Self-Harm and the Parent-Child Relationship in the South Asian Community

March is Self-Harm Awareness Month.  Tanvi Patel, MA, LPC-S, NCC, of Counseling and Meditation, has written a guest blog addressing self-harm and the parent-child relationship in the South Asian Community to both acknowledge the awareness month and help educate us about how this issue affects the South Asian Community. 

“Self-injury, also called self-harm, is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. It’s typically not meant as a suicide attempt. Rather, self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration.”  (Mayo Clinic)

Parent-child relationships have evolved over time and with more and more research,parent-child ready access to information and structured systems in place to monitor harmful family dynamics, we are in a unique position to know what’s wrong, learn how to be better, and thus have better relationships with our children.  In the South Asian community in particular, those that have immigrated to more western cultures find themselves in the predicament of choosing between traditional roles and relationships of their country of origin and those of their resident country.  But where many may agree is in the safety and development of our children. 

Self-harm is a coping skill, typically in response to intense and usually negative emotions.  Imagine a balloon that is filled to the brim with air about to burst.  Emotions get so painful and intense that individuals may cope by injuring themselves in an effort to alleviate the pain, numb the pain, control the pain, and in some cases to seek attention in addition to helping the pain.  After the self-harm, there are often feelings of guilt and shame, as well as the painful emotions from before the self-harm. 

            Emotions/situations that may contribute to self-harm behavior:

  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Hopelessness
  • Depression
  • Worthlessness
  • Helplessness
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of/poor development of identity
  • Lack of/poor support system

Issues of control are prominent in South Asian culture as family dynamics staunchly dictate hierarchy, order, and chain of command.  Assertiveness and autonomy, hailed as functional and healthy in Western cultures are considered disrespectful and un-family-oriented in SA culture.  Communication can sometimes be a one-way street, and any change or adjustments typically happen from the youngest/lowest status to the oldest/highest status in SA families, sometimes causing children to have no outlet or healthy manner in which to express themselves.   Identity is linked closely to that of the family unit, and the identity of the individual child can get lost.  Lastly, SA culture places importance on education and achievements especially in immigrant families to western countries. Students that are high achieving have a higher chance of self-harming thoughts and behaviors. 

Suggestions on interacting with children (minor or adult children) within South Asian families:

  • If the family is unable to include children in major decisions, make it a point to include them in other decisions to preserve the idea of control in the child.
  • When communicating with a child, be open to having the child respond to you.  If you feel the child’s response is inappropriate, share why it was inappropriate and what a better way to communicate might be.
  • Give the child the space and opportunity to express emotions, even if you don’t fully understand them or agree with them.  It is okay to share your disagreement, however let the child know that the expressed emotions are also okay to feel. 
  •  Allow for space for the child to grow into his or her own person.  If this violates a family or cultural boundary, share this boundary, and in turn allow the child to share his/her point of view.  Agreement is not always possible, but the exchange will help both parties feel heard.

Suggestions on coping & interacting with parents if you are experiencing self-harming thoughts/behaviors:

  • When emotions become overwhelming, breathe deeply and try to name the emotions you are feeling.  Often in SA culture and dynamics, feelings of anger, shame, anxiety and sadness can be difficult to separate.
  • Label and learn to recognize triggers that bring up emotions that lead to self-harming thoughts/behavior.
  • Come up with a list of alternate behaviors/tasks/activities to do when these triggers arise.  Use the list!
  • If you are a minor, seek help from a guidance counselor, from a teacher, or a trusted adult to find treatment for self-harming thoughts/behaviors.  If you are an adult, seek help from a licensed and trained professional immediately when experiencing self-harming thoughts/behaviors.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs as they can also contribute to self-harm.
  • When communicating with parents, it is important to maintain boundaries and respect; they will hear you better, even if they don’t understand where you are coming from.
  • Recognize that there are some elements of growing up in a westernized culture that may not be fully understood or accepted by SA/eastern-raised family members, this is something you have no control over.

Following suggestions and recognizing warning signs can really help, however does not always prevent self-harm.  In such cases, it becomes necessary to seek professional help from a licensed counselor.  Sometimes self-injury is on the path to suicide.  It is important to seek help at the first signs of self-injury or distress.  If you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, please call the suicide hotline at (800) 273-TALK or 8255.


Tanvi Patel is a licensed therapist and trained mediator and coach in private practice serving the Houston area.  5d266665e2d389c732f63231e14b62f5

Specializations include​

  • couples and families
  • multi-cultural therapy​
  • South Asian family systems
  • personal growth​
  • inter-generational family issues​

​She has previous work experience in Hays, Travis and Williamson counties in the Austin, Texas area working with juvenile detainees, college students, couples, and families.  In Harris County, Tanvi has experience working with severe disorders including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizoaffective disorder, and further in clinical supervision of a team serving individuals with these disorders.

Tanvi has collaborated with Bibi MagazineSangeet Radio,  and Cy-Fair Magazine to share expert advice on various topics including living with In-Laws, parenting, conflict resolution and anger management.

You can follow Tanvi on Facebook, Twitter, and Pintrest.

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