The Hidden Stress of Being a Child of Immigrants

child of immigrants

My husband and I are both Chinese American — he is first-generation and I am second-generation. We often have conversations about how our Chinese heritage impacts our daily life. Some days we forget entirely that we are Chinese, and other days we are hyper-aware of the microaggressions we incur as part of an immigrant family. While there are currently 20 million adult U.S.-born children of immigrants, according to Pew Research Center, we can’t forget that the vast majority of the United States population is made up or descended from immigrants.

Here are five hidden stressors to be aware of when it comes to being a child of immigrants.

1. Fear of Being Different

I remember feeling self-conscious whenever I invited friends to join my family for dim sum, a specific style of Chinese cuisine that consists of small bite-sized portions of food. It stung every time they called one of my favorite dishes “gross” and, after a while, I stopped inviting them. My husband had a similar experience: kids made fun of how his Chinese lunches smelled. Often he would be so embarrassed that he would throw his lunch in the trash as soon as he got to school.

Many children of immigrant parents have a fear of being different, which is something that can be passed down through generations. “Even if an immigrant family did not have a traumatic experience moving to the United States,” explained Joanna Filidor, LMFT and Talkspace therapist, “other things can get passed down intergenerationally, such as the fear of not belonging, fear of being too different or fear of prejudice.” She noted that while immigrant and non-immigrant children can both experience anxiety and depression, the added stress of “being different” or “not belonging” can trigger additional symptoms for children of immigrants.

2. Concern for Safety

It is not uncommon for a family to experience some element of trauma when moving to the United States. Filidor pointed out a number of resulting fears that can manifest as a result of a traumatic immigration experience, including:

  • Fear and an overall dislike of authority
  • Concern for the safety of themselves and their family members
  • Fear of being sent back to their native country
  • Lack of trust for the system
  • Fear of being seen or judged

While not everyone who is an immigrant had a traumatic experience when moving to the United States, Filidor points out that those with lower socio-economic status tend to experience more trauma and fewer resources to cope with that trauma.

3. Language Barriers

When we think about language barriers, we tend to think about non-English-speaking immigrants having a hard time communicating with their English-speaking community. We don’t often think about how children of immigrants might experience a language barrier between themselves and their own parents. “Since children of immigrants spend most of the day speaking to their peers in English,” explained Filidor, “they may lack the language to properly communicate with their parents at home.”

This is something my husband and his dad have to deal with regularly. His dad usually speaks to my husband in Cantonese and my husband will respond back in English. While this strategy works ok, they are never really able to have an intimate conversation. “Parents can then lose the ability to connect with their children,” added Filiodr. “As a result, they may not be included in community and school events.”

Schools, workplaces, and other community organizations can better support children of immigrants by having translators more readily available. Taking measures like this will help alleviate the burden of a language barrier between children and their parents and allow family members to be included in the child’s life — even if communicating with each other proves challenging.

4. Feeling Ashamed

It’s a delicate balance to help children of immigrants acculturate while making sure they don’t feel ashamed to be from a different culture. As Filidor shared, it’s important to maintain a curious and non-judgmental stance during this process. It can be easy to assume your way of living is “better” or “right” so try to keep an open mind while connecting with children of immigrants. For example, Filidor recommends familiarizing yourself with someone’s culture and experience by asking questions such as what types of cuisine are traditional, which cultural aspects resonate (and which don’t), and what is challenging about living in the United States.

5. Everyone’s Experience is Different

When thinking about the experience of children with immigrant parents, keep in mind that their mental health struggles may be the result of very real discrimination and societal oppression. Therefore, it’s critical to help children of immigrants feel seen and heard and avoid dismissing their feelings or assuming their experiences are simply the result of “cognitive distortions.”

“It is important to understand the narrative that shapes each child and their sense of identity,” said Filidor. For example, learning about how someone’s culture, background, family, and countries contributes to their individual identity and and lens through which they view the world is vital to supporting their mental health journey. “Using narrative interventions can be really powerful as it helps clients own their own story and choose what they want to use as part of their life moving forward,” said Filidor.

It’s been an important part of my healing journey to reconnect with my Chinese roots because, over the years, my family has lost touch with our heritage in an effort to fit into American culture. The more I learn about how much our family sacrificed to assimilate, the more my heart goes out to all children of immigrants who feel ashamed of where they came from. At the end of the day, we all just want to feel like we belong.

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