When people compare Asian parenting styles with Western styles of parenting, they may erroneously think it’s one simply of culture. While culture plays a significant role, one must look deeper by examining the theory of attachment and the relational attachment patterns that may develop as a result of culture.
Attachment theory in its simplest terms is defined by how infant and parental interactions create an “attachment style” based on the emotional bond that’s created during early childhood between infant and his/her primary caregivers. The theory espouses the attachment styles that result from these early interactions, while not fixed, do provide a strong foundation for not only attachment behaviors between parents but also later in life with romantic partners and other close individuals.
Attachment theory is neither a Western or Eastern conceptualization of parenting styles since its roots are in evolutionary psychology through the study of the infant-mother bond of primates. The late British psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, developed this theory by applying ethology to infant behaviors believing that an infant’s responses to his/her caregiver are evolved responses which promote survival.
Bowlby’s attachment theory was partially influenced by Harry Harlow and his attachment experiments on Rhesus monkeys during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Attachment theory went against the conventional behavioral belief that attachment formed as a response to a child’s physical needs (e.g., food) by examining the caregiver’s emotional (emphasis mine) responsiveness to the infant. “The behavioral theory of attachment would suggest that an infant would form an attachment with a caregiver that provides food. In contrast the evolutionary theory would suggest that infants have an innate (biological) need to touch and cling to something for emotional comfort…the determinant of attachment is not food but care and responsiveness.” (Saul McLeod)
Dr. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine and Dr. Alan Sroufe, a professor of Child Psychology at the Institute of Child Development summarize Bowlby’s findings in their study, The Verdict Is In: The case for attachment theory, by saying, “Infants are attached to their caregivers not because caregivers feed them, but because caregivers trigger the unfolding of infants' inborn disposition to seek closeness with a protective other.”
John Bowlby’s studies on attachment are considered cross-cultural as one of his researchers, Mary Ainsworth, conducted field studies of African mothers and their children in Uganda and first developed the hypothesis that “attunement,” is the key component in determining the attachment style of an infant to his caregiver.
“Attunement, or sensitivity, requires that the caregiver perceive, make sense of, and respond in a timely and effective manner to the actual moment-to-moment signals sent by the child. Infants who develop confidence in their caregivers are securely attached because their caregivers have proven to be reliable.” (Dr. Siegel & Dr. Sroufe)
The relational implications from this theory resound strongly today as research and longitudinal studies show the predictability of early attachment relationships on significant relationships later in life. Children who have attachments considered “secure”, in the sense that the mother or primary caregiver are attuned to the child’s inner experience and show consistent responses by validating those needs are much more likelier to thrive emotionally than those who experience an “insecure” style of attachment.
Dr. Alison Lee and Gail Palmer of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists sum up insecure attachment as this, “In an insecure attachment strategy, one can become overly preoccupied with the relationship or exhibit the opposite reaction of withdrawing or investing less of oneself in the relationship. The first strategy is characterized by blaming or critical behaviors, whereas the second strategy is more likely to involve an unemotional or dismissive stance. There is a third attachment strategy that some individuals–who have experienced either severe abuse or neglect as a child–can develop and that is to both seek contact with the significant other, but then reject the contact when it is offered.”
While culture doesn’t determine a child’s attachment style, it does impact what attachment styles are encouraged. In my own work with Asian clients, I see a large number of them coming from an insecure attachment style described as an “avoidant attachment” characterized by emotional dismissiveness, avoidance or withdrawal.
If expressing emotions is frowned upon, then suppression of one’s emotions is seen as the best way to deal with negative emotions such as frustration, distress, anger, hurt, or sadness. In life, it may look like compulsive caregiving or excessive over-compliant to garner approval from parents, thus avoiding rejection, disapproval, or shame. But it can also lead to an idealization of parents and distortion of healthy relational boundaries due to the shame-bound culture in Asian families.
Here are a few clinical examples:
• A 28 year old Cambodian woman comes in complaining about her need to “always be there” for her parents (emotionally and financially) since her father is a life-long gambling addict. After two months of helping her recognize her role in the unhealthy cycle (e.g., she always bails her dad out of his gambling problem by giving them money when he needs it) and how she needs to draw healthier boundaries with them, she comes into session one evening, headstrong and adamant, telling me, “I’m done with therapy and just need to move beyond my past and stop being angry. I can’t always dwell on my parents’ shortcomings and need to just move forward and be happy.”
• A 42 year old, married Taiwanese man comes into therapy because of arguments for independence from his parents as they want him to contact them more frequently. “My parents shame me and scold me for not seeing them multiple times a week by comparing me to their friends’ kids who take their parents out to dinner every other day. I tell them I’m trying to build a marriage with Victoria and need some distance but I know I’m putting my mother’s needs ahead of my wife’s. Unfortunately, I just don’t know how to stop it.”
• A 22 year old Vietnamese college student seeks treating for feeling suicidal after complaints of having to lie for his adulterous father. “It makes me angry I have to lie for him, it strengthens my lack of trust and I have suicidal thoughts because I’m ashamed of my blood line. It makes me hate of who I am.”
• A 33 year old Korean man confides to me that he had an affair and impregnated the woman he was having the affair with due to his inability to express his anger at his wife for not wanting to have children.
In all these case studies, none of them had a childhood where emotional intimacy was encouraged. There were no opportunities where feelings were shared or encouraged in an open, safe, and non-judgmental manner. Instead, all of them learned to hide them and the feelings of shame associated with expressing their emotions continued in adulthood.
In many of the avoidant-attachment styles, the hard work in therapy is helping clients realize their feelings mattered. Validating and drawing them out is significant work. Helping them find words to address vulnerable feelings such as those related to emotional neglect, loss, pain, and confusion is no easy task. Furthermore, some of those with avoidant-attachments have developed similar childhood relational styles in their primary adult relationships where being emotionally vulnerable, authentic, and “attuned” to their spouse is replaced with a lack of connection and the need to isolate and withdraw emotionally when intense feelings arise.
The field of study in attachment is fairly new but what’s becoming evident is not necessarily the culture you grew up in, rather it’s how the culture shapes a parent’s sensitivity or attunement to a child. Evidence shows a lack of attunement in childhood can lead to significant relational issues later in life. But what these studies also show is attachment not fixed, the brain continues to grow and new neural pathways can develop from healthier relationships to correct past harm.
In short, “Western” parenting isn’t better than “Asian” parenting but in any culture, we need to acknowledge and correct any factors that can contribute to less than ideal attunement to the child.
* to preserve the confidentiality of the people described, all the examples are composites. In each case, all names and identifying characteristics are fictitious.
Attachment Relationships by Dr. Alison Lee and Gail Palmer retrieved from http://www.aamft.org/imis15/content/Consumer_Updates/Adult_Attachment_Re...
The Verdict Is In: The case for attachment theory by Alan Sroufe, Ph.D. and Daniel Siegel, M.D. retrieved from http://www.drdansiegel.com/uploads/1271-the-verdict-is-in.pdf
Attachment Theory by Saul McLeod retrieved fromhttp://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html
Childhood Trauma and Adult Attachment by Chris Purnell retrieved from http://www.iasa-dmm.org/images/uploads/Attachment%20and%20trauma,%20Purnell,%202010.pdf