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Dr Joe: Latina Teens, Suicide Attempts and Mental Health 'Secretos'
April, 7, 2015
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Children suffer in shadow of parent's unauthorized immigration status, USC-UCLA study finds
April 7, 2015
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Campaign underway to help Central American immigrants bring their children to the U.S.
April 3, 2015
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When Jacob Riis turned his camera on the workplace and exposed the conditions of children at work, the images appalled America and led to child labor laws (1890). No such camera can detail the children in immigrant families as they are pressed into adult roles, but the shocking consequences should arouse the same sensibilities and lead to corrective action.


Adultifcation of children is evident in the supermarket, the court, the doctor's office, and the school. "Now just tell your momma what I said," is a common request  from the countless clerks and professionals who want to communicate with a non-English speaker who is accompanied by a bilingual child. "What did the doctor say?" asks a parent, dependent on the child who has readily learned the new language.


Adultification is much more than being a family interpreter. M.E. Puig writes, "The roles of parents and children are usually disrupted and, unwittingly, responsibilities shift as refugee children assume obligations that do not correspond to their chronological, emotional, or psychological age."(1). This child pressured to take adult responsibility is not a condition limited to refugee or immigrant children but it is particularly widespread in this vulnerable population who flee oppression and without sufficient language preparation or skills are thrown into new cultures and societies with the expectation to navigate or interpret the new life not just for themselves but for adult family members.


European countries are investing in pre-departure language training to smooth the integration process but this works best in post-colonial source countries and is not a realistic expectation with the global movement toward developed countries, especially with oppressed peoples seeking refuge and asylum. Language is seen as only one pressure on children in migration.


Social workers are increasingly in places where they can identify family stress from relocation, stress from pre-departure conditions, flight, and resettlement. From the dissolution of families to the conflict forged as parents become more dependent on a child, to the lost childhood expressed in affectless adolescents trying to sustain a household, the crux of the issue is often pressured children trying to fulfill adult roles.


It is incumbent on the professional to become the defender and advocate of these children. Having listened to a family explain that their 9 year-old son was interpreting his mother's serious risks from sustained uterus bleeding, brought engagement in the battle that required a lawsuit to ensure language access. Massachusetts passed an emergency room interpreter law in 2000 to safeguard children and adults who previously had strangers pressed into duty to communicate often critical information in a hospital room, a courthouse or with social services.


Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act stipulates that "No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, and/or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance". In 1974, in Lau v Nichols, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted Title VI to include discrimination based on language as being equivalent to discrimination based on national origin. However, the existence of law does not guarantee services in most states.


Children pressed into adult roles can suffer multiple consequences. Lack of attachment to peers and school communities, limited developmental opportunities, physical consequences of sustained stress, lack of mobility, and the resultant impact on critical thinking and judgment, and of course interrupted participation in education, are among the concerns.   Given the hundreds of thousands of children deprived of a parent by DHS enforcement, separation anxiety and a real fear of future loss, clinicians face daunting consequences among the children of families separated in migration even before children trying to fill vacant parent roles.


It should be noted, however, that there are multiple benefits to some children with certain roles and responsibilities when support is sufficient. A positive example is that children are often propelled into skills development in communication, especially with technology, to sustain family ties with the homeland or peers. Children may further develop in computational or social skills when they are not required to serve adults' needs but instead are given affirmation and measures of self-determination. Often there is evidence of increased cognition and language skills according to McQuillan and Tse (2). The damage or reward is dependent on family systems, cultural understanding, and the degrees of dependency associated with these advanced roles.


How a family integrates (or remains marginalized) is a major factor in childhood development. Scholars have probed the issues of withdrawal, depression, and attachment disorders and these behaviors are readily associated with delayed acculturation. Studies of distinct populations, such as Somali youth in Maine, show a high incidence of PTSD. The average teen had more than 7 traumatic life experiences. Healthy mental development can be seen as overcoming the deleterious effects in such circumstances and freeing children from adult dependency is one step.

ocial work and social policy are tools for intervention in protecting children. Good practice, strong boundaries to guard children from pressured performance with inappropriate roles, and excellent interpreter programs are the primary tools for a proper course of action. Screens in assessments of families and children when doing home visits, enrollments and planning, which note the roles and developmental issues of children, particularly adolescents, are steps that need to be taken when working with immigrant families. Cultural training of direct service staff remains a vital safeguard by developing awareness, by being alert to continued role reversals, and by affording alternative models to both family and agencies. More youth services with integrated mental health services are needed.


Bilingual and bicultural children usually thrive in their new country, but sustaining the environment for their healthy development remains an achievement.

 Westy Egmont, Director

BCSSW Immigrant Integration Lab

1. Puig, M. E. (2002). The adultification of refugee children: Implications for cross-cultural social work practice. Journal of human behavior in the social environment5(3-4), 85-95.

2. McQuillan, J., & Tse, L. (1995). Child language brokering in linguistic minority communities: Effects on cultural interaction, cognition, and literacy. Language and Education, 9(3), 195-215.  


Somali refugees have been relocating to the United States in large numbers since civil unrest began in Somali in 1991. Many of these refugees have resettled in Massachusetts. Because many Somali youth have been exposed to violence prior to their arrival, they are often at an increased risk for trauma and stress. At the same time, cultural and language barriers often prevent these children and their families from seeking mental health treatment. It is for these reasons that Project SHIFA, in collaboration with Boston Children's Hospital and Boston Public Schools, seeks to create a partnership between the Somali Community and the education and mental health systems in the Boston area. Project SHIFA focuses on three areas of intervention: parent outreach and education, school based groups for students and trainings for teachers, and individual, direct intervention for youth using Trauma Systems Therapy. In doing this, they have seen decreased complaints of discrimination, rejection or alienation in school and issues with family acculturation, as well as an increase in a sense of belonging for school aged children.


Saida Abdi, Director of Community Relations, says that "one of the reasons children become parentified is because parents have no access to resources." Ms. Abdi identifies English translation as a major way that children are asked to take on more than is appropriate for their age. Project SHIFA works to address this at its source by providing Somali-speaking clinicians and working with families to understand that relying too much on children can be damaging both to child development and the parent-child relationship. This education of parents is not work that Project SHIFA does at any one time, but rather an integral part of the therapeutic process for each family. Read more > >  


Changing Familial Roles for Immigrant Adolescents From the Former Soviet Union to Israel

Kosner, A., Roer-Strier, D., & Kurman, J. (2014)

Journal of Adolescent Research, 29(3), pp. 356-379

Immigration literature suggests that the loss of resources and support systems along with adaptation challenges may increase family reliance on adolescent children. Although researchers explored the changes in the roles of immigrant parents in various cultural contexts, only a few studies examined how children and adolescents are affected and cope with these changes. The authors of this study attempted to address this gap by focusing on young people's perceptions and experiences of role change following immigration from the former Soviet Union to Israel, as well as the effects of this change. Data collected through semi-structured interviews and focus groups from adolescents and young adults (N=34) showed six distinct roles within the family: language broker, family navigator, breadwinner, cultural broker, self-caretaker, counselor, and emotional supporter for parents. The results of this study indicate that most participants simultaneously experienced positive and negative effects with role changes, following immigration. Among the negative effects were the perception of a "lost childhood" and feelings of distress. Positive outcomes included self-reliance, contribution to the family, and a sense of meaning. Implications of the findings for theory, research, and practice are discussed.

Read more > >



The Stressful (and Not So Stressful) Nature of Language Brokering: Identifying When Brokering Functions as a Cultural Stressor for Latino Immigrant Children in Early Adolescence

Kam, J. A., & Lazarevic, V. (2014)

Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43, pp. 1994-2011

Prior research suggests that young language brokers may be at risk for a number of adverse mental and behavioral health outcomes. However, much of the research on the well-being of immigrant families and language brokering relied on cross-sectional data and viewed brokering's effects on health outcomes in unidimensional ways. This study, based on the principles of general strain theory and theory of planned behavior, explored the direct and indirect effects of language brokering, using longitudinal survey data from 243 Latino immigrant children in early adolescence. In addition, the authors examined multiple dimensions of language brokering and determined how their interactions predicted mental and behavioral health outcomes. The results showed that language brokering for parents may not necessarily function as a stressor, depending on how Latino immigrant children in early adolescence feel about the process of language brokering. These findings demonstrate the complex nature of brokering and the potential for designing programs intended to promote the well-being of immigrant families.

Read more > >  



The Effects of Language Brokering Frequency and Feelings on Mexican-Heritage Youth's Mental Health and Risky Behaviors

Kam, J. A. (2011)

Journal of Communication, 61, pp. 455-475

For many immigrants, a lack of familiarity with U.S. institutional systems makes surviving in this new environment challenging, particularly with the added pressure to learn a new language and other cultural elements. Among immigrant families, young members usually children, often become proficient in English and U.S. culture faster than adults. Consequently, immigrant families rely on younger members as language brokers. In this study, 689 Mexican heritage youth from schools in Phoenix, AZ completed surveys in three waves from seventh through eighth grades. Responses were used to explore the direct and indirect effects of language brokering on mental health and risky behaviors. Results indicated that language brokering frequency and negative brokering feelings were positively associated with family-based acculturation stress, which was positively associated with alcohol use and other risky behaviors. In addition, positive brokering feelings were negatively associated with cigarette use. This article demonstrates the need for more studies exploring the causes of these effects, as well as ways to decrease negative brokering feelings. Additionally, researchers should consider exploring the development of coping strategies for language-brokering youth, given that immigrant families often have no choice but to rely on brokering.

Read more > >



A Qualitative Analysis of What Latino Parents and Adolescents Think and Feel About Language Brokering

Corona, R., Stevens, L.F., Halfond, R. W., Shaffer, C.M., Reid-Quinones, K., & Gonzalez, T. (2012)

Journal of Child and Family Studies, 21, pp. 788-798

Children may be faced with the responsibility to serve as an interpreter for their parents as the population of children living in immigrant and non-English speaking households continues to grow. Relatively few studies have explored parents' reaction to their children serving as language brokers or explored the reasons behind language brokering's links to positive and negative youth outcomes. This study used a semi-structured interview protocol to interview 25 Latino adolescents and their parents. Results demonstrated that parents and youth discuss children helping the family and the benefits of being bilingual when reflecting on their positive feelings about language brokering. When youth reflected upon negative feelings, they reported difficulties when words were complex and beyond their English/Spanish language abilities. Also, children appeared to find language-brokering experiences in health related settings to be particularly challenging. This study highlights the need for more studies exploring the shared parent-child experience of language brokering in immigrant families.

Read more > >






Young Children as Intercultural Mediators: Mandarin-Speaking Chinese Families in Britain
By Zhiyan Guo
Multilingual Matters (2014)
"Zhiyan Guo's thoughtful analyses reveal both explicit and implicit ways in which children serve as cultural mediators and active agents in family socialization processes. Nicely theorized, and offering keen insights into everyday lived cultural experiences, this book helps us see reciprocal learning between adults and children in important new ways."- Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, University of California at Los Angeles, USA.


Leadership for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Schools

By Martin Scanlan and Francesca A. López

Routledge (2014)

Leadership for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Schools provides aspiring and current leaders the guidance to lead, organize, and support their schools in serving linguistically and culturally diverse students. Scanlan and López explore how schools can cultivate students' linguistic and cultural proficiencies, provide students with rich and challenging learning environments, and ensure that students are socio-culturally integrated. Bringing together research from the field of bilingual education and school improvement, this book provides a strong theoretical and research framework, as well as best practices for supporting all students.

Engendering Transnational Voices: Studies in Family, Work, and Identity (Studies in Childhood and Family in Canada)

By Guida Man

Wilfrid Laurier University Press (2015)

Engendering Transnational Voices examines the transnational practices and identities of immigrant women, youth, and children in an era of global migration and neoliberalism by addressing such topics as family relations, gender and work, schooling, remittances, cultural identities, caring for children and the elderly, inter- and multi-generational relationships, activism, and refugee determination. The volume gives voice to individual experiences, and focuses on human agency as well as on the social, economic, political, and cultural processes inherent in society that enable or disable immigrants to mobilize linkages across national boundaries.    



By Patrick Jones

Darby Creek (2014)

José can't keep up. As the only English speaker in a family of undocumented immigrants, he handles everything from taking family members to the doctor to bargaining with the landlord. Plus he works two jobs. With all this responsibility, he's missing a lot of school. When he does make it, he falls asleep in class. José knows he has to turn things around if he wants to graduate from Rondo Alternative High School. Can he raise his grades enough to have a shot at college and a better life? Or will he be forced to drop out of school for good?


Translating Childhoods: Immigrant Youth, Language, and Culture (Series in Childhood Studies)

By Marjorie Faulstich Orellana

Rutgers University Press (2009)

Translating Childhoods, a unique contribution to the study of immigrant youth, brings children to the forefront by exploring the "work" they perform as language and culture brokers, and the impact of this largely unseen contribution. Readers hear, through children's own words, what it means to be "in the middle" or the "keys to communication" that adults otherwise would lack. Drawing from ethnographic data and research in three immigrant communities, Marjorie Faulstich Orellana's study expands the definition of child labor by assessing children's roles as translators as part of a cost equation in an era of global restructuring and considers how sociocultural learning and development is shaped as a result of children's contributions as translators.


New Directions in Refugee Youth Mental Health Services: Overcoming Barriers to Engagement

Ellis, B. H., Miller, A. B., Baldwin, H., & Abdi, S. (2011)

Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, 4, pp. 69-85

Mental health outcomes in refugee youth are diverse, ranging from prolonged difficulties to resiliency.  Refugee communities rarely access services, even for those youth who are in need. Barriers include distrust of authority and/or systems, stigma of mental health services, linguistic and cultural barriers, and primacy and prioritization of resettlement stressors. Mental health promotion among refugee youth requires an integrated response to these barriers. This study includes a description of how previously mentioned barriers may prevent refugee youth from receiving mental health services; approaches to addressing them; and a detailed description of Supporting the Health of Immigrant Families and Adolescents, a program developed in collaboration with the Somali community in Boston, Massachusetts.


EDITORS: C. Burrell, V. Corbera, W. Egmont, L. Falotico, L. Ferreira, K. Kalliontzi, J. Margolis & J. Nomeland