Through Children's Eyes
Immigration has a unique impact on children as they flow into a new society.

by Dr. Marilyn G. Chotem – August 2005

Bi-monthly "Adaptations" Column in the Lifestyles & Culture section of
The Canadian Immigrant Magazine.

Coming to Canada opens doors to new possibilities for you and your children. These opportunities may be wonderful, but your children will have many adjustments to make, and parents should be aware of their unique experiences.

For example, immigrant children are often under more expectations and pressures than Canadian-born children. Immigrant children may speak multiple languages and are straddling cultures. They must juggle parental pressures to maintain traditional values and customs, with peer pressures to conform to Canadian practices.

Peers may also express subtle or blatant prejudice against immigrants, particularly visible minorities, which can be as damaging to social relationships and self-esteem as childhood abuse in the family.

Where fresh water meets and flows into ocean water, it is turbulent. Immigrant children flowing into the larger community also experience turbulence before integration.

Now add to the multiple challenges of adjusting to a new culture and language, the challenges of family life. Families with financial means may have an advantage over poor families. Poverty in Canada is correlated with increased mental health problems in children, such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety and conduct disorder. While poor immigrant children are found to have less prevalence of mental health problems than poor Canadian-born children, they both have more problems than non-poor children.

On the other hand, immigrant families with greater affluence often have absent fathers. Fathers carry on working in their countries of origin while the mother and children establish lives in Canada. Children benefit most from two parents who are actively involved in their development. Children whose father is away may idealize or fear the absent parent. Girls may grow up having difficulty trusting in intimate relationships. Boys may grow up feeling a need to prove their value to the absent father.

Mothers having to work and parent face more challenges than mothers who enjoy parenting and are able to stay at home. Single mothers may have difficulty providing structure and limits with children. Also, they may turn to their children to meet their own emotional needs, thus compromising their children's needs by crossing generational boundaries. A mother who is well supported by a spouse and extended family is more able to provide nurturing, guidance, limits, encouragement and extracurricular activities.

Unfortunately for immigrants and people born in Canada in larger urban areas, the cost of living usually necessitates that both parents work. Working parents may be too busy to tune into their children's difficulties outside or within the home. Children suffering from discrimination or hate outside the home may become depressed, withdrawn or act out. Parents who are exposed to hate and prejudice at work may suffer, as well, though they may cope in different ways. For example, the hurt and anger may cause parents to take out their emotions on their children, or turn to drugs or alcohol for coping.

On an airplane, parents are instructed to put the oxygen mask over their face before helping their children. It is the same in life. Parents who attend to their own needs for support, rest, self-esteem, etc., can better meet the needs of their children. Single parents may want to find other adults who can also provide role modelling and caring attachments for their children. Big Brothers and Big Sisters are another resource, which links children with volunteers interested in acting as a big brother or sister to a younger child. These volunteers provide important relationships for children and youth, as well as giving some respite time for single parents. Community centres, multicultural programs or religious bodies can also provide needed fellowship and support for new immigrants.

Welcome to Canada. Get as much information as you can about services and resources available to you and your children as new immigrants. Information Services of Vancouver provides information and referral services to the public (call 604-875-6381 or go online). Take advantage of the supports available to help you and your children engage in your new community and, like the river to the ocean, over time become an integral part of Canada.

Dr. Marilyn G. Chotem, Ed.D., is a registered psychologist #773 with a private practice in North Vancouver. Of Russian-Jewish heritage, Chotem was born in Seattle, Washington, and moved to Canada in 1974.