Emotional Abuse and Culture

Is emotional abuse culture-dependent? Some think it is. They argue that it’s not right for the ruling culture to decide what is and is not acceptable behavior. This is especially a problem in places like the United States where you have many immigrants and the value of equality. Immigrants* can and have taken governmental agencies to court for discrimination. But the issue isn’t so straightforward, especially with emotional abuse. Just because people from a certain culture accept a hurtful behavior doesn’t mean it’s not damaging.

How Culture Influences Emotional Abuse

Adam Tomison and Joe Tucci at the National Child Protection Clearinghouse tell their readers that emotional abuse can’t be separated from the social norms of the family’s culture. For instance, let’s say cultural values dictate a certain level of virility in boys. If the parents of one boy don’t think he shows it, they may humiliate him until he does. Tomison and Tucci imply this isn’t emotional abuse because the parents are following cultural norms.

Another common issue when it comes to culture and abuse is the authoritarian parenting style. Many non-Western cultures approve of this type of parenting and enforce it. Indeed, absolute obedience to a parent, particularly the father, is an admired value in many cultures.

Non-Western cultures may also value the group over the individual. As a result, signs of straying from beliefs and behaviors that are considered “normal” can bring on emotional abuse. The culture sees these “normal” beliefs and behaviors as moral and contributing to the good of the whole, which is more important than the good of the individual. Or perhaps more accurately, the good of the individual is only possible when there’s harmony in the group.

Emotional expression is also something that’s not universally admired. Some cultures feel that expressing emotions is inappropriate and shows lack of self-control. They see it as undignified and disruptive to others. This can also influence how a parent demonstrates affection. Parents, particularly fathers, of non-Western cultures may see the show of affection as undignified and repulsive.

Alternatively, there are cultures where a high degree of involvement in a child’s life is considered the mark of good parenting. I’m referring here not to taking an interest in what a child does but in interfering with everything that a child does. All decisions are expected to go through the family, and everything that’s done is expected to be for the good of the family or the wider community. The child essentially isn’t allowed to have his or her own identity.

NetCE is a company that provides online continuing education courses prepared by licensed medical professionals. Their course Child Abuse in Ethnic Minority and Immigrant Communities discusses the influence of racism on the way many African Americans bring up their children. This is relevant to other situations as well, such as Hispanic families or Native Americans. Verbal abuse and other forms of emotional abuse are seen as preparing children to face an environment that doesn’t respect them as much as their white peers. Their intention isn’t to hurt their children but rather to toughen them up emotionally.

One final link between culture and emotional abuse that’s prominent in non-Western cultures relates to gender issues.** Many cultures embrace the idea that men should rule society; they see this as morally right. This can cause pain to both boys and girls. Boys are expected to do and be things that they may not identify with. Girls’ feelings and needs are disregarded, ridiculed, or ignored.

It’s Still Emotional Abuse

Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I come from a non-Western culture. I’m a naturalized citizen of the United States. My parents, though citizens of the U.S., were raised in a non-Western culture and in fact only spent 15 years in the U.S. In addition, they resisted adopting American values and norms, so I was raised with a non-Western parental style. In other words, I speak not from the perspective of a Westerner who has a difficult time understanding non-Western culture but rather as one who experienced the second but was aware of the first.

Whether we’re living in a non-Western culture or whether our parents raise us in a non-Western value system while living with a Western culture, it can be difficult for us to figure out whether our parents’ behavior was abusive when they followed cultural norms. The first thing we need to take into consideration is that we’re human before we’re members of a certain society. Cultural norms can and do ignore human needs. When they do, that’s emotional abuse, even when those norms are culturally acceptable.

For instance, the belief in some cultures that emotional expression equates to lack of self-control and is therefore bad opens the door to emotional abuse. We all need to be able to express ourselves emotionally. When we don’t, we’re doing something unhealthy. When parents send us the message that expressing emotions is unacceptable or will bring disapproval, they’re essentially ignoring a very important emotional need we have, and that’s abusive.

We also need to keep in mind that many of the values that are supported by non-Western cultures can be enforced in non-abusive ways. We have a right, for instance, to express emotions openly in private. Respect for others doesn’t have to happen through control, oppression, and punishment. We can be encouraged to act for the good of the whole without being made to feel like we’re evil if we don’t. Parents don’t have to choose to teach children values in hurtful ways, no matter what culture those values belong to.

Insisting on maintaining the values of a particular culture can also lead to isolation, which is emotionally abusive. Many of us who live in a country where our parents’ culture isn’t dominant have to deal with this. We see one set of values when we go to school or spend time with our friends and a different one when at home. In some cases, our parents feel threatened by these values and take active steps to isolate us, feeling that they’re doing the right thing because their culture’s values are superior to the surrounding culture’s values. We end up having difficulties connecting with those around us and feeling conflicted over whose values we really agree with when we become adults and take control of our own lives.

While some culture-specific behaviors are more clearly abusive, such as humiliating a child for openly showing emotion, others are more a matter of personal interpretation. For those of us who are hurt by these culture-specific behaviors, we have the right to call them abusive and take them seriously.

For example, my parents come from a culture that believes that a woman’s greatest achievements are marriage and motherhood. As a result, they disregarded ambitions I had that didn’t follow this belief. If I’d agreed with them then their attitude wouldn’t have hurt me. But since I didn’t agree with them and I didn’t get the support that kids need when they’re trying to accomplish their goals, my parents’ attitude was emotionally abusive.

We recognize that physical and sexual violence are wrong, no matter what the cultural norms are. It should be no different for emotional abuse. Just because a culture accepts a behavior doesn’t make it OK. We have the right to call such a behavior emotionally abusive when it ignores our needs and causes us long-term pain.

* I use terms like “immigrants” and “non-Western cultures” in this article, but some of these issues are also relevant to other groups, such as Jews or African Americans.

** To be absolutely clear, emotional abuse based on gender isn’t special to non-Western cultures. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it tends to be more overt in non-Western cultures because the concept of gender equality isn’t taken as seriously, if it’s regarded at all, in these cultures.

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