Emotional Costs of “Tiger Mom” Parenting

[TW: childhood abuse]

There are numerous articles about “tiger mom” parents causing an increased suicide rate in kids in the Palo Alto school district.  We could start an “it gets better” campaign for them, but just like the original “it gets better” campaign, it would be an empty promise and for many of them an outright lie.  For many, it simply does not get better.  The vision their parents had for them five years before their first breath will follow them around for the rest of their life.

Imagine you are one of these kids.  Your parents have a vision for what they want you to be and meld you for it from the day you are born.  Maybe they simply do not know any better.  Maybe they are trying to fit the role their parents melded them for and create the grandchildren their parents had in mind when they were created.  Whatever the reason, you are here and under their control.

Your dad has a vision of a white upper middle class lifestyle with 2.5 children.  Everything is going to be peachy keen and nothing is going to go wrong.  This is the movie he has decided his life is going to be and to the best of his abilities, he is going to meld everyone in his life into the characters he wants them to be.  Where people deviate, he will do his best to ignore the deviation and pretend the person is who he wants them to be.

Your mother has decided she is going to live vicariously through her children.  She quits her job and never returns once her first child is born.  You exist as an extension of her.  You find safety in appeasing her.  You are a child in elementary school and your mission is to try to navigate existing next to your mother without being yelled at.  When she laughs, you laugh.  Not because you find it funny, but because conditioning has taught you this is the safest route.  Video games are your escape.  There are worlds there where you can have your own achievements, achievements which she cannot judge and which she cannot take away from you.

Middle school comes.  Online games provide a way for you to make friends for the first time.  Classmates are not an option for friendships without your mother’s explicit permission.  Any classmates you become friends with, your mother will judge and if she does not completely approve, she will tell you not to be friends with that person.  You watch your grandmother tell your 40 year old mother that she should not be friends with someone after observing a single interaction.  Your mother never dealt with her own childhood issues and instead is trying to live vicariously through you.

High school comes.  You start to become closer to some of the friends you met through online games and your emotions start returning.  Without realizing it, you had bottled up all your emotions for many many years and had tucked them away, never allowing yourself to feel them.  Except anger.  It is socially acceptable for boys to express anger.  The floodgates open and many emotions return at once.  Sadness, depression, rounds of suicidal thoughts, neatly hidden from the view of your parents.  You are afraid showing these things to them will make them treat you worse so you never let your parents see them, holding yourself together by knowing that a few people know who you are and care about you.  A few people sitting in front of their computers, thousands of miles away, offering you more love and support than you have ever felt.

You are fortunate, you have a younger brother and sister.  Your mother can live vicariously through them.  Intelligence carries you through school.  Nearly straight As in AP classes means that you are on the path to a UC school.  This means you meet your father’s academic expectations and for the first time, you gain a little space to be yourself.  For the first time, you start hanging out with classmates and are given the chance to make mistakes.  Mistakes are certainly made while socializing, but you learn from them and are able to grow, to become a little more yourself.

You get into a UC, fulfilling your father’s expectations.  The first year of college is freedom.  More freedom to be yourself, more freedom to make mistakes, more space.  Forgiveness is planned for your parents, for they are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them as well.  Instead, you return home to see nothing has changed.  A weekend at home where your sister gets into a fight with your mother, your mother yelling at your sister for “ruining” her one weekend with you.  Your brother picks at his skin after every time your mother yells at him.  She then yells at him for picking at his skin.

More years of college go by.  Maybe you can still have a relationship with your father.  You see your brother interacting with him.  Your father yells at your brother and calls him worthless because he is getting too many Bs in his AP classes.  He is “only” on track to get into a Cal State instead of the UC your father long ago decided he should go to.  You realize just how lucky you have been.  You escaped so much because you happened to fulfill the academic role he envisioned for you.

You push yourself through the rest of college.  Your father told you that he would only pay for 4 years of school for you so you push yourself to get through school in this timeframe.  During senior year, you seek HRT.  You still want your father to love you so you hope that coming out as trans will cause him to accept who you are.  Being trans was never in his vision of what you should be so he does his best to ignore it for as long as he can.  He uses your deadname in conversation and after you correct him, he avoids using any name for you in conversation.  It takes him 18 months to call you by your name.

Luckily for you, finishing college is in his grand plan for what you should be so he continues to pay for your last year of school.  After graduation, you get a 6 figure tech job.  Your income is now high enough that you meet his idea of “successful” and he leaves you alone.  Talking to you or spending any time learning who you are may contradict his vision for you.  Yet he is still your father and you still hope you can have a relationship with him.  You share pieces of yourself with him and hope that he will accept that you are you.  You take a risk and share your depression and fears of breaking with him.  You even share that you were depressed during high school.  He simply states that he did not know you were depressed during high school and that if you break, you can unbreak.  There is no love or empathy to be found, just a suggestion that if things do go wrong, you can fix them and return to the path he envisions for you.

We are one of the lucky ones.  We sufficiently fulfill the role the body’s parents set for us so they leave us alone rather than being actively harmful.  We have a younger brother and sister which allows their attention to be directed elsewhere.  A tech job means that we have money so are able to live hundreds of miles away from them.  It means that a job loss would not immediately mean we have to return to living with them.  And still, fear is what drives us.  A fear that we would have to live with them again if we did not make it drove us to do well in school.  This fear pushed us at our job and pushes us to accumulate savings.

We still hope we can be loved by our parents for who we are one day.  Hopes that the body’s father will recognize that we are our own selves, both more and different from the vision he holds for us.  Hopes that the body’s mother can process her own childhood trauma and become someone who may even be able to love herself and one day her children for who they are.

Yet these are merely hopes.  The reality is that sometimes it doesn’t get better.  We will hope forever, but it is unlikely we will ever be loved by the body’s parents for who we are.  We will spend the rest of our life sorting through the PTSD our childhood left us with.  Life will be about survival far more often than we would like it to be.

The suicides resulting from “tiger mom” style parenting is just the tip of the iceberg.  A few suicides means that there are many many more thinking about it and even more who are being damaged by their childhood.  These people will carry these scars around for the rest of their lives.  Even many who “make it” and get into Stanford and get the 6 figure jobs their parents have been pushing them into can be heavily damaged.  We offer ourselves as an example of how “tiger mom” parenting can lead to economic success at the cost of everything else.

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