The Tiger Mother

The Tiger Mother: High Expectations or Emotional Abuse?

January 24, 2011

Leadership Council staff

There is room for many different parenting styles and philosophies in our diverse society. However, in her most recent book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, author Amy Chua describes a parenting style that many people will find disturbing.

Unwilling to accept anything less than perfection, Chua resorts to extreme measures to ensure her daughters achieve high levels of academic and musical success. In her relentless pursuit of perfection, she forces the girls into long hours of daily practice on the piano and violin and prohibits any type of peer involvement outside of school. During the daily practice sessions, Chua stands over them criticizing their efforts. To motivate them, she insults her children (calling them, fat, lazy, stupid, and garbage) and threatens to give away their toys. To make them practice more she, at times, withholds food, water, rest, and bathroom breaks. The fact that her now teenage girls are well behaved and excel is viewed by Chua as vindication of her harsh methods. Chua’s candid memoir raises an important question: When do parenting practices cross the line from high expectations to abuse?

Emotional abuse is defined by experts as behaviors that humiliate, isolate, verbally demean a child, deprive a child of basic needs, or encourage illegal or immoral values. Emotional abuse has been linked to many adverse psychiatric outcomes including eating disorders, depression, personality disorders, and drug abuse. Emotionally abusive parenting practices are not unique to any single culture and may arise out of a parent’s own unresolved feelings of inferiority or deprivation. This may lead a parent to define success for a child based on the parent’s own needs to prove his or her own worth to others.

Name-calling, such as calling a child “garbage”, is a particular aversive form of emotional abuse which has been shown to have long term adverse effects on the brain development in children. Studies by Martin Teicher, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Developmental Biopsychiatry Research Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., has found that exposure to high levels of parental verbal abuse had the same impact (based on symptom ratings) as witnessing domestic violence and extrafamilial sexual abuse. He has also found that parental verbal abuse is associated with a reduction in white matter that connects important areas of the brain to speech, memory, and higher thinking. These studies suggest that verbal abuse may damage a child’s brain and thus undermine the child’s ability to excel academically.

Children who are called demeaning names by their parents often internalize these names as part of their view of themselves. A study by Florida State University researchers has found that people who were verbally abused as children grow up to be self-critical adults prone to depression and anxiety.

Limiting of a child’s relationships with friends can be abusive as it deprives the child of peer experiences which form the foundation for future social success. When children are prevented from forming relationships with others outside of the home, they can end up becoming isolated and lonely adults who are unable to relate to other people.

With holding of food, water, rest or bathroom breaks is also abusive. Physical deprivation by a parent can result in the child feeling extreme physical discomfort leading to rage. A chronically deprived child may grow into an adult who is unable to tolerate any form of control by others such as by a boss or teacher. In other instances a deprived child may learn to accept control and emotional abuse as a normal component of interpersonal relationships. In either extreme, the child’s ability to form healthy productive relationships is impaired. In addition, a child who experiences repeated deprivations of food may go on to develop eating disorders or other mental health disorders.

The outward success of Chua’s daughters does illustrate that emotional abuse toward children can paradoxically result in some short-term benefits, but this does not mean that it is not without a cost. Though the negative effects may remain buried for a while, they are bound to manifest themselves some day. Brain damage, as Teicher shows, is serious business. The Leadership Council encourages parents to define success for their child as instilling confidence, curiosity, self-discipline and life skills to help a child to maximize his or her own potential regardless of what others around them are accomplishing. In addition, research suggests that self-esteem in children is built through acknowledging a child’s efforts to master things that are hard for them, rather than an undue emphasis on the product of their efforts.