How the ‘Anti-Parents’ Online Forum Helps Troubled Children
In 2008, the Anti-Parents message board was set up on Douban, a popular Chinese social network. The forum was conceived as a space where young people could vent their frustration about their parents and reach out to other people for support. Over a decade, the group accumulated 120,000 members.
Disappointingly, however, Douban froze our messaging board last June. Now, posts can only be viewed by existing members, and moderators like me can’t invite new people to join.
I’ve been a moderator for nearly 10 years. Anti-Parents is an unofficial, non-commercial group, which means that we hold everyone accountable for what they say and do not let any individual speak for all of us. Generally speaking, my role has involved adding new members to the group, dealing with posts that violate the forum rules, and responding to messages when I can help someone.
In the past, new group members usually started out describing their fraught relationships with their parents. Some wrote at great length about their families, explaining that they had recently seen how other moms and dads behaved and noticed something amiss in the way their own parents treated them. Often, people only came to this realization once they started college or after embarking on their first romantic relationship.
Some stories were quite harrowing. One girl described how her parents verbally abused her, screaming vile obscenities at her, many of which were crude terms for her genitals and supposed sexual preferences. At the time, the girl had just hit puberty. She endured the barrage of insults despite never receiving basic sex education, an ordeal that profoundly damaged the way she thought about sex.
Other parents were physically abusive toward their children, or turned a blind eye to physical or sexual abuse that their children sustained outside the home. Sex education in China is profoundly lacking, both at school and at home, and this leaves children defenseless and incapable of judging what constitutes inappropriate sexual behavior. Some victims of abuse in our forums said that they had tried to talk to their parents about their experiences, but were ignored or even blamed for them. These kinds of parental attitudes leave long-lasting emotional scars and cause irreparable rifts in family relationships.
More common are stories of parents exerting almost total control over their children’s lives, from what their kids wear to what time they get home and who their friends are. Some even choose their children’s college majors for them or have the final say on any girlfriends or boyfriends they bring home.
On a deeper level, this behavioral trait reflects deep-seated suspicion of their children’s privacy and independence. Some parents, for example, do not allow their kids to close their bedroom doors. Locks on bedroom doors, if they exist at all, are destroyed at the first sign of rebellion. This lack of privacy prevents children from developing their individuality and damages their self-esteem.
Other posts suggest the existence of mental illness: Group members sometimes describe parents who seem to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, or paranoia. Other parents seem to be trapped in pyramid schemes, unhappy marriages, or cycles of unemployment.
When sharing their stories, group members dig up long-repressed memories and thrust them under the spotlight. Anti-Parents is perhaps the only place where expressing anger, bitterness, or even hatred toward their parents is not seen as ungrateful or treacherous. The vast majority of people on the forum sympathize with the plight of others, and many members have said that the empathy they felt from speaking to our community have helped them recover from their trauma.
Traditional Chinese thought encourages parents to love and care for their children. But parental love is demonstrated in different ways from other cultures, and is closely bound up with the notion of filial piety, or xiao. Most children are expected to unflinchingly obey their parents and not to question their actions, no matter how harmful. The peculiar dynamics of this relationship mean that a lot of the issues we try to resolve on the forum are related to creating a healthy space for children to push back against their parents’ wishes and assert their own demands in positive ways.
I believe that the concept of filial piety is out of step with modern life. At present, the government goes to great lengths to emphasize the importance of filial piety, so that families will take on the burden of care when their parents are elderly. But when longstanding conflicts exist between parents and children, and it has become impossible for both sides to get along, fewer and fewer young people see the traditional demands of filial piety as viable reasons for standing by their parents.
However, it is also difficult for children to walk away: Laws require grown children to visit their parents, and an upbringing spent yoked to other family members makes true independence inconceivable to some people. I have come across several cases where adult group members have angered their parents so much that the latter followed them around, even disrupted them at their workplaces. Once someone asked, earnestly, whether completely severing familial ties would give their parents grounds to sue for abandonment.
At present, China’s systems to protect the rights and welfare of minors are still inadequate. There is no effective social service capable of helping children trapped in dysfunctional families or subject to abuse at home. Sometimes, children whose parents seriously abuse them are sent back home after receiving medical treatment, where they continue to live with their abusers.
A decade ago, the media ran a number of unfavorable reports about the Anti-Parents forum. Gradually, however, as more and more Chinese people gained access to the internet, they have become more knowledgeable about modern parenting techniques. Nowadays, the general public is more aware of the potentially damaging effects of extreme parental behavior. A string of incidents involving serious child abuse or neglect has convinced some to call for certain parents to be stripped of their rights as guardians.
There are limits to this trend, though. Last summer, Douban froze our forum. Similar groups — including many that deal with suicide prevention and depression among young people — are frequently blocked. Sometimes all it takes is for a vulnerable user to admit to thinking about killing or harming themselves, and the whole message board is frozen.
Despite the forum’s somewhat confrontational name, parents occasionally join the group too. Early on, they came mostly to accuse us of being immoral and irrational, and picked fights with some of our more antagonistic members. In recent years, however, these people have been replaced by a more positive group of parents. One father stops by every now and then to update us on his relationship with his son: Once domineering and critical of his child’s behavior, over the past few years, I’ve watched him begin to encourage and praise his son, who, the father tells us, is now happy and healthy, in a decent job, and engaged to a wonderful woman.
If only all the tales I read on the forum had such a happy ending. But the above story at least reminds me that my job as a moderator is necessary and worthwhile.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lin Qiqing and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Moment/VCG)