Immigration and Stress: The Relationship Between Parents' Acculturative Stress and Young Children's Anxiety Symptoms

By Alberto L. Leon
2014, Vol. 6 No. 03 | pg. 5/5 |

Discussion and Limitations

The findings of the present study support the relation between parental acculturation related stress and symptoms of anxiety in the child. No difference was found between immigrant and non-immigrant children in symptoms of anxiety. Results also suggest that immigrant status in the parent moderates the relation between acculturative stress in the parent and symptoms of anxiety in the child, such that levels of acculturative stress in the parent predict higher levels of anxiety symptoms in the child, as expected, in immigrant families. Interestingly, a reverse correlation was found between acculturative stress in the parent and symptoms of anxiety in the child when observing non-immigrant families; acculturative stress in the parent predicted lower levels of child anxiety symptoms in non-immigrant families.

It was hypothesized that immigrant children would show significantly higher levels of anxiety symptoms than non-immigrant children. This prediction was not supported in the findings of the present study; no difference was found between the anxiety symptoms of immigrant and non-immigrant children. As all of the children in this study were under 6 years of age, this finding is consistent with the “immigrant paradox” that children who arrive to the U.S. before 13 years of age and non-immigrant children share similarly high levels of risk (Breslau et al., 2008). This is the only known study providing support for this paradox in preschool- and toddler- aged children.

The finding that non-immigrant families showed a negative relationship between acculturative stress in the parent and symptoms of anxiety in the child was unexpected. The majority of the immigrant group self-identified racially as Black/African American (61% of parents and 65% of children, as reported by parents). Therefore, it is possible that ethnicity may be a factor in parents’ acculturative stress and child anxiety. Previous literature with African American families in the U.S. indicates that protective factors for psychopathology exist for both parents and children. Possible explanations for why African American children may have shown decreased levels of anxiety symptoms include a strong relationship with the parent or an avoidant style of coping (Grant et al., 2000). In a study with urban, African American adolescents of low-income households, stress was positively associated with both internalizing and externalizing symptoms (Grant et al., 2000). However, an avoidant coping strategy buffered the effects of stress on externalizing symptoms for boys. Also, a strong father/child relationship served as a buffer for externalizing symptoms in boys and girls in this study. This may partially explain why non-immigrant parents reported decreased levels of anxiety symptoms in their children. Furthermore, the finding that a reverse relationship exists in non-immigrants suggests that acculturative stress experienced by non-immigrant parents impacts their children differently than acculturative stress experienced by immigrant parents; as observed in decreased child anxiety symptoms.

Even though parent acculturative stress was strongly associated with child anxiety symptoms, parent acculturative stress was not significantly associated with parent anxiety symptoms. This is an interesting finding because it was expected that parent acculturative stress would impact parent anxiety symptoms more directly than it would impact child anxiety symptoms. This finding may be explained by the way in which anxiety symptoms are measured in the BAI scale. The BAI scale places more focus on the psychosomatic symptoms of anxiety, which may make it difficult to relate to other mental health variables. It is possible that acculturative stress in the parent correlates with emotional and behavioral symptoms of anxiety, such as those measured in the BITSEA Anxiety Risk Subscale, but less so with the somatic symptoms of anxiety measured in the BAI scale. This finding suggests that although anxiety symptoms are evident in children of immigrant parents experiencing acculturative stress, anxiety symptoms are not necessarily evident in the parents themselves.

In the overall sample, the Acculturative Stress scale was primarily influenced by scores on the discrimination due to race item (“How much discrimination have you experienced due to race?”) and the discrimination due to language and/or ethnicity item (“How much discrimination have you experienced due to your language and/or ethnicity?”). The two items measuring the amount of discrimination experienced were more strongly correlated to the Acculturative Stress scale in non-immigrant parents than it was in immigrant parents. Non-immigrant parents’ scores on the item measuring the amount of discrimination due to race showed a stronger correlation with the Acculturative Stress scale (r = .80, p < .001; n = 62) than immigrant parents’ scores (r = .61, p < .001; n = 52). In the overall sample, the discrimination due to race item was strongly correlated with the Acculturative Stress scale (r = .58), much more than the discrimination due to language and/or ethnicity item and the level of English competency item were. This may explain why non-immigrant parents displayed high levels of acculturative stress. It is probable that higher scores of acculturative stress in non-immigrant parents was capturing African Americans’ stress due to racial discrimination. Previous literature indicates that individuals who identify as non-Hispanic black report significantly higher levels of perceived discrimination than those who identify as non-Hispanic white; including experiences such as not having been hired for a job and having been denied service (Kessler, Mickelson, & Williams, 1999). Higher levels of discrimination or related stress may decrease parent awareness of their children’s emotional functioning, which may explain the finding that non-immigrant parents experienced acculturative stress reported lower levels of child anxiety symptoms.

Findings from the present study should be considered with several limitations. The criterion for immigration status in children poses a limitation in generalizability. Immigration status in children was determined by the immigration status in their parents. Thus, children who were born in the U.S. but whose parents were born outside of the U.S. were classified as immigrants. The end result was a disproportionately large subgroup of second-generation immigrant children, collapsed into one group with first-generation immigrant children. Thus, the sample is more representative of second-generation immigrant children than it is of first-generation immigrant children.

All responses in the present study were based on parent reports. A limitation of relying on parental self-reports is that the accuracy of their responses may be biased due to poor recall of personal and child experiences, fear of disclosing information about themselves and/or their child, and culturally subjective perceptions of experiences and behaviors (Rapee, 2002). Other methods such as child observations and parent and child interviews reduce such biases and may have provided a more comprehensive measurement of acculturative stress and anxiety symptoms.

Additionally, the cross-sectional nature of the study limits the findings in various ways. Scores of acculturative stress in the parent and anxiety symptoms in the child were assessed at only one point in time. Thus, how these scores change over time is not taken into account. Using longitudinal design, for instance, would have demonstrated whether scores in parents and children change or remain constant over time. Obtaining data on the psychological outcomes of the immigrant parents and children in a follow-up study could potentially provide additional support for parent acculturative stress as a predictor of young children’s anxiety symptoms and shed light on whether acculturative stress experiences precede the development of symptoms.

The length of time that immigrant parents and children have resided in the U.S. was not taken into consideration in the present study. Obtaining the length of time that immigrant parents and children have resided in the U.S. would have provided an important measure of their degree of acculturation, or how acculturated the individual might be to U.S society and culture. The degree to which an individual acculturates has implications for their psychological outcomes and adjustment. Following Berry’s (1997) concepts of integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalization, higher levels of acculturation predict healthier psychological adjustment whereas lack of acculturation predicts psychopathology; mainly depression and anxiety. Therefore, using immigrant parents and children’s length of time in the U.S. as a variable in the Acculturative Stress scale might have been useful in predicting increased or decreased levels of acculturative stress and child anxiety symptoms. Furthermore, a negative correlation between the length of time that immigrant parents have resided in the U.S. and parent acculturative stress would have been consistent with the “immigrant paradox,” that immigrants who arrive to the U.S. at 13 years of age or later are at decreased risk for psychopathology (Breslau, 2008).

The findings of the present study have several implications for the study of risk factors for young children’s anxiety. Due to the strong association found between parent acculturative stress in the parent and child anxiety symptoms, acculturative stress in immigrant families should be further studied as a potential risk factor for anxiety in young children. Further research examining the anxiety of young children in this population at follow-ups in middle childhood, adolescence, and adulthood would provide crucial support for acculturative stress in the immigrant parent as a significant risk factor. Also, the finding that non-immigrants have a reverse relationship in parent acculturative stress and child anxiety symptoms should be studied further. Identifying factors that explain why higher stress levels in non-immigrant parents predict lower levels of child anxiety symptoms would help broaden our understanding of young children’s anxiety and prompt further studies examining risk factors for stress and anxiety in racial and ethnic subgroups in non-immigrant populations.


I would like to thank my mentors, Nick Mian, Alice Carter, and Abbey Eisenhower, for providing an unconditional source of support and inspiration throughout the development of this project. I would also like to thank my seminar instructor, Tiffany Donaldson, and my lab cohort for their contributions to an outstanding research experience throughout this year-long project.


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1.) While the term “parent” is used throughout this thesis, anyone who identified as a caregiver was eligible to participate.

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