Promoting Resilience and Healthy Adaptation Among Immigrant-Origin Youth and their Families

Dr. Fanita Tyrell and Loretta Eboigbe
June 2023

Approximately 27% of the US population is comprised of immigrants and their children, with one in four children residing in households with families from immigrant backgrounds (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2021; Ward & Batalova, 2023). Exposure to acculturative and discriminatory-based stressors such as xenophobia, discrimination, foreigner objectification, and harassment, affect the mental and physical health of immigrant-origin youth. For example, exposure to these stressors has been associated with anxiety, depression, confusion, low self-esteem, and psychosomatic symptoms. These stressors also affect youth’s academic achievement, risk-taking behavior, self-efficacy, and coping responses (DeJonckheere et al., 2017; Mark et al., 2021).

Additionally, immigrant-origin parents and youth face stressors that challenge their relationships, particularly due to language barriers and parents trying to negotiate between the values of their heritage and mainstream American cultures. Since youth are exposed to other cultures in school settings, cultural values learned in schools may be incompatible with the youth’s cultural heritage, which could create tension in the home environment. As a result, immigrant-origin parents may struggle with helping their children to adjust to their new cultural environment, while ensuring that their children maintain a connection to their culture of origin (Ayón, Ojeda, & Ruano, 2018).

Resilience Factors that Promote Immigrant-Origin Youth Positive Development and Adaptation

Cultural assets, community, and social relationships are particularly important in supporting the successful adaptation and wellbeing of immigrant-origin youth. A cultural process known to promote their resilience is ethnic-racial identity. Ethnic-racial identity is a developmental process that encompasses how an individual feels about themselves with respect to their membership in an ethnic-racial group (Mark et al., 2021). Immigrant-origin youth with a strong sense of ethnic-racial identity are better equipped to deal with discrimination, isolation, acculturation stress, and everyday stressors (Costigan et al., 2010). They also tend to have higher self-esteem, positive psychological adaptation skills, positive academic attitudes, fewer depressive symptoms, and less engagement in risky behavior (Ayón, Ojeda, & Ruano, 2018; Costigan et al., 2010).

Another asset is bicultural identity or integration, which means that individuals are able to adopt the values of the mainstream or host culture while maintaining their cultural identity. A bicultural or integrated identity is associated with positive mental health outcomes and psychosocial wellbeing (Kim et al., 2018; Motti-Stefanidi, 2023). It has been linked to higher levels of self-esteem, optimism, prosocial behaviors, parental involvement, parent–adolescent communication, family communication, and academic performance (Kim et al., 2018; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2018).

Resilience in the Family Context

Family support networks can provide immigrant-origin youth with the emotional and social support they need to overcome academic, psychological, and social challenges (DeJonckheere et al., 2017). Parental ethnic-racial socialization is a cultural asset that can foster resilience and shape ethnic-racial identity development in immigrant-origin youth (Ayón, Ojeda, & Ruano, 2018). Ethnic-racial socialization is a process through which parents and caregivers transmit information, values, and perspectives about ethnicity and race to their children (Doan et al., 2022). There are several types of messages that encompass ethnic-racial socialization:

  • Cultural socialization: teaching children about their culture and promoting cultural customs, traditions, and pride towards their ethnic-racial group
  • Preparation for bias: fostering child’s awareness of racism and preparing them to cope with and respond to it
  • Egalitarianism: minimizing race and racial differences and emphasizing individual qualities or colorblind ideologies
  • Promotion of mistrust: encouraging wariness, caution, or distrust towards members outside of their ethnic-racial group

Immigrant-origin parents can facilitate ethnic-racial socialization in several practical ways (Ayón, Ojeda, & Ruano, 2018):

  • story-telling
  • engaging children in dialogues
  • sharing their traditional food
  • engaging youth in religious practices
  • traveling to their home country (depending on reasons for immigration)
  • attending community cultural events
  • preserving their heritage culture language
  • using visual aids, such as photographs and web resources, to facilitate discussions.

Ethnic-racial socialization processes and family engagement strategies can improve family unity, communication and bonding which can build family and youth resilience. Story-telling can be a particularly powerful strategy as it allows parents to build counter-narratives that challenge anti-immigrant discourse (Ayón, Ojeda, & Ruano, 2018). However, it is worth noting that immigrant-origin parents should be careful when using preparation for bias and promotion of mistrust messages. Although these strategies can lead to a stronger sense of ethnic-racial identity in children and adolescents, they may also contribute to experiences of hypervigilance, anxiety, and depression (Kim et al., 2018).

Resilience in the School Context

Peer and teacher support are protective factors that can reduce the effects of victimization, improve quality of life, and reduce the effects of acculturative stress on immigrant-origin students (Mark et al., 2021). It is important for teachers to successfully develop positive relationships with immigrant-origin youth, reciprocate respect, establish high expectations, hold students accountable for their success or failures, challenge students, practice flexibility, and use culturally responsive language in the classroom environment (DeJonckheere et al., 2017). Teachers can promote academic success by centering the perseverance and educational goals of immigrant youth, which can be accomplished by incorporating youth’s cultural values, ethnic-racial identity, and family connections (Mark et al., 2021).

Schools can foster an environment that can assist immigrant-origin students in feeling safe and welcomed by promoting multiculturalism, equity, and cultural inclusivity. To support multiculturalism, it is important for school staff, teachers, and administrators to practice cultural competence and cultural humility. Schools can also create culturally-responsive education programs, learning-based initiatives, and identity-affirming programs for ethnic-racial minority immigrant youth. Schools can support immigrant-origin youth’s bicultural or integrated identity by encouraging the development of bilingual skills, promoting the use of students’ heritage culture language in the classroom, employing ethnic-racial minority teachers and staff, and acknowledging student diversity.

Finally, it is important that clinicians engage in culturally responsive practices when interacting with immigrant-origin youth, students, and their families. Clinicians should consider immigrant-origin youth’s unique experiences and developmental context, ensuring that their treatment approaches integrate processes that promote resilience among immigrant-origin youth and their families.

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