A new study reveals how discrimination impacts immigrant children – and how to help them overcome it.
“They call me lots of names because I am Mexican,” says a fourth-grader living in Los Angeles.
“In P.E. class, a lot of kids call me beaner,” says an elementary school child who immigrated from Mexico.
“Everywhere I go, I’m on edge, scared that someone’s going to catch me,” says the young daughter of undocumented parents in Phoenix.
When politicians and the public launch anti-immigrant attacks, children get caught in the crossfire. They’re scarred by racial slurs on the playground. They’re bruised by their teachers’ belittling behaviors. Their nerves fray when they see their parents afraid or mistreated.
“Experiencing discrimination can provoke stress responses similar to post-traumatic stress disorder,” writes Christia Spears Brown, author of a new study from the Migration Policy Institute that documents the effects of discrimination on immigrant children.
Kids start to perceive prejudice when they’re about 3 years old.
School can be a hazardous social arena. More than 60 percent of Mexican immigrant children in elementary schools faced insults, unfair treatment, or other discriminatory acts from students, according to a study in Kentucky. Forty-two percent experienced prejudice from teachers.
Kids who endure discrimination from their peers are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, loneliness and hopelessness. Many learn to distrust those outside their own ethnic group. Often, they act out in aggressive or harmful ways.
Immigrant children say some teachers grade them unfairly, stereotype them as troublemakers, and discipline them for offenses they didn’t commit. These kids sense their teachers expect little of them. Teachers often place immigrant children in ESL classes and steer them away from advanced courses without sufficiently assessing their abilities. Some immigrant children say teachers do not call on them in class, making them feel invisible.
The study found that when teachers discriminate, children are more likely to dislike school, get poor grades, become despondent, believe academics are unimportant, and drop out of high school.
Anti-immigrant attitudes in the community also impact children. More than half of Latino adolescents interviewed for one study said they’d been hassled by store clerks or received poor service at restaurants because of their ethnicity.
Parents who endure discrimination within and outside of their workplace may bring home stress, irritability and sadness, souring their interactions with their children.
How to Help Children: Have “The Talk”
With good intentions, many parents and teachers avoid broaching the topic of discrimination. Maybe they don’t want to stir up hurt feelings or incite arguments. Perhaps they feel that seeming “colorblind” is the most fair and egalitarian approach.
However, numerous studies have shown that when adults ignore this issue, children suffer.
On the other hand, when teachers celebrate diversity as a learning opportunity rather than an obstacle, and value various languages instead of simply “fixing” grammatical errors, students embrace both their own and others’ ethnicities. They perceive less discrimination in school and in their communities. Open discussions of ethnicity become socially acceptable, while teasing and exclusion become unacceptable. Even academic performance improves. A study of young Dominican immigrants found that students whose ethnicity was a central and celebrated part of their identity were more motivated to earn good grades.
“More active approaches [to confronting discrimination] have been shown to empower the individual, reduce stress, and increase motivation.”
Parents can protect children from the distress of prejudice by fostering a positive ethnic identity and openly discussing discrimination. Such familial support has the added benefit of boosting kids’ self-esteem, motivation, and academic performance, according to the study.
Parents should also help children develop effective coping strategies, including talking with a trusted friend or adult, confronting the perpetrator, and/or reporting an incident. “More active approaches,” Spears Brown writes, “have been shown to empower the individual, reduce stress, and increase motivation, while withdrawing or trying to forget it have been shown to lead to a sense of helplessness and diminished motivation.”
Family discussions can be especially important for young children since their ethnic identities – and coping strategies – are still blossoming. Kids start to perceive prejudice when they’re about 3 years old, so the study recommends addressing the issue when children are in preschool.
However, parents need to be very careful because discussing prejudice actually causes kids to expect unfair treatment and perceive more discrimination, the study found.
“There seems to be a delicate balance involved,” Spears Brown writes, “in conversations that, ideally, focus on the positive aspects of their family’s ethnicity (by encouraging pride in their cultural heritage, ethnicity, language and country of origin); address the possibility of future discrimination without dwelling too much on negative possibilities; and help children cope with discrimination.”