As we consider the adaptive success of immigrant origin children & youth, several metrics should be kept in mind. How is the child meeting the developmental and psychological tasks of normal development? And, in addition, how are they juggling the particular challenges that immigration brings to growing up? (see Suárez-Orozco, Frosso, Marks, & Kataskikas 2018).
Too often, studies have compared the behavior and achievements of immigrant-origin children and youth to that of their non-immigrant-origin peers. This practice can lead to deficit views and stereotyping of immigrant origin children and youth either as less than in a particular domain (e.g., achievement tests) or conversely as model minorities. Such approaches to the study of immigrant origin children and youth adaptation is deeply problematic; instead, the adaptation of immigrant-origin children and youth should be examined in its own right (see Garcia Coll, Akerman, & Cicchetti, 2000). To do this, the assessment of the quality of immigrant-origin children and youth’s adaptation needs to be differentiated by domain using measures that are culturally and linguistically apropos (for discussion see Motti-Stefanidi & Masten, 2017; Suárez-Orozco, Frosso, Marks, & Kataskikas 2018).
As illustrated in the above figure, a variety of developmental tasks reflect the expectations and standards for behavior and achievement that adults (e.g., parents, teachers) and societies set for individuals over the life span in a particular time in history in specific cultures. During childhood, developmental tasks include, among others, developing self-regulation skills (e.g., around eating, sleeping, playing, and doing homework) and forming positive attachment to others. Key developmental tasks in the adolescent years include doing well in school, having close friends, being accepted and not rejected by peers, further developing self-control and responsibility (e.g., complying with rules of the family when no one is monitoring), forming a cohesive and secure sense of identity, civic engagement, and preparing for labor market and professional participation (see Masten, 2014).
Another indicator of adaptation for all children and youth is psychological adjustment. Indices of perceived psychological wellbeing versus distress (see Motti-Stefanidi & Masten, 2017), such as the presence of self-esteem and life satisfaction and the absence of emotional symptoms such as anxiety and depression, are common markers of psychological wellbeing used by both developmental and acculturation researchers.
Acculturative Tasks: Additional Developmental Tasks of Immigrant Origin Children & Youth
Notably, immigrant origin children and youth who live and grow between at least two cultures are often faced with the conflicting values and developmental goals of their parents and host culture. Thus, they contend with acculturative challenges as they address developmental tasks (see Motti-Stefanidi & Masten, 2017 & Suárez-Orozco, Frosso, Marks, & Kataskikas 2018). Growing up across multiple cultural contexts present children with many tasks of acculturation (i.e., the process of adopting cultural and social patterns of the receiving community) while also engaging in enculturation (i.e., the process of practicing cultural and social patterns of the family’s culture of origin). Importantly, the varying contexts of socialization may demand conflicting developmental task standards to which immigrant origin children and youth must adapt.
The development of cultural competence, (bi/multi)lingual language acquisition, (bi/muti)-cultural identity negotiation, and establishing a sense of belonging are all inter-related and critical developmental tasks of immigrant origin children that fall broadly under the umbrella of acculturative tasks. Research from Europe, Canada, and the U.S. support their saliency (see Bornstein & Cote 2013; Umaña-Taylor et al, 2014).
- Cultural competence–The acquisition of the knowledge and skills of both culture of origin as well as the receiving community’s culture –is a critical developmental challenge for immigrant origin children and youth. Culturally competent immigrant origin children and youth are able to communicate effectively in ethnic and national languages, have friends from both their family’s and other ethnic groups, know the values and practices of both groups, code-switch between languages and cultures as necessary, and bridge cultures (both host and home).
- Multilingual competencies–To successfully make their way in the host society, children of immigrants need to develop social and academic competency in the host language. While social language typically takes 3 to 5 years, academic language takes 4 to 7 years to acquire (Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000). Research demonstrates that scaffolding upon students native languages leads to better learning outcomes (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017). While learning the new language, in order to optimize family communication, children should also maintain their own family heritage language (though home language attrition can be rapid).
- Bi/multi-cultural identity negotiation–The construction of ethnic and racial identity (ERI) has been found to be an important developmental milestone for youth of color with implications for psychosocial, academic, and health risk outcomes among ethnic minority adolescents (Rivas-Drake et al, 2014). Much of this work has been well articulated for racial minority youth but less well for immigrant origin youth who straddle ethnic AND racial minority identities (Cross et al, 2017). For example, while findings are fairly consistent for Black youth in the U.S., they are somewhat less so for Latine/Hispanic and much less so for Asian youth (Cross, et al, 2017). Clearly, negotiating and managing a healthy identity that values both family of origin and host society identities has important implications for “feeling good, happy, and proud.”
- Negotiating belonging in the face of exclusion–The need to belong is a core human drive (Baumeister & Leary, 2017). As social animals we are hard-wired to search for belonging and indeed social rejection is physiologically distressing in similar ways to physical pain (Kross, et al, 2011). Immigrant children and youth enter their new societies, longing to belong, in search of spaces of belonging. Lamentably, they too often face active social and structural exclusions across the settings. Over the last decade, they are encountering evermore exclusionary immigration laws and a systematic deportation machinery (MPI, 2020) and a Federal stalemate in coming to any comprehensive immigration reform. Concurrently, they are facing a hostile media and environment, political scapegoating, and growing xenophobia and racism (Chavez, 2013; Crush & Ramachandran, 2010). Hence, a primary challenge for immigrant origin children and youth is to negotiate belonging in the face of these exclusionary attitudes and concurrent policy environments.