example, by improving communication skills or developing a better tolerance of ambiguity. Therapy can also prove to be doubly effective if done in a culturally responsive environment. (Sue, Sue, Neville, & Smith, 2019) (Chen & Mak, 2008).

  4. Building a Support Network: Ensure you surround yourself with friends, mentors, or colleagues who understand your cultural context and can help by providing feedback, perspective, and encouragement. This circle of support connects you with a sense of validation and belonging outside of your immediate family, reducing the pressure you place on yourself for validation from your parents. 

  5. Practicing Self-Compassion: Allow yourself to be kind, acknowledging the full magnitude of your experience. Self-compassion is about recognizing your needs and limitations and not being too self-critical when you can't meet every expectation. Rather than stiffening up and bearing your suffering with a 'stiff upper lip,' we encourage you to stop and ask yourself: Wow, this is hard right now; what can I do to be a friend to myself in this moment?

"Having compassion for oneself is no different than having compassion for others. Derived from Latin, the term refers to how we're with (com) suffering (passion)" (Kristen Kneff, 2024).

In conclusion, navigating parental expectations can be challenging but also deeply rewarding when addressed squarely and with honesty. The truth is that no dream is too selfish, and no culture is worth losing. By implementing some of the strategies outlined in this blog, you can allow these two winding roads to blend seamlessly, fostering emotional harmony in your life. 


At Boundless, our team incorporates the lessons we've learned in our work with adults on parental expectations, often undergirded by many of the same cultural baggage, into our clinical ethos and philosophy. We ensure that we employ an integrative approach to our work with clients, considering all the systems within which they exist today and have existed historically. At Boundless, our goal is to help individuals maintain a sense of their own identity and autonomy while respecting their intersectional identities. If you're struggling with parental expectations, please reach out for a free 15-minute consultation call and get help from a culturally attuned therapist today.

Summarizing How To Deal With Your Parents Expectations

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Step 1

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• Parental expectations are culturally-rooted and complex.
• Influenced by societal, familial, and historical factors.
• Often stem from parents' desire for their child's success and stability.
• Rigid expectations can cause emotional pain and stress.
• Parents project aspirations onto children, affecting career, lifestyle, and choices.
• Misaligned expectations lead to psychological tension and identity confusion.

References

Authors

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Prerna Menon

LCSW | CCTP

Specialties: survivors of childhood sexual abuse & incest survivors, existential crisis, race-based stress, gender identity & sexuality-related conflicts, cross-cultural issues, addiction, international students, family issues & acculturation

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Sam Urell

LCSW | CASAC-T | CTP

Specialties: complex trauma, addiction, relationships/attachment, LGBTQIA+ identity issues & exploration, existential crisis, men's mental health, anxiety, mood/emotional dysregulation, psychedelic integration

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