by Dr. Aileen Fullchange, Licensed Psychologist and Nationally Certified School Psychologist
Volumes have been written on the “model minority myth,” a false belief that all Asians and Asian Americans are polite, law-abiding, successful minorities who have, through a combination of innate talent and persistence, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
This false narrative matters in non-traditional parenting because the model minority myth fuels adoption and foster care trends. Consequently, more than any other racial group, children of Asian or Pacific Islander descent (or AAPIs) are the least likely to be removed from their biological family or linger in the child welfare system and are the most likely to be adopted.
Asian American Pacific Islanders or AAPIs is a term first used in the 1990s to lump together Asians and Pacific Islanders from more than 45 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. This diversity in origin means there is no single identity that fits all AAPIs, and especially not the model minority stereotype. If you are a U.S.-based caregiver to a child of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, here are some things you should know to successfully parent the child you are caring for:
- AAPIs with the highest poverty rates in the U.S. include the Hmong people (originally from throughout southeast Asia) and some Native Hawaiian communities, as well. There is a direct correlation between poverty and psychological well-being, according to a 2000 article in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.
- Physical abuse and family violence are more likely to occur in some AAPI communities. Researchers with the Asian American Psychological Association report that at least three-quarters of all Southeast Asian teens have witnessed violence in their communities and almost half have been a victim of violence. Research shows that children exposed to interpersonal as well as community violence have an increased risk of emotional and behavioral challenges, often with long-term effects which last even after transitioning to a safe environment.
- Suicide is the 8th leading cause of death for Asian-Americans, whereas it is the 11th leading cause of death for all racial groups combined. Asian females in particular experience some of the highest suicide rates, especially at pivotal times in their lives like adolescence. Yet Asian Americans are less likely to seek mental health treatment compared to other racial groups, perhaps because of internalized beliefs related to the model minority myth.
- A 2021 article in the Journal of Women and Social Work found that Asian males experience discrimination navigating the dating scene, while Asian females are fetishized. These sexualized microaggressions can lead to negative internalized messages, according to the Journal of Family Theory & Review. At particular risk are Asian girls, because racial/ethnic minority children are more likely to be trafficked than white children.
Unfortunately, the model minority myth can cause non-AAPI communities to ignore the needs of AAPI children. For example, studies have shown that schools are less likely to notice when AAPI children are struggling. And, research by the National Institutes of Health on the emotional well-being of AAPIs reveals that studies on this demographic are also less likely to be funded than those on white populations. This means that mental health diagnostic tools and interventions are less likely to be suitable for AAPIs and, therefore, AAPIs are less likely to receive appropriate treatment. When services are sought, it is usually when symptoms have become severe.
During these times, it is important to recognize how anti-AAPI hate impacts youth and the AAPI community as a whole. Data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported that anti-Asian hate crime increased by 339% in 2021 compared to 2020, with 16% of hate incidents being reported by AAPI youths ages 12-20. And we know that children who experience racism are more likely to report mental health challenges and disruptions to life functioning.
Here are some steps resource parents can take to support the health and well-being of the AAPI child they are caring for as the child grows:
- Talk about race and culture. This can and should happen at the dinner table and on a day-to-day basis. A 2013 article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Science examined the impact of stress on transracially adopted youth and concluded that racial socialization can inoculate against the negative impacts of inevitable racism. Racial socialization is the process by which parents emphasize racial/ethnic/cultural pride while also warning children about racial inequities.
- Learn and talk about the model minority myth. Author Rosalind S. Chou’s book, “Myth of the Model Minority Asian: Americans Facing Racism,” is an excellent starting point for caregivers. Even if your child has not heard of the term, they have most likely already experienced it in some form of implicit discrimination. You can open a conversation like this with, “I want to talk with you about what it might be like for you as an Asian American Pacific Islander so I can prepare you to navigate the world. Some people are going to make assumptions about you that just aren’t true.”
- Online resources offer a wealth of learning tools for parents and other caregivers. Educate yourself about your child’s culture of origin. If circumstances permit, visit your child’s ancestor’s country of origin. Show positive regard for their culture of origin through curiosity, be committed to your own learning, attend and share cultural events with your child from their culture of origin, and, most importantly, seek out meaningful interpersonal interactions and friendships with those from your child’s culture of origin.
- Educate yourself about your own racial identity development so you can model this for your child and be able to “pass it on” to your child. Researchers writing for the Asian American Journal of Psychology concluded that a healthy racial identity is correlated with positive life outcomes and can be a buffer against other life stressors.
- Lastly, know that fostering or adopting any child is inherently complex. It is always OK to seek the support and consultation of a licensed mental health provider, especially one who specializes in transracial adoption, to help you navigate these complexities. Children and families usually have better outcomes the sooner support is sought.
Aileen Fullchange, Ph.D., is a licensed Taiwanese-American psychologist who serves diverse teens, individuals, couples and families on Caddo, Witchta and Comanche land in Dallas, Texas. She works at the crossroads of psychological well-being, education and equity as a clinician and speaker. She is also a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.