When parents suffer from discrimination, children's mental health suffers
Photo: DaiLuo. Creative Commons.

Child mental health hit when immigrant parents suffer discrimination

By Child & Family Blog Editor and , | October 2016 

Parents who perceive discrimination against them are more likely to report depressive symptoms and hostility towards their spouses.

New research suggests that support for Chinese-American children should take more account of their parents’ experiences of discrimination and should pay more attention to improving family interactions.

Yang Hou at the University of Texas at Austin, working with colleagues, looked at data from interviews in 2001 with 444 Chinese-American families with 12- to 15-year-old children. 350 of these families were interviewed again four years later.

The researchers looked at how both mothers and fathers experienced discrimination (for example, “people assume my English is poor”, “I am treated with less courtesy than other people”). They asked parents about their own symptoms of depression and about their hostility toward their spouses. They asked the adolescents about mothers’ and fathers’ hostility toward them, and about their own symptoms of depression and delinquent behaviors.

The researchers found a number of links.

  • Parents who perceive discrimination against them are more likely to report depressive symptoms and hostility towards their spouses.
  • A father is likely to display more hostility towards his children if he reports depressive symptoms and if the mother is more hostile towards him. Neither link was found in relation to mothers. Could this be because the role of a Chinese-American father is less defined by convention and so the father-child relationship is more vulnerable to disruption?
  • Fathers’ depressive symptoms are linked to mothers increased hostility towards their children, but not the other way round. Could this be because mothers (relative to fathers) are more aware of and concerned about spouses’ depressive symptoms, as studies have shown that women are more sensitive to others’ emotions than men?
  • A mother’s increased hostility to her children is linked to increased mood and behavior problems in her children. There is less of a link in the case of fathers, but the difference between mothers and fathers is small. Could this be because maternal hostility contrasts with adolescents’ expectations of maternal parenting, as children expect more warmth from their mothers than from their fathers?

The research suggests that helping improved family interactions may be a useful way of reducing the negative impact of parents’ experiences of discrimination. It also suggests it would be more effective if help engaged both parents.

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