Immigration to a new country challenges families to adapt to a different way of life. Moving to a new country often requires learning a new language, understanding another culture, and creating a new social network. Acculturation is the term for this process of adapting or adjusting to a new culture. Acculturation can lead to changes in behaviors, values, and beliefs. The process of immigration and acculturation can be difficult because the individual and the family must decide which of their traditional values or cultural behaviors to keep and which to adopt from their new country.
Each member of a family can experience the acculturation process differently. Immigrant parents often end up in a cultural world that’s distinct from that of their children. Through their schools, children often have more involvement with the host culture and thus learn new languages and mannerisms quickly. They integrate into the new culture faster. At the same time, immigrant children may have fewer opportunities to stay connected to their heritage culture. Parents, on the other hand, cherish the cultural values they grew up with. They are often slower to develop social connections, and have more difficulty learning a new language. This difference in adapting to the new culture across generations is call the acculturation gap.
Such acculturation gaps have been linked to family conflict and poorer youth adjustment. One source of conflict results from challenges to family communication and mutual understanding. It’s not surprising that misunderstandings arise when parents and children have different expectations for behavior and family relationships. For example, immigrant children contrast their parents’ stricter parenting style with the greater independence and permissive parenting they see in the families of their American friends. Immigrant youth who feel caught between two cultures have been shown to have higher levels of depression, problem behaviors, and lower academic achievement. These difficulties appear to be directly related to the level of family conflict.
Fortunately, well-functioning family relationships may buffer the effects of intergenerational differences in acculturation. Families with good communication and close relationships may be able to handle acculturation gaps without experiencing increased conflict and the resulting adjustment problems. One way to increase communication around acculturation is for parents and children to jointly engage in social activities to increase engagement with host culture. Helping immigrant children retain their heritage language also appears to be important. Parents and schools should support the children’s heritage language development. Family therapy designed to reduce the culture gap between parents and children has also been shown to reduce youth behavior problems. It is not necessary to have a therapist from the same cultural background, but they should be culturally sensitive and knowledge about the immigration experience.
Dr. Laura Spiller is a clinical psychologist in private practice. She helps adults, couples, and families struggling to make difficult life changes, especially related to health and medical issues.