Acculturation of Immigrant Children

Immigrant children make up a significant percentage of the US population, and their experiences during these developmental years are extremely different from their native peers. Studies have shown that the rates of depressive symptoms are much higher for immigrants, especially those who utilize unhealthy coping mechanisms.


5/5/202310 min read

people holding shoulders sitting on wall
people holding shoulders sitting on wall

The US Department of Homeland Security found that over 740,000 immigrants migrated to the US in 2021. Just under 15% of those immigrants were 19 or younger (Mayorkas et al., 2021). Needless to say, immigrant children make up a significant percentage of the US population, and their experiences during these developmental years are extremely different from their native peers. Studies have proven that the rates of depressive symptoms are much higher for immigrants, especially those who utilize unhealthy coping mechanisms (Kupper et al., 2018).

A finding known as the “acculturation hypothesis” shows that immigrants’ mental health deteriorates through their time in their host country. According to the American Journal of Public Health, Mexican immigrants that have been in the US for longer exhibited higher rates of mental disorders, mood disorders, alcohol abuse, and drug abuse than relatively new Mexican immigrants (Cook et al., 2009). A study National Library of Medicine asserts that there are four typical responses immigrant children have to a sudden change in environment: integration (also known as biculturalism, meaning heavy influence from both cultures), assimilation (complete abandonment of original culture), separation (complete maintenance of cultural heritage), and marginalization (no involvement in either cultures) The mental health and their method of acculturation are dependent on each other, and vary from person to person. There is no single factor that determines your method of acculturation; instead, a myriad of factors affect it. This begs the question: What factors are the most important to consider when discussing immigrant children’s ability to assimilate?

Immigrant children’s level of comfort when embracing biculturalism in their host country depends on a variety of personal factors, such as gender, culture of origin, and socioeconomic status. Additionally, the response of immigrant children may be hindered by external factors, such as discrimination and disparities in their new country.


The gender of immigrant children seems to have a significant impact on their response to a new environment, no matter the country. A study by the German journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health states that immigrant girls were better adapted in a sociocultural sense, while boys adapted better psychologically (Klein et al., 2020). Furthermore, a study from the Community Mental Health journal postulates that girls are better at internalizing problems, while boys are more successful when externalizing problems (Vollebergh et al., 2004). Gender has been proven to have an impact on one’s response to changes that immigrants go through, which is reflected through their academic integration.

Various studies of immigrant children have shown a significant correlation between gender and engagement in school. Gender’s role in an immigrant child’s self-identity and performance is related to their academic performance (Qin, 2006; Klein et al., 2020; Vollebergh et al., 2004). A study conducted on Latino students showed that girls had a higher chance of graduating from high school and attending college, while boys are less likely to do so, and usually end up working in low-paying jobs (Qin, 2006). This pattern can be seen in native children as well; however other factors may account for this trend in immigrants, such as “language barriers, acculturation stress, discrimination, and other characteristics [that are] unique to immigrants” (Qin, 2006). A main factor in this is the immigrant parents’ difference in treatment of their sons and daughters. For example, most immigrant parents are much stricter with their daughters than their sons, whether it pertains to social lives, dating, or more (Qin, 2006). This difference in treatment may lead to immigrant daughters placing more emphasis on academics, providing an explanation for their relatively rapid adaptation to the school environment. These differences in response due to gender must be taken into account when aiding someone through their transition between cultures.

Country of origin

A child’s country of origin also likely plays a part in their level of receptiveness to their new life by affecting their ability to overcome adversity. This is likely due to how similar or different the immigrant’s culture of origin is to their host culture.

The level of connectedness associated with one’s cultural background plays a role in the mental fortitude of the children. This mental fortitude allows these children to embrace biculturalism, maintaining both host and original cultures. For example, Haitians are known to be “as flexible as bamboo trees, which can withstand strong elemental forces without being destroyed.” (Rahill et al., 2016) This resilience was due to elements of their culture, which can allow them to cope with traumatic events and change. This is seen by their response to drastic life changes, such as the 2010 earthquake that had a devastating impact on the entire country. Rather than shutting down, Haiti’s sense of community grew stronger. Immediately after this disaster, the “‘rich and poor, light and dark-skinned men and women drank from the same cup’ as all pitched in to help each other,” (Rahill et al., 2016). This was primarily due to Haitians’ constant exposure to natural disasters, as well as a strong connection with their moun pas, trusted groups of individuals who are loyal to one another (Rahill et al., 2016). This mental fortitude associated with their culture impacts the way they respond to new environments.

This finding can be applied to other cultures as well. A 2015 peer-reviewed study by the Journal of Immigrant and Minority health analyzed the emotional response Latinos and Asians had as a result of immigration to the United States. After studying subjects from both races, it found that Latino immigrants were more frequently part of the “separated class,” meaning that they isolate themselves from the population of their host country (Bulut & Gayman, 2015). Asians, the other group studied, had a lower percentage of immigrants in this “separated class.” Therefore, the mental health conditions of these immigrants depend on their mode of acculturation, which is affected by their culture of origin.

Socioeconomic status

Within the first few years of migrating, immigrant youth have a much less stable socioeconomic status, hindering their ability to acclimate to their new environment. Socioeconomic status (SES) pushes the idea of a hierarchy in society, which places pressure on immigrants, no matter their age. This system of classifying people due to social class “may indirectly influence one’s health through physiological and/or behavioral processes,” (Gong et al., 2011). According to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, low SES leads to discrimination and despair due to a lack of control over their lives, increasing stress levels (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2006). A sample from the United States concluded that a self-perceived higher SES was associated with better self-assessed mental and physical health, as well as less physical discomfort and less psychological distress (Gong et al., 2011). This essentially means that even the perception of having a higher SES led to an increase in both mental and physical health. This feeling of comfort is much harder for immigrants to experience, as they are going through many more changes than the average person, leading to a feeling of instability.

Additionally, the SES of these families determines the amount of human capital children have access to, affecting their coping abilities. Human capital “refers to non-material resources, such as parental education level and occupational prestige.”(Mistry et al., 2008) The availability of these resources aid in the children’s academic and cognitive development, as well as their mental health conditions, which heavily affects their ability to acculturate.

Furthermore, the parents of kids with low SES have higher levels of emotional stress. This distress is seen by immigrant children, and leads to the children struggling to internalize and externalize their problems. (Mistry et al., 2008) The acclaimed photograph Migrant Mother taken by Dorothea Lange illustrates the emotional hardship immigrant parents deal with, especially when in a difficult financial position. This took place during the Dust Bowl, where hundreds of thousands of migrants moved to California for work, leaving some of them in poverty. Through the historical context of the picture, the mother’s worried glance into the horizon, and her visible instint to protect her children from harm, one could infer that the mother is dealing with a large amount of stress (Lange, 1936). This pressure impacts the way the children are being raised, affecting their current and future mental health. This is corroborated by a study done by the Psychology: Research and Review journal, which states that adolescents’ ability to internalize problems improves their social skills and emotional intelligence, while not being able to do so has the opposite effect (Salavera et al., 2019). Therefore, the economic disadvantage that comes with the instability of immigration can lead to differences in the way that immigrant children process issues, which can ultimately be detrimental to their mental health in the long term.

External factors

Although the individual conditions of the immigrants play a huge role in their acculturation, the environment of the host region can make it easier or harder to acclimate to the new environment. According to the American Psychological Association, any immigrant families are affected by external factors such as “poor schools, neighborhood violence, discrimination, and disparities in access to health care, education and jobs” (Toppleberg & Collins, 2012). These external factors have been found to be associated with lower rates of psychosocial adaptation. (Toppleberg & Collins, 2012). According to Benjamin L Cook (Assistant Professor and researcher for Harvard’s Department of Psychiatry) and his associates, “Discrimination and family cultural conflict appear to play a significant role in the association between time in the United States and the likelihood of developing psychiatric disorders” (Cook et al., 2009). Ultimately, the level of discrimination that the immigrants faced in their host country affected the level of mental health issues they experienced, which affects how they acclimate to their country. No matter how resilient the immigrant themself is, external factors will always play a role on how they interact wight those around them


In order to improve the mental health of immigrant children, promoting biculturalism seems like the most favorable method. However, in order for immigrant children’s mental health to respond positively to biculturalism, their external environment must be welcoming, no matter the personal factors of the immigrant. Furthermore, the circumstances of the individual should be taken into consideration to determine how much or little assistance is needed for them to embrace both aspects of their culture.

In order to aid immigrant children in their transition between country of origin and host country, community resources such as afterschool programs should be implemented to allow these students to stay connected with their old culture. The Bringing Cultures into Classrooms (BCIC) program involves the celebration of immigrants’ culture of origin in hopes of promoting biculturalism. This provides a safe space for groups of immigrant children from similar areas of the world to discuss their similar experiences of immigration.

There are 3 major components of the BCIC program. Firstly, multilingual teachers will aim to navigate the language barrier by communicating in both languages and aiding students that aren’t fluent in English. Then, teachers and counselors will briefly assess the individual students’ mental states, and the internal and external factors that play a role in it. From there, the students can find their cultural balance that keeps them mentally healthy.

This would also help the parents of these children, specifically ones with financial issues. Keeping them at school for a bit longer would reduce the parents’ stress, which would further benefit the acculturation of both the children and parents. This program would be extremely prevalent in regions of the US where immigration is high. California, Texas, New York, Florida, and New Jersey have the largest immigrant populations, so this program would ideally start in one of these states (Ward & Batalova, 2023). In order to determine which schools are required to have these programs, the amount of immigrant children in these schools would be assessed, and if the schools meet a certain level, the program should be implemented in the school.

A major limitation of this solution is schools’ ability to fund extra teaching hours. This is why the project could be federally funded and provide monetary incentives to the applicable schools to help them pay the teachers. In order to ensure the money is being used wisely, the US Department of Education could construct a curriculum with clear objectives that must be followed as part of the program. This program will be broad enough to apply to all cultures, but specific enough to ensure the funds are being utilized wisely.

Additional Solutions

Another solution considered is the implementation of anti-discrimination lessons into schools. This could be taught to all students in hopes of making school a safe and open environment for immigrant children to embrace both cultures. The main issue with this is the lack of student engagement in this issue, since students may not pay attention to issues that do not apply to them. Furthermore, the program would not directly address immigrant childrens’ relationship with both cultures, so it might not significantly help. Ultimately, there are more flaws than benefits of this plan, and the original solution is a more efficient way of addressing the issue.


Batalova, J. (2022, March 15). Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States.

Bulut, E., & Gayman, M. D. (2015). Acculturation and Self-Rated Mental Health Among Latino and Asian Immigrants in the United States: A Latent Class Analysis. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 18(4), 836–849.

Cook, B., Alegría, M., Lin, J. Y., & Guo, J. (2009). Pathways and Correlates Connecting Latinos’ Mental Health With Exposure to the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 99(12), 2247–2254.

Gong, F., Xu, J., & Takeuchi, D. T. (2011). Beyond conventional socioeconomic status: examining subjective and objective social status with self-reported health among Asian immigrants. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 35(4), 407–419.

Klein, E. M., Müller, K. W., Wölfling, K., Dreier, M., Ernst, M., & Beutel, M. E. (2020). The relationship between acculturation and mental health of 1st generation immigrant youth in a representative school survey: does gender matter? Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 14(1).

Kupper, K., Frankenberg, E., & Bongard, S. (2018). Depression and acculturation in migrant adolescents. J Polit Psychol, 6(2), 250-66.

Lange, D. (1936). Migrant Mother [Photograph]. Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York, United States of America.

Mayorkas, A., Silvers, R., & Rosenblum, M. R. (2022). Office of Immigration Statistics.

Qin, D. (2006). The Role of Gender in Immigrant Children’s Educational Adaptation. Current Issues in Comparative Education, 9(1), 8.

Rahill, G. J., Ganapati, N. E., Joshi, M., Bristol, B., Molé, A., Jean-Pierre, A., Dionne, A., & Benavides, M. (2016). In their Own Words: Resilience among Haitian Survivors of the 2010 Earthquake. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 27(2), 580–603.

Salavera, C., Usán, P., & Teruel, P. (2019). The relationship of internalizing problems with emotional intelligence and social skills in secondary education students: Gender differences. Psicologia: Reflexão E Crítica, 32(1).

Stafford, S. B. (1987). The Haitians: the cultural meaning of race and ethnicity. In Columbia University Press.

Toppelberg, C. O., & Collins, B. A. (2010). Language, Culture, and Adaptation in Immigrant Children. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 19(4), 697–717.

Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. E. (2006). Income inequality and population health: A review and explanation of the evidence. Social Science & Medicine, 62(7), 1768–1784.

Migrant Mother by
Dorothea Lange