How do ethnic and family identities affect adolescents in immigrant families?

In recent decades, the United States has seen a dramatic rise in immigration from Latin American and Asian countries, which has raised questions (and staunch political opinions) about how immigration policies affect everyday life for U.S. citizens.  However, equally important questions concern how living in America affects the immigrant families themselves.  What exactly is life like for immigrant families in America?  Specifically, how do youth in immigrant families adapt to life in a new country?  Do they maintain a strong sense of their ethnic identity?  Can a strong ethnic identity buffer immigrant youth from psychological distress?  Can ethnic identity also cause added stress for ethnically diverse adolescents?

I recently attended a talk by Dr. Andrew J. Fuligni, Professor of Developmental Psychology and Psychiatry at UCLA, that addressed these questions.  During the talk, Dr. Fuligni argued that adolescents in immigrant families do indeed have a strong sense of ethnic identity.  He showed that many adolescents in immigrant families prefer to use hyphenated labels (e.g., Asian-American, Mexican-American) when describing themselves, indicating that their cultural heritage is a large part of their identity.  He has also found that youth in immigrant families actively explore their identity throughout adolescence.  For example, when tracking these individuals over time, Dr. Fuligni’s team found that ethnically diverse youth often change their preferred labels, switching from “national origin labels” (e.g., Mexican) at one time point to “hyphenated labels” (e.g., Mexican-American) at other time points.  Despite changes in their preferred identity, however, ethnically diverse youth rarely choose completely non-ethnic labels (e.g., American).  These findings indicate that immigrant youth actively explore their ethnic identity, though their cultural background remains an important part of their identity throughout adolescent development.

Having found that diverse youth generally have a strong sense of ethnic identity, Dr. Fuligni next considered whether ethnic identity plays a role in psychological well-being.  His team found that a sense of ethnic identity is indeed associated with positive psychological outcomes for youth in immigrant families, including high self-esteem, a greater sense of happiness, and better academic adjustment.  At the same time, however, strong ties to one’s ethnic group are associated with some burdens, such as caring for one’s family.  For example, Dr. Fuligni’s team has found that teenagers in immigrant families report feeling burdened to help their families financially, and to assist with babysitting, cooking, and other household tasks above and beyond their schoolwork.  Thus, it seems like ethnic identity can lead to both positive psychological outcomes and stressors.  How do these different psychological outcomes translate into physical health?

In a recent study, Dr. Fuligni and his colleagues found that, among ethnically diverse youth, time spent helping the family was associated with signs of physical health problems.  However, this finding was partially due to how much “role fulfillment” the youth received from helping their family.  If they felt like helping their family was important to their sense of self, they did not show health deficits compared to their peers.  Thus, the importance of one’s ethnicity for one’s overall sense of identity is an important factor in the healthy development of youth from ethnically diverse backgrounds.

So, returning to the questions that began this post:

Do youth in immigrant families maintain their ethnic identity after moving to America? 

Yes, research indicates that youth in immigrant families feel a strong sense of ethnic identity throughout their adolescent years.

Can a strong ethnic identity buffer immigrant youth from psychological distress? 

Yes, ethnic identity has been linked to high self-esteem, greater reports of happiness, and better academic achievement among youth in immigrant families.

Can ethnic identity also cause some stress for ethnically diverse adolescents?

Also yes.  Empirical data show that some aspects of living in an immigrant household (e.g., helping to care for one’s family) can cause distress and health disparities, especially if individuals do not feel like these added burdens are “fulfilling a role.”

Clearly, ethnic identity and family relationships are important factors in the health and well-being among the growing population of adolescents in immigrant families.  To date, the research findings are somewhat mixed, showing that ethnic and family identification lead to positive outcomes as well as stressors for some adolescents in immigrant families.  Collectively, these findings demonstrate how important it is to ask not only how immigration affects U.S. citizens, but also how life in the U.S. affects immigrant families.

For more information on Dr. Fuligni’s research, check out his website: