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Helping Asian teens find balance in studies

In Lexington, families discuss culture clash, expectations

The Lexington Asian Mental Health Initiative hosted a forum at the Isaac Harris Cary Memorial Building, where families spoke about the stresses of Asian-American students.

Photos by Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

The Lexington Asian Mental Health Initiative hosted a forum at the Isaac Harris Cary Memorial Building, where families spoke about the stresses of Asian-American students.

LEXINGTON — Their kids are often among the academic superstars at Lexington High School, with stellar grades in Advanced Placement classes, prizes in math competitions, and exceptional SAT scores.

But a group of Asian-American parents gathered in a town hall on a recent Saturday to discuss whether their children are experiencing too much stress — and how to help them stay emotionally healthy in a community steeped in high expectations.

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“It’s hard being Asian at LHS,” said junior Charlotte Wong Labow, one of two students who spoke. “The standard is incredibly high.”

The debate over academic pressure is not restricted to Asian families. It is a familiar topic at many high schools across Greater Boston amid rising anxiety over exorbitant tuitions, diminishing acceptance rates at elite colleges, and an uncertain job market.

This past winter, Hingham’s Notre Dame Academy brought in a clinical psychologist to lead teen stress workshops for students and their parents. A recent conference for parents at Needham High School focused on raising resilient teens.

In recent years, Lexington High has created stress-reduction days and gotten rid of weighted grade-point averages that gave extra points for AP and honors classes. Last month’s meeting, which drew about 175 people, focused on concerns that the town’s Asian students experience significant stress but are less likely than their peers to seek help. One in three students in Lexington is Asian, the second-largest ratio in the state, after Quincy.

“The kids are feeling many of the same stresses of the other kids in Lexington, but they are less likely to talk about them,” said Marsha Lazar, former director of Lexington Youth and Family Services. “So they are more likely to suffer in silence.”

Lazar noticed that many of the Asian students who sought the nonprofit’s counseling services came once but never returned; she learned that many did not want their parents to discover they were seeking help.

Together with school officials, parents, students, police, mental health, and cultural organizations, she created the Asian Mental Health Initiative, which sponsored the March 29 meeting.

Lexington has long been a town that cares deeply about education. Half of residents who are 25 or older hold a graduate or professional degree, according to census estimates, about three times the state average. Students at the high school are routinely among the state’s top scorers on SATs. They take more AP exams than students at most other schools. Next year, for the first time, the school will offer 10 sections of AP chemistry.

It was Lexington’s excellent schools that drew many Asian families — who are mainly Chinese, Indian, or Korean — to town. Many Asians are the sons and daughters of recent immigrants and feel the same obligations to their parents — and often, disconnections over culture — borne over history by first- and second-generation children of previous arrivals.

“For any immigrant parents to be able to afford a house here, they’re willing to do what it takes,” said Gwen Wong, Charlotte’s mother, whose family immigrated from China. “I think kids feel this indebtedness.”

In a focus group of Asian students formed by the new initiative, some said they recognized how much their parents struggled to create a better life for them when they immigrated. Many of the students also believed their parents see emotional issues as problems that their children can fix themselves.

“It’s just that entire Asian sense of, you don’t talk about your personal problems,” said Serena Luo, a junior at Lexington High who spoke at the forum. “You just don’t talk about them.”

Luo and Wong Labow worked with the school’s Health Department to create a student survey about stress that included race and ethnic information. They found that more than half of Lexington High School juniors felt extremely high or high levels of stress, but the level among Asian-American students was even higher.

Lazar began Saturday’s forum — the group’s first — by acknowledging her own nervousness in addressing the way a particular culture raises its children. Parents of all cultures, she said, struggle with the job.

“This morning, we are addressing the Asian population in Lexington, because we should, because they’re 30 percent of our kids in this town,” she said. “It does not mean that this community has any worse problems than any other community.”

Josephine Kim, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told the gathering she often counsels second-generation Asian students who are struggling to connect with their parents.

To parents who may think their children are fine because they’re doing well in school, she warned: “Grades are not a reflection of well-being.”

Cultural issues erupt, Kim says, when children learn Western values in school. Then they apply them to their home lives — leading to family conflict.

“Our kids are becoming Westernized,” she told the Lexington parents. “So what do we do to prevent that? We hold on even tighter to our own cultural heritage.”

Somava Stout, the mother of a junior who loves the challenging work of a rigorous high school and also feels the pressure to excel, has tried to ease the stress for her daughter.

Somava and her husband dissuaded Shohini from packing her schedule with too many AP classes and extracurriculars.

“I find myself worrying in this environment, ‘Is she getting enough sleep? Is she having enough time with friends?’ ” said Stout, who attended the forum.

As a so-called 1.5 generation Indian immigrant — Stout moved to the United States with her family when she was a child — she understands why Asian families place such a high value on education. Her parents earned $10 a month in India until they received advanced degrees; education meant the difference between poverty and a comfortable life.

“In places like India, your future is determined by how you do on a particular test,” said Stout, a doctor and vice president at Cambridge Health Alliance. “In many ways, that is how parents show their love. They make sure you’re prepared for a particular test because that will determine your future.”

Parents had been talking about these issues, Stout said, but the forum turned them into a townwide, public discussion.

“It was a nice east-west conversation,” she said. “I think the discussion has to happen together.”

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.
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