Immigrants come to the United States to begin a new life, yet they often face difficulties in their new home that they never imagined.
"Many of these immigrants and refugees have endured significant hardships in their native countries, including poverty, war trauma, persecution and rape," says clinical psychologist Dennis Hunt. "But few may have anticipated the stress on their families that was waiting for them in the United States."
Hunt is director of Multicultural Human Services, a Falls Church, Virginia-based organization that helps immigrants adjust to life in the United States.
For immigrant parents, Hunt says the issues they face can be even more daunting. "Most immigrant parents who arrive in new communities are faced with immediate challenges to their survival,” says Hunt, including “securing a job, finding a place to live, buying food, and enrolling their children in school."
"Some immigrant parents fear that exerting their traditional parenting roles which, in some cases can be authoritarian and may include corporal punishment, will lead to deportation," he says. "They may feel that they have no means to discipline their children."
Few immigrant parents are prepared for the changing family dynamics that often occur as their children rapidly become more "Americanized." Hunt said immigrant parents do not fully understand the U.S. legal system.
There are also new community expectations regarding the parent’s role, including a high level of involvement in schools. "Many times parents from other cultures have not navigated these types of systems, nor have they had such expectations placed on them," said psychologist Hunt, who believes the resulting anxiety can only be treated by mental health care professionals.
The center began in 1982 as an unaccompanied minors program, part of the private Catholic Charities organization. There were many children separated from their families in Southeast Asia following the Indochina war who needed to be placed in foster homes until their parents could be located, if ever. He says his agency has since expanded to include a range of mental health, social and educational services to immigrants and refugees speaking more than 30 languages.