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Teaching the Family Perspective for Understanding Immigration Processes

Lina Lifshitz Rozin, M.S.W. University of Ben Gurion in the Negev

Executive summary

The Immigration Process from a Family Perspective

Immigration is one of the major processes in the Israeli society from the establishment of the State of Israel and until today. Israel continues to absorb immigrants from around the world, and to cope with the adjustment of new populations into a state with its own distinctive cultural characteristics, bureaucratic structure, and norms, which differ from those in their country of origin.


The immigration process is characterized by a significant change in relationships between family members, and between families and their new environment. Each individual in the family is influenced by and influences the other family members in a reciprocal relationship. All of these dictate changes in the family’s boundaries, organization, hierarchy, and sub-systems (Minuchin et al., 2007).

As they are disconnected from their familiar, supportive cultural environment and face an environment with foreign values, immigrant parents may lose confidence in their parental functioning. In such situations, children and adolescents often assume responsibility for the family and for their parents (Walsh, et al., 2006; Slonim-Nevo, et al., 1999, Weisskirch, 2010). Therefore, while working with immigrants, it is advisable to plan a family intervention according to the systemic approach, and not focus solely on individual treatment, because individuals in the family, especially children, are dependent on one another and are highly impacted by the familial relationships formed during and after immigration (Slonim-Nevo et al,,  1999).


In the following sections, I will present the changes that take place within and between the family’s different sub-systems – children, parents, grandparents – and will define processes that take place in the encounter between health care providers and immigrant families. The last section will be dedicated to issues that are important when training future care providers about immigrant families.


Changes in Children and Adolescents in Immigration

One of the developments that occur amongst immigrant families are changes in the family hierarchy, with role reversals in which children and adolescents assume responsibility for the family and their parents.


Among the reasons for systematic and hierarchal changes in the family is the faster adjustment of children due to a larger number of connections with the absorbing population. In contrast, the parents are less involved in active contact with the absorbing society and therefore have fewer spontaneous opportunities to learn a new language and culture (Cheung et al., 2011; Titzmann, 2012; Telzer, 2011).

Another reason is the loss of the family’s resources and support systems, combined with the challenges posed by adaptation to the new environment. In this situation, children often become mediators or translators for their parents (Tricket & Jones, 2016; Yakhnich, 2005; Kuperminc, et al., 2013), as well as the best source of information for their parents (Orellana, 2009). The gap between the values of the absorbing society and those of the immigrant family and their culture of origin may create dual loyalties in children, and in turn lead to conflicts between parents and children.


For many adolescents and children, the immigration process is a stressful event, and they are thus at high risk for markers of distress such as depression, anxiety, and somatic complaints (Ponizovsky et al., 2012; Tartakovsky & Mirsky, 2007; Yakhnich, 2008). On the other hand, one of the possible positive outcomes of the role reversal phenomenon during immigration is family cohesion (Ponizovsky et al., 2012).


It is therefore recommended to address the difficulties experienced by children of immigrant families within the broader family context. Appropriate family interventions should be utilized, which treat the child as part of a familial system in interaction with a new cultural environment.


Parental Perspective in Immigration

Situations of cultural transition may constitute a test for the stability and continuity of parental roles and place an emotional burden upon family members, which generates burnout and stress. Immigration challenges the immigrant parents’ existing perceptions of parenthood and forces them to conduct ongoing cultural negotiation.


Every culture has its own definition of “ideal” child-rearing, stemming from the society’s set of expectations and goals. In this context, the image of “the adaptive adult” is a metaphor that organizes within it the ideologies and approaches to child-rearing with which the parents identify, and influences their parenting style in ways that may or may not be conscious (Roer-Strier, 2001).

In the process of cultural transition, immigrant parents will employ various coping strategies in the new environment, which move along a continuum between complete isolation at one end, and complete self-deprecation at the other. The choice of strategy is contingent upon factors such as: the extent to which the parents value both the culture of origin and absorbing culture, the reasons that led the family to immigrate, cultural gaps, social and economic changes, and their first experiences engaging with their new country’s education system and support professionals (e.g. social workers, physicians, community workers, etc.) (Roer-Strier, 2001).

Another challenge facing immigrant parents involves their relationship as a couple, when the balance between them may be destabilized as a result of the pressures of the adjustment process (Remennik, 2005; Roer-Strier et al., 2001).


In light of this, it is recommended to study parenting models from the immigrant’s country of origin in order to become familiar with the family’s present social and cultural context.


Intergenerational Relations in the Immigrant Family

As part of the dramatic changes in the family system during the immigration process we also witness changes in intergenerational relationships. Immigrant families in Israel often choose to live in a three-generational structure, even if they did not live together in their country of origin.


Among middle-aged immigrants who become grandparents, their “grandparenting,” considered a very significant life experience, can entail painful emotions due to the cultural gaps between them and their grandchildren. This is especially so when they are “involved” grandparents, which includes frequent engagement between grandparents and grandchildren, and significant involvement in the everyday raising of the grandchildren. While the contribution of grandparents in caring for grandchildren is considerable, they may also suffer from loneliness they experience as a result of the growing culture gaps (Akhar & Choi, 2004). Cultural characteristics and challenges resulting from immigration have a substantial effect on the way aging parents are treated. Therefore, an understanding of intergenerational relations in the cultural context and in the context of immigration should be taken into account.


Cultural Competence and Countertransference in Working with Immigrant Families

Therapeutic work with immigrants is based on the assumption that there are gaps between therapist and client, and that the therapist must develop cultural competence skills – to be aware of these gaps, to address them, and to know how to bridge them in a non-judgmental manner (NASW, 2001). Acquiring knowledge of the “other” is a necessary condition for working with diverse populations. This type of knowledge will usually include the history of the group from which their family originates and the specific family history – social and familial perceptions, worldview, norms, values, communication styles, and behavioral characteristics (Nadan, Y et al., 2015). Knowledge about common or typical problems in the society that patients come from, as well as attitudes toward receiving professional help and patterns for seeking help, may contribute to forming the therapeutic relationship (Al-Krenawi & Graham, 2011).


In the developing relationship between social workers and clients, the social worker encounters his or her own reactions, based on personal and cultural beliefs. These perceptions may unconsciously constitute blind spots for the therapist, which in turn may influence, and even undermine, the therapeutic process (Holmes, 1999). This is part of the cultural countertransference process in therapy, in which the therapist’s experiences and cognitive and emotional beliefs that are present at different levels of consciousness intersect (Mirsky, 2011; Yedidia, 2005). The therapist must develop a high level of self-reflection and self-awareness not only toward their own culture of origin, cultural values, beliefs, and prejudices, but also toward a parallel internal dialogue of the “personal” and the “professional,” which touches upon their many loyalties—to their country, ethnic group, dominant society, and professional role (Nuttman-Shwartz, 2008). The ability to recognize these differences provides the therapist with the ability to contain the same cultural gaps and provide support without judgment (Nadan et al., 2015).


Important Issues for Teaching about Families in Immigration

While all of the following topics can be learned from the professional literature, a more significant learning outcome can be achieved through interviews with immigrants and immigrant families and by viewing documentary and feature films that show processes of change and arouse discussion in the classroom. Likewise, examples from the students’ practical work and personal experience can deepen the discussion.

  • Processes of change in the family during immigration: Changes in the overall family system, in role allocation and relationships between the different sub-systems, such as children, couple, parents; changes in intergenerational relationships; changes that occur between family and society and their impact on the family’s functioning in general, and on the individuals, in particular.

  • Immigration crisis among children and adolescents: Role reversal and how it impacts adjustment; identity crisis and construction of a composite identity; unique difficulties in the education system; identification of at-risk situations and groups.

  • Factors shaping parental functioning: Perceived image of adaptive adult, gaps in parental perceptions between the country of origin and Israel, parents’ adaptation styles to the new culture, each parent’s personal coping with the pressures of immigration, such as acquiring a new language, employment integration, etc.; changes in the couple’s relationship; evaluation of support systems.

  • Intergenerational relations in immigration: Intergenerational residential patterns in the country of origin and in Israel, reasons for choosing the current residential set-up; the role of grandparents in raising grandchildren in both the cultural and immigration contexts; unique difficulties in caring for senior immigrant parents.

  • Cultural competence in working with families during the immigration process: Familiarity with the student’s or trainees' self-perceptions regarding family, and perceptions of parental functioning and family functioning norms; familiarity with the culture of origin of immigrant families; increasing awareness to processes of deferment and cultural countertransference.



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