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Challenges Faced by Immigrant Teens

by Susan McCammon

According to the American Psychological Association, some recent immigrants face difficulty adjusting to their new environment in the United States for a number of reasons including having to overcome language and cultural barriers and encountering prejudice and discrimination because they are different. Teenagers are especially adversely affected because they are trying to discover their identities amidst numerous physical, emotional and psychological changes that characterize this stage of life. Immigrant teenagers may experience linguistic, acculturation, socio-economic and psychological challenges in their new lives in America.

Immigrant teenagers often come from countries that do not speak English as a first language and even when they do, American inflections, expressions and other linguistic devices may be hard for them to grasp. The language barrier is a challenge for teenagers since they are not able to socialize easily with their peers, and it may be hard to make friends. Linguistic challenges also affect the education of immigrant teenagers who may have to spend more time taking language proficiency classes to understand the teachers’ and coaches’ instructions and also to prepare to take the diploma examinations, states Amy Morse in her article, "A Look at Immigrant Youth: Prospects and Promising Practices." A teenager who is not able to learn the language quickly may feel lonely and isolated because of limited interaction with peers.

Cultural Differences, which are differences between the immigrant teenager’s culture and the American one, may also pose a significant challenge. Culture refers to the norms, attitudes, perceptions, values, beliefs and patterns of behavior that people from the same society share. American culture is largely open, democratic and individualistic, and teenagers who come from collectivist and authoritarian cultures like those in Asia and India would have to adjust to the differences in the way that American society expects them to relate to authority figures such as teachers. Immigrant teenagers also often have to struggle to achieve a balance between maintaining their original culture at home to satisfy their parents’ expectations and adopting American culture outside the house to fit in with their peers.

Immigrant teenagers face socio-economic difficulties. When families move to America from their original countries, they have to start life all over again. This may be hard on the teenager who might have been used to a better quality of life, particularly where the parents immigrated for political reasons. The teenager may also want to join his peers in activities like shopping and going for movies and trips but find that he is unable to participate because his family is yet to achieve economic stability. In most cases, the teenager also needs to work to supplement the family’s income. Socio-economic challenges may be overwhelming, and the teenager might find it hard to cope with the new reality.

Teenagers who immigrate may also suffer from psychological issues when they cannot acculturate into their new environment. Immigrant teenagers are exposed to different music, fashion, lifestyles, food, communication styles and other forms of cultural expression that may throw them into culture shock, especially where their original cultures are extremely different from the American one. In some cases the teenagers experience culture shock, and they are unable to make the adjustment, so they fall into depression, anxiety and may even develop destructive habits to cope. Prejudice, discrimination and sometimes bullying may also cause the teenager to become withdrawn and have low self-esteem because they cannot fit in with their peers, yet this is one of their greatest needs.

About the Author

Susan McCammon began writing in 1997. Her work has been published in various online publications. She is a teacher and educator with experience teaching first grade, special education and working with children ages 0 to 3. McCammon holds a Ph.D in Psychology from University of South Carolina.

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