Immigration and Cultural Trauma in Adult Children of Immigrants

Are you an adult child of immigrant family? Were you born in the US after your parents moved to the US? Or did you arrive as a child and grow up in the US? If you are in one of these categories, it is likely that you have gone through some tough times adjusting to life with two (or more) cultures. Even now as an adult, the impact of being an immigrant child can make you struggle in multiple ways. 

Take a look below to see if any of these statements resonate with you.

  • I identify more with the American culture than with my parents’ culture, and this has been a cause of conflict between us as they want me to preserve their traditional culture and pass it down to my children.
  • My parents sacrificed tremendously for me and I appreciate it. However, they expect my obedience in return with my decisions about school, career, and relationships.
  • I feel torn between doing what my parents want me to do and what I want to do with my life, and feel guilty when I do not or cannot do what they want.
  • I grew up trying so hard to meet my parents’ expectations, yet was never good enough.
  • I often have anxiety at work, in relationships, and in general over small matters.  I get panicky when I make mistakes and do not feel confident in my life.
  • I have a hard time shaking off the thoughts “I do not belong anywhere” and “they do not want me here.”

Intergenerational Trauma

The people who have migrated from their home countries to the US often have survived traumatic experiences from  societal, political, and/or economic hardships in their home country that drove them to leave. Whether the decision was voluntary or not, the leaving, migrating, and resettling process itself can also present painful challenges that could have a trauma-like impact. When this trauma is not resolved it can create certain behavioral and thinking patterns that were initially used to help them cope and survive. These patterns permeate through their personalities, the family environment, their social interactions, and their parenting style. Children in the household naturally learn and internalize both the negative and positive impact of their parents’ trauma.

For example, if “being invisible” and “being compliant” helped save their lives in their home country and settling in the US, these values may be reinforced in the home. In the mainstream culture, however, “being visible” and “making your voice” are often valued more and are helpful to succeed in life. As safety and security often become the most important value in immigrant families you might have had to give up on your dreams and make choices that would have ensured financial security and physical safety. There is nothing inherently problematic about this process, as we all internalize our parents’ values as children and that is how we create heritage. However, if you find these values interrupting your life in some ways you might want to take a look at them to make necessary changes.

How Can Counseling Help?  

Talking to someone other than your family and friends about your private matters may be a foreign concept to you. You may experience guilt and shame that you talk “badly” about your family with some stranger. Also, confusion about what is right and what is wrong regarding many decisions in your life might have caused you to bottle up your personal struggles. For these reasons, many immigrant families who experience challenges do not seek help and suffer more than necessary. 

Talking and sharing with someone who is trained to be an attentive listener without judgment can help you to:

  • Explore family trauma history and cultural heritage
  • Learn better coping skills to handle stress and anxiety
  • Improve your relationships with your family
  • Learn to choose which values you want to accept and which values you want to reject
  • Learn how to, or not to, communicate your beliefs with your family and live by them
  • Navigate who you are and create your identity

Each one of you has such a unique history that deserves respect.
Seek help now to create your own heritage.