Culturally Competent Practice:

Understanding Asian Family Values

Asian Americans are one of the fastest growing groups in the United States. The Asian population is very diverse, covering a broad range of ethnicities, cultures, and languages. Furthermore, Asian Americans vary in terms of immigrations/refugee experiences, acculturation levels and socioeconomic levels. Despite the great diversity amongst Asian Americans, there are some common values that one should be aware of and take into consideration when working with Asian families.  These values stem from principles found in three main philosophies:

  1. Confucianism
  2. Taoism
  3. Buddhism


A major principle is filial piety. This principle defines specific rules of conduct in social relationships and places a great deal of importance on the family.  Several key concepts follow from this principle:

  • Family roles are highly structured, hierarchical, male-dominated, and paternally oriented.
  • The welfare and the integrity of the family are of great importance. The individual is expected to submerge or to repress emotions, desires, behaviors, and individual goals to further the welfare of family and maintain its reputation. The individual is obligated to save face, so as not to bring shame onto the family. Therefore, there is incentive to keep problems within the family so that the family will not “lose face.”
  • Interdependency is valued. This stems from the strong sense of obligation to the family. This concept refers to the relationships between family members in which support and assistance are provided for each individual family member and, in turn, individual family members provide support and assistance for the entire family. These relationships, interactions and obligations are lifelong; and the goal of individual members is not necessarily autonomy and independence. this concept is critical in understanding Asian families so as not to misuse the Western labels of “co-dependency” or “enmeshment” when observing normal family functioning dictated by cultural values and beliefsTaoism


Taoism defines man’s relationship with nature. According to this philosophy it is important to maintain harmony and balance with nature. the goal of many of the traditional healing practices (herbal medicine, acupuncture, coining, cupping, etc.) is to restore one’s balance with nature. This concept extends to social relationships in which Asians attempt to maintain harmony in relationships. Because of this, the following behaviors may be observed:

  • There is an avoidance of conflict and confrontation with others
  • The individual may appear to be passive, indifferent, and/or indecisive. This may be due to the individual not wanting to take the initiative for fear that this may lead to disagreement or conflict
  • The individual may be overly compliant and agreeable when, in fact, they disagree with the other person


The final influence which must be taken into consideration when working with Asian Americans is Buddhism. Buddhism provides a spiritual structure for many Asians. In Buddhism, time is circular rather than linear. For many Asians, there is a belief in the concepts of reincarnation and “Karma.” Simply stated, Karma refers to the notion that what happens to you in this life will dictate what will happen to you in your next life. because of this notion, many Asians will endure their pain and suffering in this life in acceptance of their fate. Often times, this may lead an individual to have little motivation to change. Successfully utilizing the concept that one’s behaviors impact one’s next life may create some motivation for change in an individual who previously had none.

The above principles supply a framework for understanding the behaviors of many of the Asians with whom child welfare practitioners may work. It must be remembered that these are generalizations, and not all Asian individuals and families hold these values. It is also important to note that most Asians do not consciously and cognitively know and follow these principles. Rather, these principles are ingrained in the values, norms and practices of many Asians which have been formed over many centuries.

It is important to integrate the concepts presented above into your work with Asian Americans. In order to begin to provide culturally competent services for Asian Americans, the following suggestions are provided:

  • When assessing Asian families it is important to gather information regarding specific ethnic background, language, immigration/refugee experience, acculturation level and problems, intergenerational conflicts, cultural strengths, and community support systems
  • Develop trust through establishment and adherence to social rules of conduct and proper social interactions is critical
  • Attempt to maintain and, if appropriate, reestablish traditional family structures according to cultural norms. Respect the family hierarchy
  • Utilize extended family members for support systems; lines between nuclear families and extended families are not as rigid in Asian families
  • Allow the families and its individual members the opportunity to save face whenever possible
  • Avoid creating situations which may lead to conflict and confrontation, if possible. Rather, utilize indirect methods of communication when appropriate to get a point across
  • Because Asians prefer to keep problems within the family, it is critical that confidentiality is maintained and that Asian families are assured that their problems will not become public knowledge
  • Service providers need to be active and to provide tangible interventions for Asians. Passivity in the worker may be viewed as lack of expertise and authority. Furthermore, many Asians are seeking concrete, tangible solutions to their problems and are uncomfortable with process-oriented and insight-oriented strategies

The above suggestions are not meant to provide you with all the knowledge and skills necessary to be culturally competent with Asian Americans. Rather, they will hopefully supply you with some beginning strategies in working with Asian American families and children. Furthermore, it is important to remember that Asian Americans encompass a diverse group of people who need to be individually assessed when developing appropriate intervention strategies. Finally, cultural competence is a process which starts with sensitivity and appreciation for diversity and integrates acquired knowledge of cultures with practice skills and techniques. Hopefully, you can now begin to integrate some of the concepts regarding Asian values into your service delivery repertoire.

Source: Walter Philips, MSW, LCSW. Reprinted with permission from The Roundtable, Volume 10, Number 1, 1996, Journal of the National Resource Center for Special Needs Adoption, Spaulding for Children.

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