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Immigrant Families Report Happier Childhoods Than U.S. Citizens

Despite disadvantages, immigrant parents report fewer negative childhood experiences for them and their kids.

Children of immigrants are more to likely have healthy childhoods free of stressors such as poverty, bullying, and the loss of a parent, according to a new study presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics. The data was obtained prior to the DACA rollback (which could place the status of 200,000 illegal immigrants in jeopardy) but broadly indicates that immigrants experience fewer “adverse childhood experiences”, or ACEs, compared to American-born citizens.

“ACEs are common in American society but little is known about ACEs among immigrants,” study coauthor Keith Martin of Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City told Fatherly. “Our study helps to shed light on what ACEs look like among immigrant parents and their children.”

mother and son from lebanon

Prior research suggests that nearly half of the U.S. population has experienced at least one ACE, such as abuse, neglect, household violence, substance abuse, mental illness, or loss of family members. At least one third experience four of more of these childhood stressors, which puts them at increased risk of depression, violent behavior, and chronic diseases.

For the new study, Martin and colleagues analyzed data on 331 parents with children ages 6- to 12-years-old. Most of the families studied were Hispanic—67 percent of the parents were born in the U.S., and the rest had immigrated. After controlling for several factors including income and ethnicity, the results suggested that U.S.-born parents report more ACEs for themselves and for their children. Mothers and fathers born in the U.S. reported that their children had experienced the loss of a parent 31 percent of the time, poverty 37 percent of the time, and bullying 39 percent of the time. But immigrant parents reported these ACEs only 22, 17, and 12 percent of the time, respectively.

immigrant family

“I was surprised that our observations were in line with the immigrant paradox,” Martin says, describing a well-known phenomenon that suggests immigrants, despite adversity, report higher levels of health, well-being, and achievement than U.S. born individuals. However, there are several caveats to Martin’s work, including self-reporting and potential language or cultural barriers in answering questions about stressful events. Because of such limitations, Martin says his findings are too preliminary to shape public policy directly. For the same reason, he also declined to speculate how the DACA rollback may impact the psychosocial experiences of immigrants and their children. More qualitative research and a deeper dive into how immigrant parents interpret ACEs are needed before any concrete recommendations are made, Martin says.

“We cannot conclude from these results that immigrants and their children face lower levels of stress than others,” he says. “We may not be asking the right questions to identify their stresses.”