The psychological impact of a new world order on migrant families: what do we know and how can psychological science advance well-being?

Abigail H. Gewirtz, University of Minnesota

Photo: Meabh Smith/Trócaire (CC BY 2.0)

The 21st century has seen more rapid migration than any other time in recent history; migration has increased at a greater rate than population growth. In 2015, 244 million individuals lived in countries other than those in which they were born, a 41% increase since 2000. Almost 20 million of those individuals were refugees, fleeing violence and other threats for safer places.

Changes to the political order in several countries have paralleled these vast movements of people. Recent elections in various countries have resulted in the rise to power of nationalist, isolationist and conservative leaders in an apparent backlash against liberal values and internationalism. Related increases have occurred in hate crimes, hostile dialogue, and in moves to deny or suppress scientific findings. For example, the United States’ Southern Poverty Law Center documented over 1000 hate crimes in one month after Donald Trump won the presidency. The United Kingdom saw a 40% increase in hate crimes in 2016, compared to the previous year, while Germany saw a 77% increase in hate crimes from 2014 to 2015. These statistics are likely gross underestimates — for example, the London police estimate that only 1 in 4 hate crimes is reported. Not surprisingly, these political climates have resulted in high levels of discord, anxiety and fear among large swathes of the population, and particularly for migrants and racial/ethnic, religious and sexual minorities.

There has been much psychological research on the impact of migration on child and family well-being (see, for example, the special issue in 2011 of the Journal of Marriage and the Family on transnational migration). Much of this research is focused on the concept of ‘acculturation’ — the process by which a person acquires the culture of a particular society. Until recently, research has focused on understanding migrant acculturation using a model developed by Berry that focuses on key acculturative strategies addressing the tension between maintaining one’s culture of origin vs. becoming absorbed or involved in the host culture.

However, a growing body of research points to a more nuanced picture of acculturation. This is demonstrated by a growing body of quantitative research that identifies key factors (or moderators) that affect the size and direction of individual acculturation and well-being. Bornstein proposed the Specificity Principle, the idea that “an understanding of acculturation depends critically on what is studied where, in whom, how, and when”.

Many studies on acculturation highlight specificity. For example, specific setting conditions (such as reasons for migrating, the ‘fit’ between where people came from and where they are migrating to, variations in cultural immersion and experience, and immigrant status before the law) of specific individuals at specific times moderate acculturation in different domains via specific processes. An example of this can be found in a 2003 study demonstrating that while Mexican Americans report more harsh family discipline than European Americans living in the same neighbourhoods, less acculturated parents of Mexican descent report more harsh discipline than those who are more acculturated. Harsh discipline is also associated with higher warmth and fewer conduct problems in less acculturated Mexican Americans, but not in those who were more acculturated, or among European Americans.

Individual variables (such as gender) also have been found to be moderators of acculturation. Thus, for example, Turkish immigrant mothers and fathers in Germany disagree with respect to conservative gender role values, and Turkish daughters are more egalitarian than their mothers and their male peers, whereas Turkish sons more closely resemble their fathers in conservatism. Similarly, second generation Turkish immigrant adolescent girls in Belgium perceive less discrimination and adapt better than boys; they are more open to intercultural contact, have greater aspirations for achievement and possess less conservative gender role attitudes.

There are now more than 11 million undocumented individuals in the US, primarily from Latin America, and there are an estimated 12 million undocumented Roma in Europe. Documentation and citizenship affords access to spaces that promote healthy development via crucial services such as schools, housing, and healthcare.

Photo: Portrait of a family, Giannis Angelakis (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Recent psychological research also has highlighted the importance of theory- and evidence-based psychological interventions to promote migrant family well-being (see, for example data on parenting interventions for Pakistani and Somali mothers in Norway, and recent articles that review interventions for refugee & asylum-seeking children, delivered across countries and settings).

Taken together, findings from psychological science highlight the value of integrating and synthesizing findings on migration, acculturation, and well-being into a more nuanced picture that also addresses the impact of migration policies on well-being, and provide data on what works to help migrant families. However, more research is needed to understand migrant family well-being, and the impact of new politics and policies on families. These questions are best addressed through longitudinal studies that gather measures from multiple informants and settings, using multiple methods to assess outcomes at the individual, family, community and societal level. These include both ‘passive’ designs, as well as true experiments. Psychologists will need to work across sub-disciplines and with other social scientists to address new research questions emerging from policies and politics such as: How do isolationist politics affect individual attitudes towards migrants? What are the impacts of policies that violate human rights such as family detention or the detention of unaccompanied children?

The prevailing assault on science in some countries, resulting in part from the view that science is no more valid than religion or belief, may result in less funding for scientific research in general and, in particular, for research that is deemed politically sensitive (e.g. research on teen pregnancy prevention, migrant families, HIV/AIDS). Negative attitudes, policies and behaviours towards migrants also seem likely to reduce their willingness to participate in research, for fear of deportation. Finally, cuts to social programmes typically hit hardest those most in need, such as recent migrants.

Against this backdrop, social scientists in general — and psychological scientists in particular — have a special opportunity to share empirical findings in the scholarly literature, as well as in the mass media, to raise public awareness of the issues surrounding migration. Recent journal editorials have highlighted the politics of fear, advocating against the incarceration of undocumented children (Balcazar, 2016), and a recent report in the Huffington Post documenting findings from a German study examining the incidence of PTSD in a sample of asylum seekers.

The current context provides an important opportunity to educate the next generation of psychologists and other social scientists on the science of social change. Few graduate school curricula, for example, include how the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child can improve child well-being across the world. An increasing number of programmes, however, are teaching prevention research, which brings science to efforts to improve well-being and reduce risks of mental health and related problems. The next generation of social scientists have an obligation and an opportunity to examine, absorb and use the lessons of today to improve the world of tomorrow.


Dr Abigail H.Gewirtz is the John and Nancy Lindahl Leadership Professor in the Department of Family Social Science and the Institute of Child Development, and director of the Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on the development, effectiveness testing, and implementation of targeted prevention programs that promote child resilience among highly stressed families including those affected by military deployment, and war.

Over more than a decade, Dr Gewirtz’s research has been funded by the US National Institutes of Health, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the Department of Defense. Dr Gewirtz is Principal Investigator on two randomized controlled trials to develop and test a web-enhanced parenting programme for military families with parents returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She has published and presented widely on parenting, trauma and child adjustment; extending parent training models for populations affected by traumatic stress; and the role of community sectors of care as portals for family-based prevention.

http://www.cehd.umn.edu/fsos/people/faculty/GewirtzA.asp