Stresses Facing Indian Families:Role of Biblical Counseling
Dr. Kurian is a Psychologist working at the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents, Baltimore. He has two Master’s degrees from Howard University and a Doctoral degree from George Washington University. He is the founder and president of Crossroads Counseling Ministries, Inc. in Silver Spring, Maryland. Through professional counseling services, skills development seminars and consulting, CCMI seeks to strength the Christian community in their individual, family and corporate lives. He has also provided spiritual leadership to the Washington Pentecostal Assembly in Silver Spring, Maryland since 1995. He is certified by the National Board for Certified Counselors and the State of Maryland Board of Examiners for Professional Counselors. He is a Charter Member of the American Association of Christian Counselors.View all articles by George Kurian, PhD
What are some of the stresses facing Indian communities that threaten the stability of traditional family systems and interpersonal relationships? What support systems are available to them, and how effective are they in helping families and individuals cope with the demands and pressures brought about by a changing society? This chapter addresses three specific stresses that Indian families may face: the struggle to find personal identity, the friction of parent/child conflicts, and the trauma of facing tragic events. The proper role of biblical thinking and counseling in facing these challenges will be explored.
The Identity Conflict
a. The Struggle to Find Identity. There is the story of a visitor who once visited a school for the deaf and the mute. It was the custom in that school that any visitor must first visit a class that was in session. This visitor, however, did something unusual that day as he visited a class. He went to the front of the class and wrote on the blackboard, “Why has God made me to hear and speak, and made you deaf and dumb?” A chilling silence followed. Suddenly a little girl stood up and quietly came up to the blackboard, picked up the chalk and wrote, “Even so Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight.” She then quietly returned to her seat and sat down.
Evident in this story is one of the fundamental, universal problems of humankind—the problem of self-identity. This conflict essentially deals with such questions as, “Who am I? What is the meaning of my existence? Why am I born the way that I am? Why can’t I be somebody else?” This is an issue that is especially relevant to young people everywhere. According to Dr. James Dobson, “the most painful aspect of growing up is the assault on self-esteem.” Young people face many pressures today that seriously threaten their sense of identity and feelings of self-worth.
One important example involves the preoccupation with physical appearance, the way one looks and presents themselves to others. We undoubtedly live in a society that places great premium on physical appearance. Television commercials that glamorize personal looks capture the imagination of a captive audience. This is typified by the world of fashion. Consider the attention that young people (and adults as well) give to the way they wear their clothes, keep their hair, or treat their nails. It seems that if a person does not conform to the norms of the fashion world, they will feel like they do not belong.
b. A Biblical View of Identity. Remember the story of Moses who was called by God to become the deliverer of his people who were slaves in Egypt? Even Moses did not seem to feel very comfortable about himself and the way he thought he appeared to others. Consider his self-consciousness when he says to God, “I have never been eloquent.” Notice, however, God’s reassuring words to him, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:10). Obviously, God saw him fit for the job regardless of his physical defects.
As Christians, let us remember that our self-esteem is based on our realization of how greatly God values us rather than on our perceptions of how others see us. Notice the words of the Psalmist, “You created my innermost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made... How precious to me are your thoughts, O God.” (Psalm 139: 13, 14, 17) The Bible further teaches us that we are created in God’s image and that any of our physical attributes that may seem as imperfections can be seen as motivation for developing Christ like qualities and attributes within us. Notice also the words of the apostle Paul, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me... For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10).
Recognizing who we are in God’s sight can serve as a powerful motivator in overcoming any destructive emotions that might threaten our sense of worth and hope in Christ. Counseling helps one confront the fundamental issue of who we are, and from where our true identity comes from. It helps us to recognize our strengths and our weaknesses so that we are neither threatened by them nor become so overconfident that we do not trust God and are not wholly dependent on Him.
a. Pressure on a Child. There are many ways that a child can feel pressure from a parent. Consider the following example. When someone is caught in a struggle between personal ambitions and parental allegiance, the emotional pain is real. A Christian female college graduate once wrote to me about the “monsoon seasons” in her life. She seemed to describe herself as a bright young woman who truly loved her Indian parents who wanted to see her “settled” in life. To them this meant getting her married as soon as possible. To the young lady, however, it meant a serious compromise of personal ambitions and professional aspirations. What must she do? Succumb to the sincere wishes of her God-loving parents or stand firm on her determination to pursue the road to educational advancement and career success?
The pressures of the young lady in the above account are enormous and certainly understandable. For our growing Indian community, just as it is with many other Asian ethnic minorities, her story is typical of the kinds of tensions that are common to our first generation Indian families. But more importantly, her story serves as a good example of a young lady’s wisdom to take the first bold step of seeking professional guidance in the wake of a real conflict. And, in so doing, she found relief. Many months after she sought guidance, she not only successfully completed a graduate program of her choice but also entered into marriage. Today she is “settled” and on her way to personal fulfillment and marital happiness.
b. Pressure on Parents. It is generally acceptable in the Western culture for young adults to leave their parents’ home in search of a life of relative independence. This transition is seen in a positive light in this culture because it allows the children to explore their own values and make their own choices. While this practice has social sanction within the larger American culture, it can present a major conflict within many Asian communities, where group rather than individual identity is generally valued and promoted. Understandably, therefore, it is not uncommon for Indian parents to experience a sense of shame and guilt when their teenager or even adult unmarried children leave home to start a life of their own. Many become depressed, feel alienated, and are no longer able to live a life of joy and zest. One wonders how many of these parents may have been willing to seek counseling to deal with their sense of loss, anger, fear, guilt and shame?
c. Responding to the Pressures. Within the context of the rapidly changing technological society we presently live in and the enormous pressures it places on our daily lives, it is of vital importance to identify ways of making families strong so that we can cope with our conflicts.
Building strong families means building strong relationships observes Josh McDowell. According to him, the four essential steps to building strong relationships are acceptance, praise, affection, and parental availability. The period of adolescence that Dr. James Dobson rightly characterizes as the “turbulent years,” is a period of especially great anxiety for young people. Lacking in life experience, they are not sure of themselves and are often vulnerable to feelings of personal inadequacy and self-doubts. Many suffer from poor self-esteem. Parents can help enhance their children’s self-esteem by being sensitive to their vulnerability to failures while still accepting them.
Building strong families requires that parents spend quality time with their children, especially when they are young. In his book Straight Talk to Men and Their Wives, Dr. Dobson talks about the millions of “latch-key” children in America who daily come home to an empty house. In this book, Dr. Dobson also talks about the results of a study which sought to determine the amount of time middle-class fathers in America spend playing and interacting with their small children. The study showed that, on the average, fathers spend just thirty-seven seconds with their children per day! Moreover, their direct interaction is limited to 2.7 encounters daily, lasting ten to fifteen seconds each.
In an age when teen rebellion is commonplace, the tendency for many well-intending yet anxious parents to criticize or compare their children with others is likely to create more problems than it hopes to solve. According to Bill Gothard, “The root of all feelings of inferiority is comparison.” In many families, it is common that a particular child is identified as the object of frequent “concerns” or criticisms by his or her parents. While this may go on as a benign practice in many of our homes, it tends to foster feelings of anger, resentment and self-rejection in children. According to Dr. Dobson, “Youth are extremely sensitive about the matter of physical attractiveness and body characteristics. It is highly inflammatory to commend one child at the expense of another.”
Finally, building strong families requires great sensitivity on the part of parents to nurture, protect and preserve their children’s childhood. The following poem written by a child seems to speak of a real experience.
My Lost Childhood
I remember watching children play,
From my room where I had to stay.
My parents just wanted to protect me,
But it didn’t seem like it to me.
I could not help but wonder,
What would it be like to have a normal life.
I could not find out why they kept me in,
Everything was just a blur.
I couldn’t even go out to enjoy the sun,
Or even laugh and play to have fun.
It hurt so much to see my childhood slip
Out of my grasp and pass me by
There was nothing I could do but sit and cry.
Sometimes I wonder “Am I the only one who
Had a childhood that was over before I knew?”
I have no recollections to share
It’s as if they did not even care.
Did they want me to suffer
Like they did a life time before,
And live in a world
With all those closed doors.
Now that I am older
I think about it every waking hour
Did I lose my childhood or
Did they just take it away?
d. Parental Leadership and Counsel Whether we are parents, teachers, youth workers, pastors or counselors, the implications here for counseling are enormous. For example, what happens to children when they are left at home to fend for themselves while their parents are away working long hours, some by necessity, and others by choice?
One of the important and often ignored areas for family counseling is the issue of parental availability and involvement in setting limits and boundaries for children, especially in the area of managing their leisure time. In the absence of parental initiative, role modeling, and guidance, it is very likely that children will be exposed to unwanted, sexually deviant and destructive information that enters our homes through avenues such as music, television and the Internet. Children who have lost their “innocence” through early trauma, exposure to sin, or abuse are more likely to grow up to become unhappy or confused adults. Counseling is imperative here in that it helps enhance parental sensitivity to the issue of child safety and sexuality.
Remember to keep the channels of communication open at all cost. Children would do well to remember that although their parents’ demands, expectations, and sometimes even their approach may be far-fetched, their underlying motive is likely to be the child’s own well-being. Remember too, that when people are feeling overwhelmed, they can become impulsive and even irrational in their behavior. At times like these, counseling can help parents feel reassured that their children are not necessarily rebelling against their authority, but rather, they want to be heard and understood. Counseling can also help explore the underlying source of parental fear and anxiety to help them identify more constructive ways of coping with these emotions.
a. A Common Experience. Human lives are often punctuated by life crises that bring about drastic changes. These changes may be sudden, unanticipated, or unpleasant. Recently, a young non-Christian Indian father called me within weeks after being subjected to perhaps the greatest tragedy of his life—the loss of his wife and unborn baby who died in a terrible car accident. All too suddenly, the father and his four-year-old daughter were left behind to carry on their lives in a world that seemed terribly cruel and frightening. Not only did the father have to cope with his own irreversible loss, but he was now being faced with a new problem—the impact of the tragedy upon his little girl, who was becoming increasingly depressed, fearful, and isolated.
How would this young father cope with the trauma brought about by this tragedy? One might have expected him to seek counseling to deal with the multiple pressures caused by the sudden crisis. Sadly, however, this young father decided to handle it on his own, hoping that everything would turn out to be okay. Only time will tell how he has managed his life.
When tragedy strikes, it affects the whole family. This was particularly evident in the case of a bright young Indian that I knew who ended his life in the most tragic of circumstances. This young man had become increasingly depressed as he experienced great difficulty in finding a job after successfully completing his post graduate studies. Not only that, unknown to many, he had also been going through an estranged relationship with his girlfriend, who he believed had become unfaithful to him. Gripped by feelings of anger, jealousy, rejection, loneliness, and despair, the young man decided to end it all by killing his girlfriend and then himself. One can imagine the sadness and the grief this impulsive, fatal act must have brought on his family. How could the families involved cope with the aftermath of this tragedy?
To be sure, Christians are not exempt from their share of suffering common to their fellow human beings. Although one may imagine that Christians can easily overcome their difficulties compared to non-Christians, this is often not the case. To the contrary, it is quite likely that Christians respond quite similarly to their non-Christian counterparts in how they cope with a personal tragedy and its aftermath.
The emotions of these kinds of experiences are incredibly intense. What emotions can be identified in response to tragedy? It is generally known that when tragedy strikes, the reality of the trauma does not easily register in the mind. Feelings of shock, denial, anger and guilt are some of the initial responses that commonly attend our traumas. Acceptance of reality, however, will mark the beginning of the healing process. What is important is to recognize that the process of one’s emotional response to personal crisis is varied, as is the ability to draw from one’s spiritual reservoir.
b. Healing the Wounds. The road to one’s emotional recovery from the devastating effects of trauma can be very painful and slow. Counseling can speed up the process of emotional healing and recovery. This is the case of a Christian mother who sought counseling within weeks after the sudden, tragic death of her husband. The mother entered into counseling after she noticed her fifteen year old son becoming increasingly depressed, angry and withdrawn, and refusing to go to school.
Through counseling, the young man was able to identify his deep feelings of sadness, anger and guilt brought about by the sudden death of his father. As painful as it was, he was also able to talk about the intensity of his emotions as he graphically described the nature of the accident that claimed his father’s life. As counseling progressed, it became evident that the young man’s close witnessing of his father’s accidental death and the resulting trauma had been too overwhelming for him that he had begun to experience the symptoms of what is commonly known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Understandably, the young man could no longer handle the daily demands of academic work. Counseling was terminated only after the young man was referred for further medical evaluation and was reportedly able to cope with his crippling anxiety.
a. Attitudes Toward Mental Health. Some time ago, I was at a Christian Family Seminar that was well attended by many South Asian Christian parents, youth and children. In one of the special sessions for the youth, a parent lamented about her plight of bringing up her children. “As Christian parents, we cannot go by Psychology. We have to either train our children right, or forever find ourselves frustrated by arguing with them!” While one can very well sympathize with the dilemma faced by this mother, what seems less clear and even puzzling is the basis for her apparent distrust of the mental health profession.
A study of relevant mental health literature indicates that Asian communities have generally been reluctant to seek professional help for mental health problems. The Christian community seems to be no exception. As Dr. Huang observes, “To many Asians, counseling is a foreign concept. Traditionally, problems are handled within the family, and there might be considered shame and disgrace associated with disclosing emotional problems to a non-family member.” To many of our parents who are generally not accustomed to seeking professional help, there may be more troubling questions than there are reassuring. For example, one may ask such questions as, “What is counseling? What is its role in the church? Is seeking counseling scriptural? Does counseling negate biblical principles?”
b. A Scriptural View of Counseling. Fortunately,the answers that the Bible offers are reassuring. For example, in the epistle to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul talks about the various ministries within the church. He reminds the believers that the church, commonly known as the “body of Christ,” consists of many members whose functions are varied (1 Cor. 12:18). Paul also makes the distinction between “the ministry of the Spirit” and “the ministry of understanding” (1 Cor. 14:5).
Implied here is the notion that counseling, which is a ministry of understanding of the human soul at its deepest level, is just as vital as any other ministry in the church including the ministry of the Word, the ministry of prayer, etc. For a believer then, it is indeed reassuring to know that counseling has its rightful place in the church. Rather than replacing other ministries, it helps to supplement them. According to Dr. Gary Collins, “Pastoral counseling is a crucial part of the church’s ministry; pastoral counseling can be very effective and pastoral counselors play a major role in the Christian counseling movement”. Furthermore, he claims that according to several research studies, “most people still seek counseling from a pastor before getting help from a professional.”
c. Defining Counseling. In order for counseling to be viewed as a useful service by our people, it must be functionally defined. Often, a lack of clear understanding of the meaning and scope of counseling prevents people from seeking help when such help is badly needed. However, before counseling is defined, it is helpful to know what counseling is not. This is especially important, since counseling tends to be a term that is loosely used and often misunderstood.
First of all, counseling is not telling someone what to do or necessarily giving advice, as the term counsel generally implies. If this were the case, a person would have no problem receiving plenty of counsel from friends, peers, and even parents! However, a counselor is more than a friend, and counseling involves more than friendship or giving advice. Stated formally, counseling is a helping process that involves a professional relationship in which a person who is in need of help, and is willing to receive help, seeks and receives help from someone who is perceived as able and competent to help.
d. Obstacles to Counseling. What are some of the obstacles to the effective use of counseling within our communities and churches today? One barrier to effective counseling practice within our communities is the possible lack of counselor sensitivity to issues of confidentiality and trust within the counseling relationship. It is commonly known that people refuse to seek help for fear of being exposed. It is in this context that counselors, as human helpers, need to show great sensitivity to the clients’ right of privacy with regards to the information they share within the counseling relationship, whether in a formal or informal manner.
A related issue is one of maintaining professional boundaries within counseling relationships. This issue becomes more pronounced as counseling is practiced within the context of a church setting. Here, the difficulty of drawing clear boundaries is quite understandable, given the multiplicity and the inter-relatedness of the various ministries operating side by side. For example, when a pastor functions in the role of a counselor, he automatically brings with him, into the counseling relationship, certain role expectations that may be inconsistent with the role of a counselor. For instance, as a pastor, one is expected to preach, teach and to interpret the scriptures, whereas a counselor is at his best when he listens intensely to understand the pain that brought the client to counseling.
Three areas of potential stress relevant to the Indian community have been examined: identity conflicts, parent-child conflicts, and the trauma of facing tragic events. Together, they represent three broad areas where traditional family values and practices were seen as inadequate in meeting the growing, multiple needs of the Indian community.
Judging from many angles, the Indian community is a healthy, growing and thriving community. Our children are generally reared with sound moral and religious value systems. They also seem successful and competitive in schools as well as in the work force. However, maintaining success is not easy and not without cost. It requires consistent hard work, motivation and determination as well as an emotionally and spiritually healthy and supportive family environment where good communication exists between family members. Equally important for our children’s personal growth and professional advancement is parental sensitivity to the emotional needs of their children who must cope daily with the pressures, demands and conflicts of the rapidly changing technological society in which they live.
As Christians, what helps us most in our efforts to cope with conflicts and build strong, healthy and stable families? First is our deep understanding of the inherent character of God, the God who is infinitely loving and compassionate, and the One who provides for His creation. Second, is our affirmation of the providence of God as revealed in the scriptures. For example, we believe that “All things work together for our good, because we love God and are called by His Purpose.” (Ro. 8:28) Finally, when confronted by problems and feeling like we are losing control, we consciously and willfully let God take charge of the situation. As we learn to closely follow these steps, we find ourselves walking on the road to a joyful and victorious Christian life.
Counseling is a newly emerging field and is only slowly gaining attention among the Asian community. Although it has great potential as a valuable service to our people, there are many obstacles to overcome before it can expect to gain the acceptance within our communities. Foremost among these obstacles is the critical attitude toward counseling that still seems prevalent among many circles, particularly our traditional religious communities. However, as Christian counselors and mental health professionals begin joining hands in partnerships with our church and civic leaders in efforts to identify common goals and embark on a community-wide counseling education and training program, more and more of our people will be benefited by this service. This process must involve our youth as well as concerned parents who have an openness and commitment towards change.
The many problems and challenges that confront our nation as well as our young people are apparent. One cannot miss the fast erosion of moral, spiritual and social values all across our land, and particularly within our families. As Christ’s servants, we bear the awesome responsibility to steer our families and communities towards the path of holiness and dedicated Christian living. The first step must be identification of the problems that we face and being willing to utilize the resources that will achieve solutions to these problems. A complete commitment to God and to the tools that He has given us, such as biblical counseling, is precisely such a step.
Gary Collins, “President’s Perspective”, The Christian Counseling Connection. The American Association of Christian Counselors, Winter 1995.
James Dobson, Straight Talk to Men and Their Wives (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1980).
James Dobson, Dr. James Dobson’s Bulletin, Focus on the Family, March 1997.
Bob Hostetler and Josh McDowell, Handbook on Counseling Youth (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1996).
Wei-Jen Huang, “Christian Counseling with the Chinese: An Untapped Mission Field, Christian Counseling Connection.” The American Association of Christian Counselors. Issue 9, 1997.
Mark McMinn and Katheryn Rhoads Meek, “Making the Grade: Do Christian Counselors Know Their Ethics?” The Christian Counseling Connection, Winter 1995.
Nancy Scammacca, “Tools of the Trade for Family Therapy,” Christian Counseling Today, Summer 1995.