Psychological Effects of Immigration on Adolescents

Ziling (Eva) Xu

As one of the major immigrant-receiving countries in the world, Canada is home to over 6 million immigrants who make up almost 17% of the entire population (Informetrica, 2001, p. xi). The significant increase of immigration in Canada is forming a growing adolescent population that is becoming more culturally and ethnically diverse. When analyzing immigration issues, the focus tends to fall on the socio-economic obstacles of adult immigrants; as a result, the struggles of their adolescent children are too often overlooked. The stage of adolescence is a vital period in which the individual progresses from the sheltered stage of childhood into the mature phase of adulthood. Despite the importance of security and stability during this tumultuous period, newly immigrated youth must undergo psychological, biological, and social changes expected for their age, as well as acculturation-related challenges amidst a foreign—and sometimes hostile—environment (Fulgini, 2001 p. 566 – 567). Immigration causes considerable psychological and social stress for adolescents; the drastic changes in culture, society, and environment create struggles provoked by a lack of identity, acculturative stress, and intergenerational differences in the family.

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For teenagers, self-identity is an essential part of their adolescence. In this time period, the surrounding environment greatly impacts the development of their behaviours and personality, as well as their view of themselves in relation to society (Verial, 2013). Immigrant teens experience difficulties in both adapting to their host society and retaining customs from their native heritage. Torn between two different communities, they struggle to identify themselves with either culture, knowing that they will never truly belong to either one. Studies show that adolescents suffering from identity crises frequently experience confusion and frustration, and often withdraw from social activities in search of solitude (Fainer, 2012). Delinquency is often associated with immigrant youth as well, as they are often portrayed as having a greater possibility of maladjustment than native teenagers (Greenman, 2011, p. 29-67). In the pivotal stage of adolescence, a lack in identity and self-confidence for a teenager will inevitably result in a psychological state of depression and confusion within the self.

Adolescent immigrants face difficulties in finding a balance between their culture of origin and the culture of their host country. As acculturation[1] takes place, they may experience both confusion and anxiety as their moral and cultural understandings are challenged in their new environment (Anderson, 1995). Due to language barriers and cultural stereotypes, social stigmas may be projected onto immigrant youth—all leading factors contributing to acculturative stress and social ostracism. Racism—the largest social obstacle for adolescents from an immigrant background—alienates youth from their peers, and instills in them a feeling of inadequacy and a prevailing fear of rejection. These concerns not only prevent them from maintaining positive relationships based on respect and trust, but, if not resolved, will cause youth to turn to isolation or even substance abuse as a method of coping with acculturative stress (Granic & Patterson, 2006).

The intergenerational differences between children and guardians can cause many familial conflicts. As they immerse themselves in their new culture, immigrant youth begin to lose touch with their ethnic roots and thus widen the cultural gap between themselves and their parents (Birman & Poff, 2011). Adolescents tend to adapt to the language and customs of their host country more quickly than their parents (mostly due to schooling), and also have less opportunities to keep in contact with their native origins. Ultimately, this can lead to growing miscommunications within the family, as parents hold on to social customs, parenting styles, and traditions from their native culture that the younger generation (who have started to embrace their host culture) may no longer believe in or follow (Costigan & Dokis, 2006). Prior beliefs about clothing, dating, and religion may be challenged by the adolescents, who are tempted by newfound values of independence and personal freedom. These intergenerational conflicts can elicit feelings of anger and resentment from immigrant youth, especially towards their parents and native culture.

In order to facilitate the adaptation of immigrant youth to their new environments, one must recognize the importance of community intervention through youth programs, policies, and guidance institutions (Falicov, 2007); a focus is required on establishing more mentorship programs to ease adolescents’ transitions into their host culture, while providing them with a sense of belonging and security. Services such as Engaged Immigrant Youth—a Vancouver-based initiative aiming to support immigrants in school—is an exemplar of this goal. Currently, there are limited community programs which are flexible enough to meet the ethnic needs of each individual (Fainer, 2012); by establishing more linguistically and culturally adaptive services, it is possible to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of immigrant youth and their psychological needs.

Families also play a vital role in the acculturation of their children; when well-functioning and encouraging family relationships are fostered, youth are more likely to participate in social activities and interact with their peers (Guariguata, 2011). It is crucial for parents and adolescents to understand that true adaptive success results from biculturalism, or an equal involvement in both cultures. Having a strong connection and pride in one’s native culture—along with a mastery of skills and customs of one’s host culture—is the key to a successful immigration experience (Coatsworth et al., 2002). It is also important that immigrant youth develop an optimistic mindset that is open to change; reaching for high self-efficacy enhances their values of societal interaction and perseverance in the face of challenges.

The settlement of family in a foreign country creates conflicts that can be overwhelming for anyone; however, adolescent immigrants are forced to face these problems while being confronted with additional age-related tasks such as identity development. Immigration affects teenagers at an especially sensitive life stage where personality and relationship growth is most dense; often, the struggles experienced during adolescence may result in permanent impacts on their personalities and perception of society (Fainer, 2012). Studies have shown that immigration has often compromised academic success and developmental outcomes of adolescents (Coll & Mark, 2012); as one of Canada’s fastest growing populations, the successful adaptation and transition of the country’s immigrant youth is imperative. If no action is taken, society risks losing the potential of these adolescents, who will have no desire to contribute to a society from which they have been shunned. Adolescent immigrants are the future citizens of Canada—thus, it is crucial we take all possible measures to ensure that they grow up to be confident, adaptive, and content individuals who reside in a country they can truly call their home.

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