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Korean-American parenting styles may contribute to children’s mental health issues

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[The Korea Daily-USC: Healing California Project]

“I had to face comparisons with my cousins at family events. I felt stressed and bullied because I was only studying at school.”

John Kim, 44, a second-generation Korean-American clinical psychologist, recalls only studying during his adolescence. Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he said his parents put a lot of pressure on him to study. In particular, Kim said he didn’t get along with his father, who only emphasized studying.

“My dad graduated from Seoul National University Medical School, the top school in Korea. Just like him, I had to be the best in all subjects. My mom used to say, ‘If you can’t become a doctor, you can’t get married,'” Kim recalled.

The pervasive success-oriented culture and excessive pressure on children to excel in school have taken a serious toll on parent-child relationships and youth mental health.

In particular, first-generation Korean immigrant parents, who are acculturated to Korea’s ‘hierarchical system,’ often ignore the individuality and autonomy of their American-born children. As a result, their second-generation children, who are raised in the U.S. with Western-style education that emphasizes “horizontal relationships and individual expression,” suffer from depression and anxiety disorders.

The way Korean-American parents raise their children is expressed as ‘Korean Style Education’. In Korean Style education, the primary goal of raising children is to achieve high academic achievement. Parents always emphasize studying. They want their child to get into a prestigious university and achieve economic and social success. In this process, the child’s individuality and autonomy are often ignored, and the gap between parent-child conflict grows.

Ian Choi, a ninth-grader at Torrance South High School, said, “Korean parents have high expectations of their children and ‘control’ them to do well in school. They want us to succeed economically so that the children can enjoy a better life. If you are interested in studying, the parents’ support is very helpful. However, those who are interested in other things, such as art, sports, and so on, feel too much stress and struggle.”

John Kim, a Clinical Psychologist in Los Angeles, warns that “Korean parents’ standardized Korean style education may lead to depression, anxiety, and anger management disorders in their children.” Korean style education doesn’t allow for diversity in American-born second generations and can leave them emotionally traumatized as a result.

In fact, a study by Eunjung Kim, a professor at the University of Washington, titled “Korean American Adolescent Depression and Parenting,” found that 39% of Korean-American adolescents were more likely to be depressed due to “low maternal warmth and higher intergenerational acculturation conflicts with fathers were significant predictors for adolescent depressive symptoms.”

According to the Koreatown Youth and Community Center (KYCC), which provides mental health counseling to low-income people under the age of 25, 50 out of 132 (38%) of its clients were diagnosed with depression last year. The proportion of depression among all counselors is increasing to 30% in 2021 and 39% in 2022.

According to KYCC, Korean American Family Services (KFAM), and Pacific Clinics APFC, first-generation Korean parents and their second-generation children struggle with high academic pressure and success-orientation; cultural differences from different upbringings; language barriers between parents and kids; self-esteem and independence; and different values about happiness and LGBTQ issues.

The organizations emphasize that the benefits of Korean-style education can be maintained, but mental health issues can only be minimized if Korean parents treat their children as equals.

“Parents need to understand that as children get older, they go through a process of independence,” says Grace Park, Clinic Services Manager at KYCC. Parents should allow their teenagers to enjoy freedom within a limited scope and apologize to their children when they make mistakes so that the relationship can be restored quickly.”

Misook Oh, a clinical psychologist and the Mental Health Program Director at KAFM, mentions that when parents are overly strict and controlling, often responding with every situation with a “No!”, it can lead to feelings of frustration in their children. This might result in the children avoiding conversations with their parents and potentially developing mental health issues like depression, becoming addicted to gaming, or turning to substance abuse. She advises that parents should be understanding and supportive of their children’s interests and curiosity and maintain open lines of communication with them.

“When Korean parents show vertical hierarchy to their children, children who have been educated in horizontal relationships in the U.S. develop a sense of rebellion, saying, ‘Mom and Dad don’t treat me fairly,'” said Heeyoung Lee, a Family Specialist at Pacific Clinics APFC-East/MFC). “It’s really important for parents to look each other in the eye and talk to their children as if they are equals, even if it’s just for 10 minutes a day, such as ‘How was your day, what did you talk about with your friends, what did you feel from different experiences.'”

KYCC, KFAM, and APFC also provide mental health counseling for youth, parent education, and mother’s class programs.

BY HYOUNGJAE KIM, JUNHAN PARK [kim.ian@koreadaily.com]

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