Author: santorem

The Immigrant Family’s Journey: How Mental Health Services Supports the Transition from Migration to Family Reunification

Immigrants and their children have become a significant segment of American society. Immigrants migrate from various countries possessing diverse backgrounds, beliefs, customs, and languages1. Families migrate for multiple reasons but all share in the stress of migration that can have lasting effects on the immigrant family. Once these families arrive, they are challenged with adapting to a new language, customs, roles, and activities1. This can result in conflict between parents and their children, as children readily adapt to the new culture which can differ from their parent’s beliefs and expectations. Children may turn to others for advice, experience divided loyalties, and confusion regarding their cultural identity1.

Another significant factor in migration is the existence of undocumented parents. In immigrant families, approximately 4.5 million of US citizen children live in families where at least one member is undocumented with an authorized status2. Since the 1990s, there has been a growing number of deportations due to stricter laws so the risk of deportation is a real threat that families may face2. This threat challenges families who are dealing with multiple socioeconomic stressors resulting in psychological difficulties1. Immigrants also face the fear of reporting abuse to authorities and the inability to access both medical and mental health services1,2. Children of these family’s risk developing emotional distress, poor academic performance, physical illness, and developmental delays2,3. If a parent is detained, this can have devastating effects on the child, leaving them without adequate childcare and the reversal of family roles as the remaining parent struggles to meet the family’s needs2.

Furthermore, another potential outcome of detainment is a parent’s difficult decision to either remain separated from their child through deportation or to have the child accompany them back to their country of origin2. Detainment itself can lead to negative effects on both the individual and family, resulting in anxiety, depression, trauma, poor school performance, and increased risk of suicide3. If the separation persists, these children can even be at risk for drug use, poor interpersonal relationships, and even delinquent behavior2,3.  The immigrant community is also impacted by a family’s risk of deportation through increased fear, unreported crime, violence due to fear of discovery, and mistrust of authorities2.

Although there have been recent efforts to improve the immigration process through advocacy groups as well as President Trump’s recent signing of an executive order putting an end to family separation, the process of detainment still negatively affects children and their families3. Mental health professionals, advocates, and researchers agree that families must be provided support to address mental health problems that can occur throughout the migration process1. This support can be challenging as immigrants may hesitate to receive services due to fear of deportation, cultural beliefs, and barriers to accessing treatment. In addition, if treatment is not culturally sensitive, it may result in lack of trust and improper treatment based on an inaccurate assessment1. Therefore, it is important that mental health professionals be knowledgeable on how to modify treatment to be more culturally sensitive in order to improve outcomes. This includes the need to understand an individual’s perspective, coping skills, prior history, and the emotional impact of migration1. Further steps can also include increasing a clinician’s self-awareness through supervision, use of professional and community resources, and utilizing culturally sensitive practices1. Mental health professionals, educators, and others who work with immigrant families must continue in their efforts to advance research, improve clinical practice, and understand the complexity of the migration process1.


  1. APA Presidential Taskforce on Immigration (2013). Working with immigrant origin clients: An update for mental health professionals.
  2. Brabeck, K. M., Lykes, M. B., & Hunter, C. (2014). The psychosocial impact of detention and deportation on U.S. migrant children and families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84(5), 496–505.
  3. Ducharme, J. (2018). Detaining families may also cause mental health issues. Retrieved from


The Challenges of Coming to America

During the process of migration, children and families experience a variety of challenges adapting to a new culture. This separation, if not successful, can have lasting effects throughout a child’s lifetime. Therefore, it is important to increase an understanding of how this adjustment occurs and what factors can either assist in the transition or pose a barrier to its success1. Neighborhoods and schools play a major role in a child’s development and the successful adaptation to a new culture1,2.A child’s first formal introduction to a new culture may occur in the school environment. In this environment, a child not only has the opportunity to achieve good grades but also maintain a high level of involvement, a positive emotional response to school, and possess a desire to learn. Eventual success in these areas can be affected by the child’s English language skills, as well as their attitudes towards education and a commitment to achieve2.

Studies have identified that immigrant children can experience what is called the immigrant paradox which is when a child, after the first generation, experiences a reduction in academic success which is thought to be related to a change in their attitude towards education2. Regardless of this phenomenon, children from grades seven through eleven experience a reduction in engagement with school, whether immigrants or not. This is believed to be related to the developmental stage of adolescence. Therefore, efforts at this age should be implemented to foster a positive relationship with teachers as well as engage students in activities which promote increased interest and active involvement2.

Furthermore, a child’s neighborhood in addition to their school and family can also impact their adjustment to a new culture1. A child’s relationship with their neighborhood, school peers, and family occurs in a bidirectional fashion so that one affects the other. This can be a positive effect by fostering identity and a sense of belonging but can also result in a negative outcome if the neighborhood has a high immigrant population1. In an immigrant community, a child may have insufficient exposure to English speaking individuals, leaving them at a disadvantage of not knowing the language or how to navigate a new environment. This can result in a decrease in their academic performance and school engagement1,2.

Lastly, another major challenge in the process of adjusting to a new culture is the potential separation from a parent as a result of migration and even deportation4. Circumstances surrounding the separation can result in a lengthy absence of a parent. This results in stress on the family related to the need to shift roles, expectations, and responsibilities as they struggle to meet expectations4. These children can experience devastating psychological effects such as depression, anxiety, and emotional trauma3. Long term consequences of the separation can also result in behavioral problems, rejection of the parent’s authority, and even delinquent behavior3,4.

Although migration to a new country can be initiated to provide positive opportunities and economic gain, the process of adapting to a new culture and reuniting the family may take years to accomplish4. Therefore, it is critical that we gain an increased understanding of this complicated process in order to develop strategies and interventions to promote a successful transition.


  1. Leventhal, T., & Shuey, E. A. (2014). Neighborhood context and immigrant young children’s development. Developmental Psychology, 50(6), 1771–1787.
  2. Motti-Stefanidi, F., & Masten, A. S. (2013). School success and school engagement of immigrant children and adolescents: A risk and resilience developmental perspective. European Psychologist, 18(2), 126–135.
  3. Rojas-Flores, L., Clements, M. L., Hwang Koo, J., & London, J. (2017). Trauma and psychological distress in Latino citizen children following parental detention and deportation.Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9(3), 352-361.
  4. Suárez-Orozco, C., Bang, H. J., & Kim, H. Y. (2011). I felt like my heart was staying behind: Psychological implications of family separations & reunifications for immigrant youth. Journal of Adolescent Research, 26(2), 222–257.

Coming to a New Country is Only the First Step

There continues to be a growing wave of immigrants entering the US. However, the face of this current immigrant differs from prior decades in that the immigrant’s country of origin may be vastly different from the new culture4. This change has served to complicate the process of acculturation which is defined as a process of adopting cultural traits and patterns from another culture4. Earlier perspectives of acculturation noted the expectation that immigrants would naturally adopt the values, beliefs, and practices as well as the language of the new culture while letting go of their initial culture. However, current perspectives on acculturation recognizes that this process can occur in a variety of ways4. An individual can adopt the new culture while discarding the old, referred to as assimilation, adopt the new culture while retaining the old, referred to as integration, and may even reject both cultures which is called marginalization. There are individual differences in how people achieve social, psychological, and cultural adaptation of the new culture. Those that pursue the integration type of acculturation experience less stress than those who choose marginalization1.Research has noted that the type of acculturation with the greatest degree of success with reduced stress is integration1.

Furthermore, the process of acculturation is impacted by factors which include: the individual’s ability to adjust, the level of familiarity with the new culture, existence of available resources, and the presence of existing barriers such as lack of citizenship6. Therefore, entering a new country is only the first step in the process of successful acculturation and learning a new language. The greater the difference in the two cultures, the harder it will be to assimilate and master a new language. Individuals may develop the ability to converse in English but a deeper level of understanding to allow them to succeed in school takes several years5. Both acculturation and mastering a new language occurs over time. In both of these processes, it is critical that there be existing resources to promote the learning process in order to reduce potential failure5.

A significant barrier faced by immigrants is their lack of citizenship and legal documentation. This dilemma impacts not only the individual, put the entire family. This is particularly true in children as they develop and seek to pursue higher education and independence. Their ability to successfully complete the goal of separation from family is obstructed by their illegal status6. However, despite barriers, immigrants adjust to a new environment with their children seeking academic advancement and improved educational outcomes. For example, in Latino/a immigrants children, a higher level of acculturation is associated with their ability and desire to pursue a college education7.

As acculturation continues, first and second generation children demonstrate a decline in academic success. This decline has been referred to as the immigrant paradox2. There has been growing research that as children become removed from their parent’s initial incentive to migrate to a new country in search of greater opportunities and more exposure to American peers, they lose their enthusiasm and drive3. Therefore, it is critical that the process of acculturation be better understood related to a more integrated perspective of what factors either support or hinder successful acculturation. In addition, consideration must be given to supporting this process through the generations to provide early intervention and to counter the effects of the immigrant paradox2. Both acculturation and the immigrant paradox must be better understood as these concepts continue to impact a family and a child’s development, not only upon entry to a new country but through their lifespan3.


  1. Berry, J.W. (2005). Acculturation: Living successfully in two cultures. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 29,697-712.
  2. Greenman, E. (2013). Educational attitudes, school peer context, and the “immigrant paradox” in education. Social Science Research, 42(3), 698–714.
  3. Marks, A. K., Ejesi, K., & García Coll, C. (2014). Understanding the U.S. immigrant paradox in childhood and adolescence. Child Development Perspectives, 8(2), 59–64.
  4. Schwartz, S. J., Unger, J. B., Zamboanga, B. L., & Szapocznik, J. (2010). Rethinking the concept of acculturation: Implications for theory and research. American Psychologist, 65(4), 237–251.
  5. Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M. M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a new land: Immigrant students in American society. Cambridge, MA, US: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. (The Challenge of Language Acquisition)
  6. Suárez-Orozco, C., Yoshikawa, H., Teranishi, R. T., & Suárez-Orozco, M. M. (2011). Growing up in the shadows: The developmental implications of unauthorized status. Harvard Educational Review, 81(3), 438–472.
  7. Vela, J. C., Johnson, M.B., Cavazos, L., Ikonomopoulos, J., & Gonzalez S. L. (2014). The effects of barriers, acculturation, and academic goals on Latina/o students’ academic performance. The American Counseling Association, 1-11. Retrieved from

Developmental Psychology, Immigration, and the Impact of Acculturation

American society has experienced a growing immigration population with an estimated number of 39.9 million immigrants. These immigrants arrive primarily from Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean with diverse levels of education, skills, values, and customs1. These immigrants face multiple challenges which includes: unfamiliar customs, language, economic burdens, and discrimination. This can result in stress to the family as they seek to overcome these barriers. This process of adjusting to a new culture is referred to as acculturation. Developmental psychologists must gain an increased understanding of acculturation in order to understand its impact on the immigrant family and more importantly on a child’s development. Acculturation is impacted by both the individual’s ability to cope and the attitudes of the receiving society. This interactive process can also be referred to as proximal processes, reinforcing the importance of the interaction between the individual and their environment and its impact on development3.

The level of stress experienced by the family, particularly children, is directly impacted by discrimination. For Developmental psychologists, an understanding of this is critical as children are faced with the burden of discrimination while attempting to meet the expectations of adolescence. Although discrimination is not a new phenomenon, the growing differences between the immigrant population and society increase the likelihood of discrimination1. The negative view of immigrants is reinforced by daily depictions of immigrants in the current media as dangerous, uneducated, and threatening to American values. Immigrants are perceived as competing for employment, available community resources, and an overall financial burden to society1. It is noted that the existence of barriers such as discrimination will impact a child’s development and the ability to meet their developmental expectations4. Therefore, Developmental psychologists must be proactive in increasing their knowledge of the impact of acculturation and in providing culturally sensitive services to minimize negative outcomes. One such intervention is to promote intergroup relationships amongst adolescents which can increase understanding and reduce the likelihood of discrimination7.

A key developmental task in adolescence is the development of attitudes particularly towards different groups such as immigrants. Interactions amongst immigrant children and nonimmigrant peers can also reduce fear and isolation in the immigrant child, reducing the possibility of psychological distress4. An educational effort was recently noted when action was taken by Starbucks to retrain its employees following an incident of discrimination which occurred in Philadelphia6. Although this intervention targeted adults, it did reinforce the importance of aggressively intervening to reduce discrimination through educational efforts6. Developmental psychologists must support opportunities for education which target parents, children, and institutions which interact with the immigrant population5. A particular area of concern that requires further exploration is how individual characteristics can influence a child’s development of attitudes such as discrimination7. Therefore, psychologists must develop programs that are individually tailored to increase tolerance in early education before adolescent attitudes are firmly established. Such an effort was noted in a recent article in US News and World Report that discussed how to raise tolerant and inclusive children. The author recommended that elementary school educators and professionals increase a child’s exposure to individuals of different races and cultures while exposing them to more diverse ideas. This early intervention was felt to increase the existence of tolerant and inclusive behaviors2.

As the numbers of immigrants are anticipated to continue to rise, both Developmental psychologist, educators, and the public must work together to reduce discrimination and its negative impact on the immigrant family, child, and society. Discrimination impacts the physical and emotional well-being of both the immigrants and the receiving society, resulting in both short term and long term consequences1.


  1. APA Presidential Taskforce on Immigration. (2013). Crossroads: The psychology of immigration in the new century. Journal of Latina/O Psychology, 1(3), 133–148.
  2. Borba, M. (2018, April 13). How to raise tolerant, inclusive kids. Retrieved from
  3. Bronfenbrenner, U. (2000). Ecological systems theory. In A. E. Kazdin & A. E. Kazdin (Ed) (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Psychology, Vol. 3. (pp. 129–133). Washington, DC, US; New York, NY, US: American Psychological Association.
  4. García Coll, C., Lamberty, G., Jenkins, R., McAdoo, H. P., Crnic, K., Wasik, B. H., & Garcia, H. V. (1996). An integrative model for the study of developmental competencies in minority children. Child Development, 67(5), 1891–1914.
  5. Gniewosz, B., & Noack, P. (2015). Parental influences on adolescents’ negative attitudes toward immigrants. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(9), 1787–1802.
  6. Lardieri, A. (2018, April 17). 8,000 Starbucks stores will close to conduct racial bias education. Retrieved from
  7. Zalk, M. H. W., & Kerr, M. (2014). Developmental trajectories of prejudice and tolerance toward immigrants from early to late adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43(10), 1658–1671.

Mackenzie Santorelli’s Biography

Hi! I am currently a senior at Dickinson College. I am from a small town called Cranford, New Jersey and have lived there all my life. I plan on attending an accelerated nursing school program in the fall following graduation. I have been an EMT for six years at the Cranford First Aid Squad and have loved every minute of it. Some of my favorite things to do are practice yoga, compete in Spartan Races, play with my dog, and eat delicious foods, especially lasagna.