Editor’s note: Subscribe to CNN’s Stress, But Less newsletter. our This six-part mindfulness guide will teach and inspire you to reduce stress while learning how to harness it.
Saj Kohli, whose family emigrated to the UK from India, experienced an identity crisis familiar to many immigrant children.
As the first in her family to marry a non-Indian, the first to go to therapy and the first to start talking openly about mental health, she found herself in need of an outlet to share her challenges. In 2019, she founded brown girl treatmentan online mental health community for children of immigrants in the West, to marry her two passions for mental health advocacy and narrative storytelling.
Wherever their parents were born, the children of immigrants are often scattered between two cultures. They have been brought up with values inside the home that can be different from those they experience outside.
Immigrant parents still teach their children the ways of their home country, often rooted in deference to the elderly. That’s why children of immigrants suffer from chronic guilt, noted Kohli, who earned a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from George Washington University in Washington, DC.
Not all children of immigrants share the same experiences, but Kohli learns the behavior patterns and obstacles that many of them face. Setting boundaries and discussing mental health with parents will be the focus of her upcoming book, But What Will People Say?
“If you are not doing as you are told, you feel like you are doing something wrong or betraying your family,” Kohli said.
In a conversation with CNN, Kohli sheds light on the struggles that first- and second-generation Americans face while also providing guidance on how to navigate difficult conversations.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: Why do children of immigrants face unique mental health challenges?
Sohag Kohli: Children of immigrants are often scattered between two different cultures. They have grown up in a culture where norms and values differ from those socially constructed outside the home. You’ve learned the role you’re meant to play, and it’s rooted in deferring respect for the elderly. This is why children of immigrants suffer from chronic guilt.
CNN: Where does this guilt come from?
Kohli: Guilt tells us when we do something wrong, when we have wronged someone else or when we act outside our values. But when your values differ from those around you, that guilt holds you back. It makes you act on someone else’s values instead of listening to your own. Realizing that guilt is a warning sign for you to slow down rather than a stop sign to turn around, is something I find hard for immigrant children to embrace.
CNN: How do you see these challenges emerging in the workplace?
Kohli: I often see it with children of immigrants who identify as women and the gender roles that have been attached to them. If they have grown up in a culture where they have been taught to submit to seniors and work with a boss or co-worker in the company for longer than (they have), they may have a hard time saying no to that person, asking for help or struggling to say they have too much on their plate at the moment.
Many children of immigrants have grown up in (a) a hierarchical family system, and this hierarchy goes beyond the workplace. They feel that they are lower in the hierarchy, and they have to defer to those in a higher rank. They feel that they need to constantly prove themselves or to please those who are superior to them. Setting boundaries seems intangible because they are constantly trying to please others.
CNN: How does the definition of success differ between children of immigrants and their parents?
Kohli: Immigrants come to a new country often without people they can count on for support and sometimes a language barrier. They come because they may have been forced to, or they may be refugees, or they may come because they want to give better opportunities (for their children). The historical legacy of immigrants is having to prove themselves and get jobs that show value to the economy. Immigrant parents have sought stability and security, while immigrant children have the privilege of pursuing passion and happiness.
CNN: What advice would you give to children of immigrants who are struggling to talk to their parents about these issues?
Kohli: When having a difficult conversation with parents, it’s all about addressing their concerns. Immigrant parents often come from a mindset of fear and a mindset of scarcity because they may have come to this country with very little. They may be afraid that you will come back to not having enough, and they just don’t want to. That’s why they prioritize security and stability.
Be vulnerable and address their concerns. Help them understand that they have nothing to worry about, because they are just worried about their baby being okay. Educate them about what you want to do so they can understand that it doesn’t have to be scary.
CNN: Where can there be a language separation between a child and a parent?
Kohli: In many cultures, words do not exist at all. We have to stop thinking in English when we think about where our parents might come from. This can sound like a treatment for feelings of anxiety. How do you determine how you feel physically?
In many Asian cultures, mental health symptoms appear as physical symptoms. Headaches could be depression, or stomachaches could be anxiety. This connection may be helpful. For example: “Mom, when you have a lot on your plate, I notice that you have a stomach ache. This is how I feel when I feel anxious.” You can also highlight the risk and talk about how it affects (you) day in and day out. For example, “I used to love playing football, but lately I haven’t been able to get up and go.”
CNN: These children often suffer from the guilt of survivors – the feeling that they made a mistake by surviving a tragic event when others couldn’t. What guidelines do you have for exploring this experience?
Kohli: Children of immigrants often think, “I should only be grateful, because my parents were worse off.” I call it the shame of gratitude – where we shame ourselves and feel gratitude. The most important thing to remember is that just because someone did worse, your feelings don’t invalidate.
The desire to make immigrant parents proud can lead to isolation when you’re left on your own to deal with your struggles and don’t know how to ask for support. It is important to have support systems within or outside the family.
Pain and suffering are not competitors. This does not mean that you are betraying your family or your culture. If you struggle, you are human.
CNN: What did you learn that could apply to anyone?
Kohli: Self-care is an important part of mental health care. … (It) strengthens the roles you take responsibility for as a child, parent, partner, or sibling. For example, reframing therapy as something that is not selfish, but something that helps you with values that are rooted in your family.
Self-care looks different for different family systems. It is important to seek outside support with people who share your values. You never want to do this alone and free fall without any kind of support as you navigate mental health conversations.
Build these support systems inside or outside the family before you start tackling the topic because it can feel isolated. For all of us, mental health self-care is about finding the agency you have within the systems you live in.