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Dear Dr. Saltzman,

Before anything, I'd like to thank you for this wonderful opportunity that you are giving people like me to ask you questions and get help with problems that have made their lives miserable.

I am a 25 y/o student from a Middle Eastern background who moved to USA 6 years ago with my parents and now 19 y/o sister who is actually the subject of my question. She has gradually been distancing herself from the family and getting closer to her friends from school. She has been an A student ever since we came to USA and has just started college and her first job where she apparently has met a same age guy and they have started dating without her telling the family anything what so ever. We were just suspicious of her dressing-up, make ups and long hours of work and chatting none of which she is willing to change in spite of my mother's constant advices and even arguments with her. She has no respect for my mother and very little for me. My father unfortunately does not get too involved.

I am ashamed to tell you that I logged onto her chatting account yesterday, where I regretfully found the text of her 5-hour chat with the guy three nights ago and I found out that they have been engaged in sexual relationships. I didn't know what to do and told my mother and we talked to her telling her that we know everything but not how we found out. She of course felt very angry but eventually admitted to the relationship but no sexual component and said she was disappointed of us for accusing her. She also admitted that she had been lying to us for the places that she had been going to.

I feel like a bridge in between my parents and my sister's generations and honestly, I don't know what to do. She has said that she will move out. As of now we have no idea whether she tells us the truth or not when she says she is going to school. While I feel very tired and broken-hearted, my parents specially are having a hard time not knowing how to deal with her who has zero tolerance for regular kind talks and gets up and leave and go into her room and slams the door. Please help me figure out how to deal with this problem that seems to be completely impossible to overcome while we almost did overcome every other obstacle that appeared in establishing our new life here.

I apologize for the length of this email but I thought I have to tell you the whole story.

I truly appreciate your help and input.



ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman

Hello, Breeze--

You are most welcome. I am sorry to hear that this problem has been making your life miserable, and I hope to provide some advice which may be of help to you and your family.

Without actually knowing your family, I cannot be sure of this, but I imagine that the problem here has very little to do with your sister personally, but is more a problem of the dissonance between two cultures. As I imagine this (and of course I could be mistaken), the Islamic culture of your parents holds that girls should be virgins until they are married, and should be obedient to their parents in all matters. From this point of view, your sister is still a child who should not be making important decisions of her own. But American culture is quite different, as you know. In the US, a person of 19 is not considered a girl, but a women whose sexuality is her own business, and who may love her parents, and may respect them, but who certainly does not owe them obedience.

Now, when your family moved to the US, you were the age that your sister is now. You had spent your entire childhood, that is, living in the old cultural surround, and so the strict control of girls by their families seems normal to you. It is what you grew up with, and you accept it as correct, important, and useful. You imagine that this parental control serves as a protection of the virtue and safety of young women. You also probably feel that a women should marry a man of her own religion and cultural background, and that for this reason also it is important that boyfriends be approved by a girl's parents before there is any dating (if there even is any dating). Once again, you have told me that your background is Middle Eastern, so I am imagining all this based on my own travels in the Middle East--if I am wrong, send me another letter.

But, unlike you, your sister was not a young women when your family moved here. She was a girl of 12 or 13, just the age when girls begin to come into their sexuality, begin menstruation, and begin to take a very real interest in boys. Unlike you at that age, she was not surrounded by a culture which told her that her sexual feelings were shameful and needed to be suppressed and hidden. Quite the opposite. When her adolescence began, your sister was surrounded by sexual imagery of every kind: music, movies, magazines, pop figures (think Britney Spears), etc. And all of this was telling her that sex and dating are good things to experience--pleasures, not sins. Unlike your adolescent years, your sister came of age in a culture which encouraged experimenting with cigarettes, alcohol and sex, and these things in the US are not haram [forbidden], but accepted as part of ordinary life. Unlike you, your sister was surrounded by others her own age who were not taught that their parents had the right to control their lives, but that they could negotiate with their parents about the boundaries of behavior, and that their parents would be more or less flexible and aware of changing customs and morals.

In other words, when your family moved from East to West, your sister became a child who had to live with one foot in the old world of tradition and strict rules about behavior and the other foot in the new world of permissiveness and personal freedom. This must have been a very uncomfortable posture. If she obeyed your parents' demands, she would have been quite out of step with the world around her. If she did not obey them, she would have been in trouble with them, subject to punishment--perhaps even physical punishment (again, my imagination). What could she do? Well, I imagine she did what most powerless people do in such circumstances, she learned to deceive those who held the power over her--her parents. And, since you are a "bridge" as you said between her and your parents, she had little choice but to deceive you too. This is the present situation. Your sister has not been honest with any of you about her feelings, her needs, her attitudes, or her behaviors, and now she does not even want to discuss them with you.

I hear in your letter that you wish there were a way of changing your sister's behaviors and attitudes so that they would be more harmonious with your mother's wishes, but there is very little chance of that at this point. Your sister has a life of her own, and is determined to live that life, not the life your mother wants her to live. Unless your parents are able to accept that she is not a Middle Eastern girl and all which that implies, but an American one with American freedoms, she will have no choice but to keep moving away from them. And this is not at all her fault, but a natural outcome of the choices your parents have made. She did not ask to be brought to the US. That was a decision your parents took for reasons of their own. But now that she is there, and not in the Middle East, it is predictable, understandable, and, in my view, proper that she adopt the customs of her actual culture, the culture she lives in, and not be required to embrace the old culture which your mother would like to force upon her, and in which your parents probably continue to live insofar as they can while living in a foreign country. The fox is out of the box, and cannot be put back in again.

If you really want to help your family (and I know you do), you must begin to understand and support your sister's experience in this life. It is fine for you to be a bridge--in fact, as a bridge you might be able to do some real good here--but that does not mean that you should be neutral. Your parents' old culture may have been useful in the Middle East, but it will never work for your sister in the U.S. If you want to help, begin to explain this to your mother, and so help her to love and accept your sister as she is, not as she would have been if raised in the Middle East.

Be well.

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page last modified January 21, 2008

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