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Parenting teens tougher without language fluency in common

By Angie Hunt


In a growing number of immigrant families in the US, parents and their teenage children don’t speak the same language fluently.

New research suggests this language barrier can have negative consequences for adolescent self-control and aggressive behavior. Thomas Schofield, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, says better understanding this dynamic and improving communication between parents and teens may have major social implications.

“When teens of immigrant parents struggle, we assume either that the parents are doing something wrong, or that our culture is insufficiently supportive of immigrants. That’s why I’m really excited about this research,” says Schofield, lead author of the study. “Our results show that there’s no need for blame here; there are no villains. Removing this language barrier between immigrants and their children is a solution we can all focus on together.”

Schofield and his colleagues used data of observed interactions between mothers and children in Mexican-origin families. In both samples, positive discipline and warm parenting increased self-control and decreased aggression in adolescents, but only when mother and child were proficient in a common language.

If there was a language barrier and mothers were harsh, adolescents had less self-control and were more aggressive.

Day-to-day communication was not the problem. These language barriers affect more complex conversations necessary for effective parenting—for example, parents explaining rules or teens talking with their parents about concerns. Schofield says adults sometimes take for granted the shared understanding communication creates—a process that all teens are still learning and trying to figure out (regardless of linguistic background).

“Parents want to make sure our kids understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, and particularly to explain our actions if we’ve been inconsistent or insensitive. If adolescents grow weary of jumping that linguistic hurdle when communicating with their immigrant parents, over time they may start to fill that need to communicate with someone else. People do this in any relationship. We stop trying to make it work with the person who can’t, and we find someone else who can,” Schofield says.

Many teens will naturally turn to their peers instead. It’s not that children don’t feel loved or feel their parents are bad; it’s just too hard to communicate about complex issues, Schofield says. And if their peers are also children of immigrant parents, they may start to see this disconnect from their parents as the norm, Schofield says. This is why families can continue to struggle for several generations post-immigration, even when language is no longer a barrier.

If future studies support this link between language and parenting, then Schofield thinks the solution is simple. We support immigrant parents in learning proficient English and children of immigrants to become proficient in their home language.

While simple in theory, Schofield understands it will be difficult to execute. However, the need is great; more than 16 million children in the US have at least one immigrant parent, he says.

The research appears in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

Source: Iowa State University

Photo: iStock Photo

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