Rupture and Reunification: Coping with Immigration-Related Separation in Early Adolescence

In¨¦s Guariguata


This paper discusses the effects of stepwise migration on the 1.5 generation of Latino immigrants in the U.S., which refers to children who were born and socialized in another country and then immigrate to the U.S. Studies suggest that the majority of these children, as a result of stepwise migration, experience extended parental separation. When these children enter early adolescence and are able to live with their parents in the U.S., reunification can be turbulent and create further struggles for the family. Multiple factors are examined that can contribute and influence the success of reunification. After examining these factors, interventions that have proven successful are discussed, along with implications for further research and programs that could be successful in addressing the various problems faced by immigrant Latino families who are reunified after extended separation.


Immigration can present numerous challenges for a family, including displacement, language barriers, uncertainty, loss, separation, and financial burden. However, the motivations for immigration can be more powerful than the challenges a family could face. Waves of immigrants have poured into the United States since it was first colonized in search of new opportunities and refuge. Families believe in the promise of a better future for themselves and their children when they attempt to escape the tur- moil of their country of origin (Su¨¢rez-Orozco, Todorova, & Louis, 2002).

As of 2007, the Center for Immigration Studies estimated that the total immigrant population in the United States reached 38.1 million, or 12.6% of the current population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Of these, 53.6% are from Latin America, followed by 26.8% from Asia as the second largest cohort (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Though most children of immigrant parents are natives, as of 2003, approximately 3.39 million under the age of 18 were foreign born (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). Many of these children belong to a cohort referred to by researchers as the 1.5 generation, meaning that they were born and socialized in another country and immigrated to the U.S. as children or adolescents (Hirchman, 1994, and Portes & Rumbaut, 2001, in Bacalao & Smokowski, 2007). The 1.5 generation tends to suffer most from the effects of immigration and family upheaval (Bacalao et al., 2007). In particular, many have had to cope with parental separations due to their family¡¯s immigration process. Current studies have reported as many as 90% of Hispanic recent immigrant early adolescents have suffered a separation from one or both parents (Su¨¢rez-Orozco et al., 2002). This paper will focus on the immigration experiences of the Hispanic/Latino population in the United States, while recognizing that other ethnic groups also suffer from the effects of immigration-related parental separation. Learning to work with immigrant families and the challenges they face is imperative for social workers.

After examining several factors affecting immigration (including length of separation, age of separation and reunification, poverty, traumatic events surrounding separation or the immigration process, the transnational triangle, communities in the country of origin and in the U.S., mental health issues, acculturation, and family restructuring), interventions will be discussed. The two most documented interventions are family therapy and community-based interventions. These two modalities provide insight for further research and programs that could be successful in addressing the multitude of problems faced by immigrant Latino families who must reunify after extended separation.

Stepwise migration

The term stepwise migration traditionally refers to a general pattern of long-distance migration that is achieved in stages, such as from town, to city, to another country (Fellmann, Getis & Getis, 1997). However, the term has more recently acquired a specific meaning when used to describe the immigration patterns of recent immigrant families. Stepwise migration for Latino families refers to the migration pattern of family members who immigrate alone while leaving members behind in their country of origin with the intention of reunification in the proximate future (Mitrani, Santisteban & Muir, 2004; Su¨¢rez-Orozco et al., 2002). Traditionally, the member who initiated the immigration was male, while the women remained to take care of the children until the family was ready to reunite in the new country. However, recently a new pattern has emerged which has changed the traditional gender roles in stepwise migration (McGuire & Martin, 2007; Hondag- neu-Sotelo, 1992). Latina women are now just as likely as Latino men to separate from their children and immigrate to the U.S.; this increase in Latina immigrants could be considered part of the general ¡°feminization of immigration¡± now observed by researchers (McGuire et al., 2007, 180; Miranda, Siddique, Der-Martirosian & Belin, 2005). This recent trend in stepwise migration results in a new problem of family separation due to immigration, as child-rearing is traditionally a female gender-specific role in Latin American countries (Jooste, Hayslip & Smith, 2008). The emphasis on the mother-child separation is not to diminish the effects of a separation between fathers and their children. However, mother-child separations are a more recent trend, the effects of which have not been sufficiently addressed in research or in clinical practice. Thus, most of the research discussed in this paper will refer to problems in the mother- child relationship that occur as a result of separation through stepwise immigration.


Of the many consequences families cope with as a result of stepwise migration, the separation between parents and children is one of the most complex and difficult. The prevalence and ramifications of immigration-related separation have only just come to the attention of researchers. Thus, causes, effects, and interventions remain largely unknown. For example, rates of immigration-related parent- child separations are not well-documented or rations are not well-documented or studied. Su¨¢rez-Orozco et al. (2002) conducted the only study of its kind to date. They examined the experiences of 385 early adolescents from Central American, Haitian, Dominican, Asian and Mexican descent and gathered qualitative data from their parents and teachers as well and documented rates of separation.

Su¨¢rez-Orozco et al. (2002) found that children who reunify with one or both parents after extended separations due to immigration experienced significantly higher incidence of depression then those who do not separate from their parents, with depressive symptoms increasing with the duration of separation and if separation occurred from both parents. Almost 80% of all the adolescents had suffered a separation from their fathers, and 55% were separated from their mothers. There were ethnic differences between the groups in the rates of separation and depressive symptoms (Su¨¢rez-Orozco et al., 2002). Of the Hispanic early adolescents, including those of Central American, Mexican, and Dominican descent, 90% had experienced a separation from at least one parent (Mitrani et al., 2004). Central American adolescents were more likely to experience separation from both parents. The prevalence and duration of parental separations for Latin American early adolescents was overwhelming, suggesting that this population suffers greatly from the consequences of this experience.

Factors Affecting Reunification

Length of Separation

Length of separation appears to be one of the most important factors affecting reunification. More than one study has found that the greater the length of separation, the more problematic reunification becomes (Bacalao et al., 2007; Smith, Lalonde & Johnson , 2004). Due to the lack of research in this area, the trends in length of separation are not well documented, with the Su¨¢rez-Orozco et al. (2002) study as the one to date to have documented rates of separation between immigrant youth and their families. According to Su¨¢rez-Orozco et al., (2002), the average length of parental-separation for the 365 early adolescents interviewed was over three years. Central American families had the longest length of separation, which was five years (Su¨¢rez-Orozco et al., 2002).

Not all families seemed to suffer equally after long separations (Su¨¢rez-Orozco et al., 2002). Many were able to cope and reestablish stability after a transient period of conflict. Thus, length of separation is not the only determining factor in predicting the success of reunification. Information gathered by Bacalao et al. (2007) sheds insight into possible explanations for the discrepancies. Bacalao et al. (2007) also found that the severity of problems increased with the length of separation from one or both parents. Families were able to cope with separations for six months to one year, but after a year of separation, major shifts in family roles and family functioning occurred (Bacalao et al., 2007). These deep shifts in family structure that occur over time seem to explain why some families seem to cope better than others after these long separations, and will be examined in greater detail in the following sections.

Age of Separation and Reunification

The age of when the separation occurs seems to influence the success of reunification. Su¨¢rez-Orozco et al., (2002) found that the average age of children when separation between parent and child occurred was seven years-old and the average length of separation was three years in Latin American families (Mitrani et al., 2004). This study found that reunifications were more likely to take place during early adoles- cence, which is supported by other studies (Garcia & Saewyk, 2007).

Studies suggest that the age at which the separation between parent and child occurred can influence the later difficulties upon reunification. Specifically , studies found that the younger the child was at the time of separation, the greater the impact on the parent-child attachment (Mitrani et al., 2004; Smith et al., 2004). Attachment theory supports this finding, as it proposes that early bonding between mother and child sets the stage for the child¡¯s ability to manage relationships as he or she grows into adulthood (Wallin, 2007).

Bowlby theorized that the quality of an infant¡¯s primary relationship determines its abil- ity to survive, both in a physical and emotional sense. He also affirmed that ¡°the process of interaction between an individual and their caregiving environment in which proximity to the caregiver provides a sense of safety and a secure base from which exploration in the larger world can be successfully negotiated¡± (in Cloitre, Stovall-McClough, Zorbas & Charuvastra , 2008, p. 282). As a result of the relationship between a child¡¯s experience of the world and their care- giver, children developed an ¡°internal working model¡± via their primary attachment that would serve to predict behavior of the primary attachment figure, and this internal working model would later by applied to relationships in adult- hood (Shilkret, 2005, p. 56). Attachment theory also postulates that it is the early relationship between mother and child that helps the child learn to regulate affect and cope with stress (Wallin, 2007). A separation from the mother during childhood can create a sense of abandonment and loss that shapes the child¡¯s sense of self, especially if caretakers do not adequately compensate for the absence of the mother.

Most of the reunifications occur in early adolescence, a crucial developmental stage and one that is particularly sensitive to disruptions to the relationship between parents and children (Mitrani et al., 2004; Garcia & Saewyc, 2007). Early adolescence, which is generally considered to be between 11 and 14 years old, is a period of great physical, mental, emotional and social changes (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010). Puberty begins and hormone levels spike. In the brain, the prefrontal cortex grows and subsequently impairs judgment and increases impulsivity. At the same time, serotonin levels decline, making the adolescent more prone to anxiety, irritability and depression (CDC, 2010). All of these changes are also associated with the adolescent¡¯s new preoccupation with fitting in and being socially accepted by their peers. Early adolescents, in turn, become more independent from their parents and can become less affectionate towards them (CDC, 2010).

Masterson (in Mitrani et al., 2004) labels early adolescence the second separation- individuation stage. Early adolescence is impacted by the quality of the parent-child attachment, which can be compromised by a separation that occurred in childhood. When the reunification occurs in early adolescence, it collides with the developmental stage and creates heightened conflict and tension, especially if the parent-child attachment is already weakened by an early separation (Mitrani et al., 2004). In fact, one study done with Haitian adolescents who had experienced immigration-related separation found that the longer the separation and the later the reunification occurred, the greater conflict in the parent-child relationship (Smith, Lalonde, & Johnson, 2004). Smith et al. (2004) concluded that separations due to immigration had negative implications for parent-child bonding since the children identified more and possessed stronger bonds with their caregivers than with their parents. Time after reunification did not significantly improve the conflicts between the adolescents and their families (Smith et al., 2004). Even though Smith et al. (2004) were studying Haitian adolescents, their conclusions are supported by Bacalao et al., (2007), who identified that Hispanic family restructuring created problematic reunifications after long separations.


According to the United Nations Population Fund (2006, in Yearwood et al., 2007), 42.9% of the people in Latin American and the Caribbean are poor. Of these, approximately 96 million live in extreme poverty. The implications of poverty are far-reaching for families, affecting their ability to access adequate nutrition, education, medical care, and proper housing. Those who live in extreme poverty also have limited or no access to mental health services. These factors are considered important pre- immigration stressors that can predispose adolescents towards high-risk conditions and behaviors upon immigration to the U.S. In particular, they ¡°impact self-esteem, contribute to involvement in violence, affect the youth¡¯s regard for societal norms, and may be a contributing factor in early school dropout rates¡± (Yearwood et al., 2007, p. 164).

Poverty is a major influence in the lives of immigrant families post-immigration as well. Studies suggest that anywhere from 20% to 50% of immigrant children and their families from Latin America are living below the poverty line in the U.S. (Hernandez, 2004, in Yearwood et al., 2007). Poverty affects the family globally, determining what kinds of housing they have access to, the safety of the neighborhood they live in (which includes exposure to violence and illegal drug trafficking), the ability to feed and clothe themselves, the hours a parent has to spend with their children, and the quality of education the adolescent can receive. Two studies cited by Yearwood et al., (2007) showed that poverty was one of the ecological risks that affect adolescent adjustment to their environment (Lane et al., 2005 and Levitt et al., 2005 in Yearwood et al., 2007). In particular, poverty impacted the adolescents¡¯ self-esteem, increased their depression scores, and increased family conflict. Parents of these adolescents tend to have low levels of education, difficulty with the English language, and have few support structures as a result of immigration (Yearwood et al., 2007). As they often only qualify for low-paying jobs, immigrant parents are vulnerable to perpetuating the cycle of poverty they experienced in their home countries upon coming to the United States (Yearwood et al., 2007). The low-economic status of these immigrant families places them at high risk for physical and mental health problems and conflict.

Trauma and Events Surrounding Separation and Immigration Process

How a child or adolescent experiences the separation and immigration process can be largely affected by traumatic events. The manner of separation between the parent and child is one important factor. If the separation was experienced as traumatic, i.e. sudden disappearance, violence, no dialogue, then the reunification could cause this grief to resurface (L¨®pez- Pozos, 2009). For example, some children are told their parents are away on a shopping trip, while others are told that they were abandoned by their parents (Mitrani et al., 2004). The confusion around the meaning of separation can create deep feelings of abandonment, loss and neglect, wounds that a child can carry well into adolescence when a reunification usually takes place (L¨®pez-Pozos, 2009). It is this unresolved grief and trauma that then colors the relationship with the parent upon reunification, making the creation of a bond with the parent after a long separation challenging, fraught with ambivalence and complications (L¨®pez-Pozos, 2009).

A child who experiences trauma during the immigration process en route to their parents can also negatively impact reunification (Mitrani et al., 2004). One common example of trauma surrounding immigration is crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, which could entail being handed-off to coyotes, or people paid to smuggle the children or family members, child abuse, or exposure to violence (L¨®pez-Pozos, 2009). Traumatic experiences en route create multiple complications. A child may feel resentful toward his or her parent for being placed in a traumatic situation during a separation, and this creates feelings of ambivalence and complicated grief (L¨®pez-Pozos, 2009). Furthermore, trauma could exacerbate the difficulties surrounding reunification, as the adolescent would also have to cope with the effects of trauma, including recurring nightmares (L¨®pez-Pozos, 2009).

The Transnational Triangle

Mitrani et al. (2007) found that a child¡¯s attitude towards his or her parent during separation is highly influenced by the attitudes of the surrogate caregivers towards the absent parent. As the communication between parent and child is sparse during separation, the child¡¯s understanding of the separation can be distorted by their caregivers (Mitrani et al., 2007). Intentionally misinforming a child about their parents¡¯ absence can be done with the intention of protecting a child¡¯s feelings, but could also be an outlet for a caregiver¡¯s anger towards or disapproval of the parents (Mitrani et al., 2004). Caregivers¡¯ negative attitudes towards parent(s) can cause tension between the child and the caregiver as well as create conflict between the parent and child (Mitrani et al., 2007). This creates further confusion and loss for the child (Mitrani et al., 2004). Further implicating the power of the caregiver in affecting a successful separation and reunification, Schen (2004) notes that a mother who is separated from a child is less likely to have symptoms of depression and grief if she feels that her child is being taken care of in her absence. The importance of the caretaker¡¯s role cannot be underestimated when addressing issues of separation and reunification for immigrant families.

Falicov (2007) termed the relationship between the parent, child and surrogate caregiver the transnational triangle. The quality of this transnational triangle is crucial in determining the success of a reunification of a family. Success is more likely if the caregiver is able to provide a secure environment and positive attachment for the child during the separation, and if the parent acknowledges the importance of the caregiver to the child. The transnational triangle serves to maintain connections between the biological parent and the child during the separation. Later upon reunification, this relationship must continue to be acknowledged and maintained, as the caregiver can become a surrogate parent to the adolescent (Falicov, 2007). The importance of the transnational triangle will be discussed further in terms of interventions and treatment for ruptured families.


A community system creates a context for a family to grow and develop. It contains physical and social resources that socialize adolescents during development, as well as the cultural norms that create a sense of identity and cohesion between its members (Coatsworth, Pantin & Szapocznik, 2002). In terms of cultural identity and cohesion, the interplay between communities and adolescent development is critical since adolescence is highly influenced by context such as peer groups, social norms, and social networks (CDC, 2010). The physical and social resources available can determine whether or not a child will grow up in a healthy way. These resources include, but are not limited to schools, hospitals, childcare, peer groups, and social support networks through relatives, friends and churches (Coatsworth et al., 2002). When these resources are absent or families are unfamiliar with navigating them, children and adolescents become developmentally vulnerable. Coatsworth et al. (2002) argue that a disconnect between families and community resources can predispose adolescents to higher risk of psychosocial problems, including conduct disorders and substance abuse.

When Hispanic adolescents immigrate to the U.S., not only do they have to adjust to their parents again, but they have to negotiate a vastly new environment. Adolescents¡¯ adaptation to their new environment can depend greatly on their parents¡¯ adaptation. Research indicates that most Hispanic immigrant parents have great difficulty understanding and navigating the community systems in the U.S. and thus tend to be disconnected from them (Coatsworth et al., 2002). Hispanic recent immigrant families also tend to settle in poorer communities that have fewer resources and generally have higher crime rates than wealthier ones (Coatsworth et al., 2002). Parents tend to work long hours in low-paying jobs, often times coming home very late and leaving adolescents unsupervised for hours at a time (Bacalao et al., 2007). Parents have difficulty advocating for their children¡¯s needs in school and generally do not seek help for mental health problems if they arise (Coatsworth et al., 2002; Yearwood et al., 2007). In general, these parents are at a disadvantage in raising their children as a result of their own disconnect from community resources.

Community plays another important role in the process of separation and reunification of families. Cultures where stepwise immigration is a norm help children cope with and make meaning of the experience better than where these experiences are not considered normal (Falicov, 2007). Falicov (2007, p. 162) refers to these cultures as cultures of migration, where there are ¡°informal models of separation and reunion, and hopeful narratives that revolve around well-known themes, such as economic survival or education for the next generation.¡± They promote the idea that the extended family will cooperate to raise children and help them cope. Su¨¢rez-Orozco et al. (2002) noted that many of the effects of a parental separation could be mitigated by a community where stepwise migration is a part of life. The frequency of stepwise migration in these communities normalizes the experience for children and families. These communities also have structures in place to help raise the children left behind by parents. By contrast, when a child does not receive adequate preparation for a separation or feels marginalized by their caretaker family or community, the prognosis for the reunification process is poorer (Smith et al., 2004).

Immigration and Acculturation

Research is showing that rapid assimilation to American culture correlates with diminished physical and mental well being, as compared to immigrants who retain their original culture yet are flexible in adopting aspects of the dominant culture (Falicov, 2009). Falicov (2009) cites discrimination toward immigrants and racism as major contributors to this phenomenon. Such obstacles contribute to families feeling pressure to shed their cultural identities by mainstream culture. Early adolescents are particularly susceptible to the pressure to assimilate (CDC, 2010). However, early adolescent immigrants become aware of discrimination towards them in the U.S., which produces feelings of rejection that can compound feelings of rejection elicited by the separation from their parents (L¨®pez-Pozos, 2009). The conflict between feeling a pressure to assimilate and feeling rejected further complicates the adolescent¡¯s ability to adapt to their new environment and family system.

Discrepancies in acculturation rates between Hispanic immigrant parents and their adolescent children have also been found to contribute to problematic behaviors in adolescents. Unger, Ritt-Olson, Soto & Baezconde-Garbanati (2009) studied a sample of 1772 Hispanic 9th graders, whose immigration status was not accounted for, and found that discrepancies between parents and children in both identification with U.S. culture and identification with Hispanic culture were risk factors for smoking, alcohol and marijuana use. U.S. acculturation discrepancy in particular was associated with lower family cohesion, which was associated with higher levels of substance use (Unger et al., 2009). This study indicates how acculturation differences between parents and their children can become another factor that contributes to family conflict and alienation between parents and their children.

Mental Health

Mental health factors must be considered when addressing immigration-related separation for various reasons. Researchers caution that mental health workers who treat immigrant families must be aware of the probability that family members will have pre-existing mental health conditions that went undiagnosed in their country of origin. According to data from the World Health Organization, only about 7% of countries provide services that adequately treat psychiatric disorders for children and adolescents (World Health Organization, 2005, in Yearwood et al., 2007). Yearwood et al. (2007) identify mood disorders as particularly prevalent in adolescents, as symptoms of many mood disorders begin or become more severe during adolescence. Mood disorders can place adolescents at risk for diminished quality of life, as well as suicide (Yearwood et al., 2007). Parents may also have untreated or undiagnosed mental health conditions. Immigrant families tend to feel suspicious of mental health services and beliefs about mental illness in the U.S., which often makes them unwilling to seek help for their mental health needs (Yearwood et al., 2007).

Pre-existing mental illnesses are often exacerbated by the stresses of immigration and can affect the ability for a family to reunite successfully. The disruption caused by migration can cause externalizing behavior, such as aggression, rage, hyperactivity, and oppositionalism. Internalizing behaviors, such as sadness, anxiety, or withdrawal can occur as well. Parents may not seek out treatment for adolescents¡¯ distress (Yearwood et al., 2007). If parents do seek treatment for their adolescent, they tend to do so in response to externalizing behaviors more than internalizing behaviors. Internalizing behaviors, however, are possibly more worrisome than externalizing behaviors in adolescents. They are more likely to be overlooked by parents, and they place adolescents at greater risk for depression and suicide (Yearwood et al., 2007). Hispanic female youth tend to exhibit more internalizing behaviors, placing them at higher risk for suicide than White, Black or Asian youth (Fuligni & Hardway, 2004, in Yearwood et al., 2007).

Parental depression can also have a profound effect on the reunification process. Miranda et al. (2005) found that mothers that were currently separated from their children had significantly higher rates of depression than Latina mothers who had separated from their children during stepwise migration and women who had no children. McGuire & Martin (2007, p. 184) observed that mothers who had left their children behind ¡°suffered from intrusive thoughts of their children Mexico, depression, sadness, and a loss of appetite during the prolonged period of separation from children.¡± Schen (2005) also notes that mothers separated from their infants, even for only a period of weeks, developed symptoms of depression and showed disruptions in attachment behavior even after reunification. According to Bowlby, ¡°prolonged separations elicit symptoms of despair and disengagement from the mother¡± (Schen, 2005, p. 234). These findings suggest that maternal depression or disengagement is likely after long separations, and would create difficulty during the reunification process.

Restructuring of the Family Unit

During extended separations, family restructuring can occur, either for the child in the country of origin or for the parent(s) in the United States. Parents separate, remarry, have more children or welcome step-children or extended family members into the family unit. When an adolescent reunites with his or her parents, he/she may enter an unfamiliar family unit, which can negatively impact the adolescent¡¯s ability to adjust (Smith et al., 2004). Smith et al. (2004, p. 117) found that adolescents ¡°reported lower levels of self-esteem, lower identification with their parents, and less closeness to their parents¡± when they experience a family restructuring. Adolescents often felt rejected by their new siblings or step-parents, increasing the difficulty of adjusting within a new family unit (Smith et al., 2004).

The redefinition of roles in the family is another source of stress and conflict for adolescents (Smith et al., 2004). Newly-defined roles for the adolescent can include accepting parenting authority from a new step-parent, which often places the birth parent in a difficult position of having competing loyalties or to covertly parent the adolescent (Mitrani et al., 2004). Another common problem for adolescents can be having to relinquish the role of a parent towards younger siblings (Mitrani et al., 2004). Adolescents often assume the role of surrogate parent for younger siblings during a prolonged separation. When they reunite with their parents, they often clash with the parent¡¯s authority and refuse to give up their position of power in the family. This creates a rivalry between the parent and adolescent which creates deep tension between parent, adolescent and younger siblings (Mitrani et al., 2004).

Interventions and Treatment


Biculturalism is defined as the state of integrating aspects of the culture of origin with aspects of the dominant culture (Coatsworth et al., 2002). Research indicates that is protective and adaptive for immigrant families to become bicultural, while those who do not integrate parts of the dominant culture do not fare as well (Berry & Sam, 1996; Falicov, 2007; Falicov, 2009; Felix-Ortiz & Newcomb, 1995 in Coatsworth et al., 2002; Flores & Kaplan, 2009). Specifically, one must ¡°develop strong ethnic pride and connection to one¡¯s culture while mastering the language, customs, and skills needed to be successful in the mainstream culture¡± (Flores et al., 2009, p. 16). The process of adapting to aspects of U.S. culture and learning to function within its systems tends to happen at different rates for the parents and adolescent. Adolescents tend to adapt more quickly to the new culture, which tends to create further tension and conflict in the family (De la Rosa, Vega, & Radisch, 2000, in Coatsworth et al., 2002).

Fostering biculturalism is an integral part of a clinician¡¯s role in working with immigrant parents and adolescents, helping the adolescent maintain aspects of the culture of origin while helping parents understand and adapt to the new culture. This work is multi-systemic, as it involves working within the family as well as within the larger systems that affect the family. One of the losses that immigrant families experience is that of social capital, which refers to the ¡°collective associations among residents and participation in the life of the community¡± (Coleman, 1988, in Coatsworth et al., 2002). Thus, fostering biculturalism in a family includes addressing parenting styles and skills that are adapted to US culture, as well as empowering the immigrant parents to create social capital (Coatsworth et al., 2002).

Family Therapy

Family therapy is one of the more common and well-documented interventions for helping immigrant families address complex issues around separation and reunification. L¨®pez-Pozos (2009) notes that family therapy can help address the unresolved grief that is experienced within the family by parents and children. Parents suffer from guilt, grief and possibly trauma as a result of their separation from their children, and parental depression must be addressed along with the unresolved loss suffered by the adolescents (L¨®pez-Pozos, 2009). When a parent is able to receive support for processing their experiences around immigration, separation from their children, and adjusting to their adolescent re-entering their immediate family circle, they are better able to help their adolescent cope with pain and anxiety around separation and reunification. As Coatsworth et al. (2002) assert, the family is the primary vehicle for helping adolescents overcome difficulties and develop in a healthy way. By supporting the parent and family as unit, one can address the adolescent¡¯s needs effectively. The family therapist must also work with a parent who is reunifying with their child to maintain or improve the communication within the transnational triangle. As the parent helps the child process their experience of losing their caretaker and culture, the bond between the parent and child can be reinforced. Mitrani et al. (2004) stress that improving the parent- adolescent bond should be the primary focus, and this includes facilitating the adolescent¡¯s ability to adjust to the loss of their former caretaker.

Mitrani et al., (2004) discuss how parent- ing skills for most of the parents who have been separated from their child suffer from the separation. The parent tends to lack experience parenting older children. When a child reaches adolescence and then reunites with his/her parent, the parent has not been able to adapt to developmental changes that the adolescent has undergone during separation (Mitrani et al., 2004). The subsequent age-inappropriate parenting style many parents exhibits negatively impacts the bond between parent and adolescent. Teaching parents age-appropriate parenting skills is therefore essential as a part of the therapy.

Falicov (2007) cites that family therapists must work on helping the family make meaning out of the separation, restore narrative coherence and solidify family identity. One specific intervention includes having family members exchange memories and mental images of important events which include details so that empathy can be generated between members (Falicov, 2007). Celebrating the family reunion through a ritual or event with invited guests is also encouraged (Falicov, 2007). Mitrani, Santisteban & Muir (2004) outline other specific aspects of family therapy that address the complex process of reunification. As stated earlier, early adolescence can be experienced as a second separation-individuation phase in development (Masterson, 1985, in Mitrani et al., 2004). If adolescents have a separation from one or both parents in their history, their attachment to the parent(s) is usually weakened. When reunification occurs during early adolescence, the combined experience of the weakened attachment with the developmental task to separate from the parent, along with the challenges of immigration, makes reunification fraught with conflict (Mitrani et al., 2004).

Mitrani et al. (2004) found that emotional distance and disengagement was the most prominent issue confronting the immigrant family in families where the mother and child were undergoing reunification. The goal of family therapy is therefore ¡°to create a new frame for the discussion of separation-related content, parent-adolescent relationships, and the modification of maladaptive family interactions around the issue of separation¡± (Mitrani et al., 2004, p. 222). This new frame for processing separation-related experiences serves the purpose of shifting the blame away from the adolescent for the family¡¯s conflict, and away from the mother for separating from the child in the first place (Mitrani et al., 2004). Strategies for structuring the process of family therapy include joining the family with the awareness of cultural differences between the members and the therapist, helping the family to create their own therapeutic goals, evaluating the maladaptive family patterns as well as family strengths, helping the mother gain parenting experience to parent the adolescent, creating parental alliances in cases of remarriage, redefining the role of the adolescent if he/she had been a surrogate parent to younger siblings during the separation, and providing skills for conflict resolution (Mitrani et al., 2004).

Community Interventions

Perhaps one of the most documented and successful programs that aims to create social capital for and empower immigrant parents and their early adolescents is Familias Unidas, created for the immigrant communities of Miami, Florida. Familias Unidas has had three clinical trials that show it to be effective as a preventative intervention for behavior problems in immigrant adolescents. The most recent randomized control trial was published in 2009 by Pantin et al., who found that those adolescents whose families had participated in the program had significantly fewer incidents of substance abuse, unprotected sexual behavior, and externalizing behavior than the community control groups. Externalizing behaviors in particularly were dramatically lower in incidence (Pantin et al., 2009). This study also found that these results were specifically mediated by improvements in family functioning (Pantin et al., 2009). Thus, supporting and working with the family should be the primary focus of a community-based program.

Familias Unidas, specifically developed for immigrant adolescents ages 12-14 and their parents, is based on a few core beliefs about how families can successfully raise their children. The first is ecodevelopmental theory, which is concerned with the interaction between development across time and the dynamic changes of their social ecology (Coatsworth et al., 2002). Ecodevelopmental theory examines interaction and exchange between the adolescent¡¯s devel- opment and the micro-, meso-, exo- and macro- systems in which the development takes place. Where most interventions focus on the early adolescents¡¯ microsystems, those which directly affect the adolescent, such as family, school and peers, Familias Unidas¡¯ activities emphasize changing behaviors and functioning in the exo- systems and mesosystems as often as within microsystems (Coatsworth et al., 2002). Familias Unidas also aims to promote the four aspects of parenting that are protective against problem behavior: parental investment, adolescent social competence, self-regulation and academic achievement (Coatsworth et al., 2002).

Familias Unidas believes that these changes can only occur through the parents, so the program focuses on them. Familias Unidas supports family cohesion, high levels of structure with clear rules and expectations while diminishing unrealistic beliefs or support of deviant behavior as well as high levels of conflict (Coatsworth et al., 2002). Groups of 10-12 parents (multifamily or multiparent) meet weekly with a facilitator who uses a problem- posing/participatory style discussion and skill- building activities to help parents cope with and explore acculturation, share knowledge and skills and learn new skills, and identify maladaptive patterns in how they relate to/within the early adolescent¡¯s microsystem. Parents then plan group activities to restructure the maladaptive interactions through action plans. With the help of the group facilities, parents then carry-out these activities/action plans. The activities include family meetings, parent- adolescent discussion groups, adolescent activity groups, supervised peer activities, and school counselor meetings. Family therapy is also offered for those who need it. (Coatsworth et al., 2002). The multi-systemic approach of Familias Unidas appears to make it very effective in shifting family functioning and helping a family become bicultural. Multi-systemic approaches that deal with the family in their environment as well as interfamily dynamics appear to provide the best practice for therapists who are attempting to treat the complexity of reunification for recent immigrant families.


The serious mental health issues that Hispanic early adolescent immigrants face necessitate further research to better understand treatment and prevention. The issue of immigration-related separation has been little studied, though it is clearly related and probably causal in the development of mental health problems for this, the 1.5 generation of Hispanic immigrants (Bacalao et al., 2007). The few current studies and programs that have addressed immigration-related separation and reunification suggest that family therapy is one effective modality. Acknowledging the various attachments made by the adolescent, addressing the interpersonal stresses of reunification with parents and other family members, and creating a safe place for creating a new attachment and family unit are all beneficial aspects of family therapy . Programs that also create community and restore of social capital are equally important, as creating a supportive environment will ensure the success of goals made through family therapy. Helping families achieve biculturalism and empowering them to make the U.S. a home, where they can fully participate in its social systems and economy, should be the aim of any therapy or program that works with this population. It would be a mistake to ignore the needs of this population, as Hispanic communities are creating future citizens of the U.S.. How we in- corporate them now will affect everyone¡¯s future.


Bacalao, M.L. & Smokowski, P.R. (2007). The costs of getting ahead: Mexican family system changes after immigration.
Family Relations, 56, 52-66.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010, June). Child development: Early adolescence (12-14 years old). Retrieved
August 1, 2010 from yadolescence.htm

Cloitre, M., Stovall-McClough, C., Zorbas, P. & Charuvastra, A. (2008). Attachment organization, emotion regulation and
expectations of support in a clinical sample of women with childhood abuse histories. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 21(3),

Coatsworth, J.D., Pantin, Hilda, & Szapocznik, J. (2002). Familias unidas: A family-centered ecodevelopmental intervention
to reduce risk for problem behavior among Hispanic adolescents. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 4(2),

Falicov, C.J. (2007). Working with transnational immigrants: Expanding meanings of family, community, and culture.
Family Process, 46(2), 157-171.

Falicov, C.J. (2009). Commentary: On the wisdom and challenges of culturally attuned treatments for Latinos. Family
, 48(2), 292-309.

Fellmann, J.D., Getis, A. & Getis, J. (1997). Human geography: landscape of human activities. Dubuque, IA: Times Mirror
Higher Education Group, Inc.

Flores, L. & Kaplan, A. (2009). Addressing the mental health problems of border and immigrant youth: A culture and
trauma special report from the national child traumatic stress network
. Retrieved on August 1, 2010 from dfs/BorderlandersSpecialReport_Final_0. pdf

Hondagneu-Sotelo, P. (1992). Overcoming patriarchal constraints: The reconstruction of gender relations among Mexican
immigrant women and men. Gender and Society, 6(3), 393-415.

Jooste, J.L., Hayslip, B., & Smith, G.C. (2008). The adjustment of children and grandparent caregivers in grandparent-
headed families. In B. Hayslip & P. Kaminiski (Eds.), Raising the custodial grandchild: Implications for clinical
. New York: Springer Publishing Company, LLC.

L¨®pez-Pozos, C. (2009). The emotional cost of separation in migrant children: A study case in family migration between
Tlaxcala and California. Agricultura, Sociedad y De sarrollo, 6(1), 81-103.

McGuire, S. & Martin, K. (2007). Fractured migrant families: Paradoxes of hope and devastation. Family Community Health,
30(3), 178-188.

Miranda, J., Siddique, J., Der-Martirosian, C., & Belin, T. (2005). Depression among Latina immigrant mothers separated
from their children. Psychiatric Services, 56(6), 717- 720.

Mitrani, V.B., Santisteban, D.A., & Muir, J.A. (2004). Addressing immigration-related separations in Hispanic families with
a behavior-problem adolescent. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 74(3), 219-229.

Pantin, H., Prado, G., Lopez, B., Huang, S., Tapia, M., Schwartz, S., Sabillon, E., Brown, H., & Branchini, J. (2009). A
randomized controlled trial of familias unidas for Hispanic Adolescents with behavior problems. Psychosomatic
, 71(9), 987-995.

Schen, C.R. (2005). When mothers leave their children behind. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 13(4), 233-243.

Santisteban, D.A. & Mena, M.P. (2009). Culturally informed and flexible family-based treatment for adolescents: A tailored
and integrative treatment for Hispanic youth. Family Process, 48(2), 253-267.

Shilkret, C. (2005). Some clinical applications of attachment theory in adult psychotherapy. Clinical Social Work Journal,
33(1), 55- 68.

Smith, A., Lalonde, R.N. & Johnson, S. (2004). Serial migration and its implications for parent-child relationship: A
retrospective analysis of the experiences of the children of Caribbean immigrants. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority
, 10(2), 107-122.

Su¨¢rez-Orozco, C., Todorova, I.L.G. & Louis, J. (2002). Making up for lost time: The experience of separation and
reunification among immigrant families. Family Process, 41(4), 625-643.

Unger, J.B., Ritt-Olson, A., Soto, D.W. & Baezcond-Garbanati-L. (2009). Parent- child acculturation discrepancies as a risk
factor for substance use among Hispanic adolescents in Southern California. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health,
11, 149-157.

U.S. Census Bureau (2010, January). Race and Hispanic origin of the foreign-born population in the United States: 2007.
(Publication No. ACS-11). Retrieved July, 19, 2010, from

U.S. Census Bureau (2004, August). The foreign- born population in the United States: 2003. (Publication No. P20-551).
Retrieved July 19, 2010 from

Wallin, D.J. (2007). Attachment in psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.

Yearwood, E.L., Crawford, S., Kelly, M., & Moreno, N. (2007). Immigrant youth at risk for disorders of mood: Recognizing
complex dynamics. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 21(3), 162-171.


About the Author

In¨¦s Guariguata was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and currently resides in New York, NY. Her interest in working with children and families began in high school as a mentor, later through her studies in Psychology and English while at Johns Hopkins University. Ines’s love of art and creativity as well as clinical work then led her to earn her Masters in Art Therapy through New York University. Ines practiced as an art therapist for seven years primarily in the community of Bushwick, Brooklyn. The struggles and cour- age of the families and children she encountered as an art therapist further encouraged her to seek her Masters in Social Work through the Hunter College School of Social Work. She hopes her degree in social work will help her to work more systemically with families in need and better create change in their lives and communities. Ines is grateful to her family, friends, teachers, co-workers and clients for the opportunities to learn and grow as a person and clinician, and hopes to continue to serve the communities of immigrants that have inspired her work.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: