Parenting Classes Aim To Support Chinese Immigrant Families, Address Mental Health Issues In Sunset Park

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Photo courtesy of Winnie Hu.
Photo courtesy of Winnie Hu.

It has been a month since 24-year-old Lin Li was arrested and confessed to inadvertently drowning her two-year-old daughter, Melody Pheng, in a basin of water for soiling her clothes. In the weeks since, Melody was laid to rest, her four-year-old brother was taken into protective custody by the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), and her father has been left emotionally wrecked, alone, and, according to neighbors in the Sunset Park Chinese immigrant community, undergoing therapy.

As for Li, she sits in jail, facing charges of second degree murder, first-degree manslaughter, and acting in a manner injurious to a child.

This tragedy and the horrific consequences resonate for parents across New York City, but especially in Brooklyn and Queens’ Chinese immigrant communities, where the case of Melody Pheng hits culturally close to home. Now some are now seeking help from community groups such as Chinese-American Sunshine House (CSH), which just launched its second series of parenting skills classes at its 6304 Fifth Avenue space.

Photo by Heather Chin/Sunset Park Voice.
Photo by Heather Chin/Sunset Park Voice.

“[Last month,] we had a press conference about the two-year-old’s death and talked about why. For example, with satellite babies — children who are born here, sent to China to be raised by grandparents, and then sent back to America to begin school — the parents can’t communicate and are stressed, have no parenting skills,” said CSH Director Winnie Hu.

Both Melody and her brother were satellite babies. They had returned to Brooklyn just months before Melody’s death.

“it’s a cultural issue, but not a Chinese culture issue — it’s across [ethnic and racial] cultures,” Hu noted. “They need skills. But where do you learn these skills except from a therapist and social worker? All people have some skills, but you can learn more. . .The recent tragic children abuse cases you may have read in the news lately could have been prevented if the parents learned better ways to discipline their kids versus resorting to physical punishment.”

The classes, explained Hu, allows parents of children of all ages to learn communication skills and “learn together and be able to share their troubles and concerns about raising their kids,” even getting a heads up on what to expect as the children get older and argue over seemingly mundane things like iPad and computer access.

Flyer-Spring 2016 copyThe current round of parenting classes — all free and taught in Mandarin, although lessons are also printed and readable to those who speak Cantonese — run on Saturdays from 10-11am until May 28 and include both mothers and fathers, some of whom bring their children with them.

All participants are referred to the classes either by flyers, word of mouth, a local hospital, or ACS. The classes are led by a social worker and meet ACS requirements for therapy and skills classes.

“We started the class because ACS was looking for parenting classes in the Chinese American Sunset Park community,” said Hu. “Some participants are already in anger management classes and we have a licensed family-marriage counselor and therapist, a PowerPoint presentation, materials, homework — we can give credit — so we’re capable. When ACS asked, we said, why not.”

At a recent class, parents were asked what their goals for the class were. Their answers sounded like every concern a parent has ever encountered:

  • to know how to communicate with children
  • how to raise children wisely; I have young kids and don’t want them to grow up without being taught right.
  • how to create a better relationships, make them feel loved when I don’t know how to express it.
  • my good intentions sound like yelling. It’s isolating.
  • how to make kids respect parents
  • how to praise kids
  • how to make them behave

By the end of the hour, parents seemed alternately hopeful and somber, but all appearing to be encouraged by the large class size and the non-judgmental nature of the lesson.

CSH was founded six years ago by licensed psychiatrist Dr. Xu Zhang Chen in order to address mental health issues that often go unaddressed in a community — both the Asian American and broader American community — that often sees such issues as taboo to discuss or otherwise admit.

“For more than a decade, working as a psychiatrist has often led me to share the mental suffering of my patients, to have regrets for wasted opportunities for timely treatment, and the feeling of dismay caused by the stigma the public has against mentally ill patients,” wrote Chen. “From Anxiety Disorder to Major Depressive Disorder, from Eastern-Western Cultural Difference Education to Geriatric Mental Health, from Insomnia to Communication Among Generations, from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to Domestic Violence, from Psychosocial Club to Anger Management Class — our work covers them all.”

The parenting classes are currently funded by CSH with help from Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield. The nonprofit has submitted an application for the coming year to the City Council in the hopes of opening more parenting classes, as the current one has a long waiting list.

Unfortunately, funding for mental health services from the City Council was not given this year to organizations such as CSH that provide mental health services for New York and Brooklyn’s Asian American community; all $14 million in health funding instead went to other, larger organizations around the city.

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