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Atomium Culture

The Permanent Platform of Atomium Culture brings together some of the most authoritative universities, newspapers and businesses in Europe to increase the movement of knowledge: across borders, across sectors and to the public at large.
La plataforma permanente Atomium Culture reúne a las universidades, periódicos y empresas más prestigiosos de Europa para promover el flujo del conocimiento más allá de fronteras, entre sectores y hacia el público en general.

What Helps Immigrant Youth Succeed in Society?

Por: | 14 de abril de 2014

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By Anne K. Reitz, Columbia University

Migration is at the heart of many current social, economic and political debates in Europe. This is not surprising, given that in some European countries, including the UK, Spain and Germany, the number of foreign-born residents and their children is higher than ever before, making up more than 10% of the total population. Policymakers have realized that this change in the composition of the population brings new challenges as well as opportunities. However, the big and yet unsolved question is this: How to realize the full potential of immigration? The first important step is to focus on immigrant youth, because most of their potential is yet to unfold and their future is linked to the future sustainability and prosperity of our society.

It was this big question that prompted me, and many other psychologists, to find out how immigrant youth successfully navigate the adaptation process and manage to live in two cultures. Immigrant youth are known to differ radically in the extent to which they adapt successfully: some do well in school and enjoy psychological well-being whereas others do not. Investigating the causes of these differences, I seek, together with my colleagues at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the University of Athens, the ‘secrets’ of the well-adapted immigrant youth.

Greece is an ideal country in which to study this question, because it experienced a large wave of immigration after joining the European Union. We therefore examined data from more than a thousand 13-year-olds in Greece, both immigrant and native. We used a state-of-the-art framework, which maintains that two core processes influence adaptation, namely development and acculturation. Like all other youth, immigrant youth need to master the tasks of adolescence, such as assuming greater responsibility and independence; additionally, they also need to deal with the realities of the two cultures, namely the culture of the native country and that of the mainstream society in the country in which they now live.

What helps immigrant youth master this challenge? To capture the whole picture, we came up with an innovative research design that had three major advantages over traditional designs: firstly, we integrated developmental, acculturative and intergroup perspectives to account for the different resources that helped the immigrant youth to adapt; secondly, we observed how the participants developed over a period of two years to examine the long-term effects of these resources; thirdly, we studied not only the resources that individuals brought in themselves to help them adapt better but also the resources of the social context in which their lives were embedded.

In our first study, we focused on the context that is central to all youth: the family. A well-functioning family, a close-knit family that coped well with stress, prepared its young members to master the developmental tasks that lay a year ahead. These youth developed confidence in their abilities and identified with their cultural heritage — two resources crucial to successful adaptation. I also observed that it was the competency of immigrant youth in both cultures that helped them to develop greater maturity. This is intriguing: on the one hand, those who were well versed in the culture of the host country, those who knew the language and customs, developed greater confidence in their ability to master the tasks of adolescence, such as doing well in school. On the other hand, those who were well versed in their cultural heritage, those who knew the language and customs of their parents’ native country, integrated that culture in their identities, which helped them to find out who they are — an important task during adolescence. This suggests that being involved in one culture is not at odds with being involved in another; in fact, familiarity with the host culture and the heritage culture may well represent two sides of the same coin, each contributing to successful adaptation — just to different aspects. We also noticed that between the ages of 13 and 15, the influence of the family in mastering the developmental tasks waned while that of the cultural competencies increased.

What fills the growing vacuum created by the waning influence of the family? Since the influence of the peer group increases during adolescence, one of our studies focused on peers, namely classmates. Our studies showed that those who were liked by their peers had higher self-esteem; those who were not liked by their peers suffered from the feeling that they were being discriminated against. To build on this observation, we wondered whether it matters to immigrant youth who likes them — other immigrants or natives. We found that it did matter: immigrants who were liked by other immigrants reported higher self-esteem one year later, whereas being liked by natives had no effect. In contrast, immigrants who were liked by natives saw themselves as less discriminated against one year later, whereas being liked by other immigrants had no effect. This suggests that positive relationships with peers from both the groups, both other immigrants and natives, are important for successful adaptation: one enhances self-esteem, whereas the other weakens the feeling of being discriminated against. This finding supports the conclusion of the first study, namely being involved in both the cultures is important for successful adaptation — just to different aspects.

So, what does this analysis tell us about the secrets of the well-adapted immigrant youth? Firstly, we need to focus on an individual’s personal resources: familiarity with the host culture and familiarity with the heritage culture are important resources and both need to be encouraged to facilitate personal development. Secondly, we also need to consider people that immigrant youth interact with. Promoting a healthy family environment and ensuring positive peer relationships with immigrants and natives are indeed the secrets that enable immigrant youth to adapt successfully.

Anne K. Reitz
Columbia University
www.atomiumculture.eu

 

 

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Leading young European researchers have been selected by European research universities and the Scientific and Editorial Committees of AC to write an article about their work and the potential impact of this.

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