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Sahaj Kohli, whose family immigrated to the UK from India, faced an identity crisis familiar to many children of immigrants.
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 her mental health, she found she needed an outlet to share her challenges. In 2019, she founded Brown Girl Therapy, an online mental health community for children of Western immigrants, to marry her two passions of mental health advocacy and narrative storytelling.
Where their parents were born, children of immigrants are often caught between two cultures. They are growing up with values inside the home that may be different from those they live outside of it.
Immigrant parents still teach their children the ways of their country, often rooted in leaving them to their elders. That’s why children of immigrants can struggle with chronic guilt, says Kohli, who earned a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at George Washington University in Washington, DC.
Children of immigrants do not all share the same experiences, but Kohli learned about the behavioral patterns and barriers many of them face. Setting boundaries and discussing mental health with parents will be the focus of her next book, “But What Will People Say?”
“If you’re not doing what you’re told,” Kohli said, “you feel like you’re doing something wrong or you’re betraying your family.”
In an interview with CNN, Kohli shed light on the struggles that first- and second-generation Americans face, while also offering guidance on how to navigate difficult conversations.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
CNN: Why do children of immigrants face special mental health challenges?
Sahaj Kohli: Children of immigrants are often caught between two different cultures. They have grown up in a culture whose norms and values are different than the values and norms they are being socialized with outside the home. They teach you the role you have to play, and it is based on deferring respect to your elders. This is why children of immigrants struggle with chronic guilt.
CNN: Where does that sense of guilt come from?
Kohli: Guilt tells us when we are doing something wrong, when we could have done it to someone else, or when we are acting outside of our values. But when your values are different than those around you, that guilt holds you back. You are recognized for your own values, instead of listening to your own. Recognizing that guilt is a warning sign to slow down, rather than a stop sign to turn around, is something I find difficult for children of immigrants to grasp.
CNN: How do you see these challenges in the workplace?
Kohli: I see it often with the children of immigrants who identify as women and the gender roles that have been placed on them. If they grew up in a culture where they were taught to submit to an elder and are working with a boss or co-worker who has been with the company (longer than they have), they may be able to ask that person to say no. helping or fighting to say they have too much on their plate right now.
Many children of immigrants (a) grew up in a hierarchical family system, and this hierarchy is transcended in the workplace. They feel that because they are lower in the hierarchy, they have to defer to the people who are higher up. They constantly feel like they have to prove themselves or make those above them happy. Setting boundaries is untouchable because you are constantly trying to make other people happy.
CNN: How does the definition of success vary between immigrants and their parents?
Kohli: Immigrants often come to a new country with no one to ask for help and sometimes without a language barrier. Maybe they come because they were forced, maybe they were refugees or maybe they want to give their children better opportunities. The historical legacy of immigrants is that they have to prove themselves and have jobs that show value to the economy. Immigrant parents sought stability and security, and children of immigrants are privileged to pursue passion and happiness.
CNN: What advice do you have for children of immigrants who are struggling to talk to their parents about these issues?
Kohli: When having a difficult conversation with parents, it’s about solving their fear. Immigrant parents often come from a fear-based mindset and a scarcity mindset because they came to this country with very little. They may be afraid that you won’t have enough when you return, and they don’t want that. Therefore, they prioritize security and stability.
Be vulnerable and address their fear. Help them understand that they have nothing to worry about because they are concerned about their child’s well-being. Educate them about what you want them to do so they understand that there is nothing to be afraid of.
CNN: Where can there be a disconnect in languages between the child and the parents?
Kohli: In many cultures, words don’t exist at all. We need to stop thinking in English when we consider where our parents come from. This looks like dealing with feelings of anxiety. How can you identify what it feels like physically?
In many Asian cultures, mental health symptoms manifest as physical symptoms. Headaches can be depression, or stomach aches anxiety. Making that connection might help. For example: “Mom, when you have a lot on your plate, I notice that you get stomach aches. That’s how I feel when I get nervous.’ You can also highlight the severity and talk about how it affects (you) day to day. For example, “I used to like playing soccer, but lately I haven’t been able to get up and go.”
CNN: These children often suffer from survivor’s guilt, a feeling that they must have done something wrong to survive a tragic event when others could not. What guidance do you have for navigating that experience?
Kohli: Children of immigrants often think, “I should be grateful because my parents had it worse.” I call it grateful shame, where we shame ourselves into feeling grateful. The most important thing to remember is that just because someone had it worse, your feelings are not invalidated.
The desire to be a proud immigrant parent can be isolating when you’re left alone to face your own struggles and don’t know how to ask for help. It is important to have support systems within or outside the family.
Pain and suffering are not a competition. It does not mean that you are betraying your family or culture. If you struggle, you are human.
CNN: What have you learned that can be useful to anyone?
Kohli: Self-care is an important part of mental health. … It reinforces the roles you are responsible for (as a child, parent, partner or sibling). For example, reframing therapy as something that is not selfish, but something that supports you in the values that are rooted in your family.
Self-care looks different for different family systems. It is important to seek outside support from people who share your values. You never want to do this alone and free fall without any support while navigating mental health conversations.
Build those support systems before you start to broach the subject within or outside of the family, as it can feel isolating. For all of us, mental health self-care is about finding your agency in the systems in which you live.