Successful Adjustment for Refugee Youth

Refugee youth are often burdened by past traumatic experiences while undergoing stress related to resettlement. Supporting refugee youth can aid their successful adjustment to life in the U.S., thereby preventing negative social, psychological, and academic consequences.

Continue the dialogue from the February 8, 2012 webinar, Strong Roots, Bright Futures: Promoting the Successful Adjustment of Refugee Youth co-sponsored by Bridging Refugee Youth & Children’s Services (BRYCS) and RHTAC.

What are your thoughts on refugee youth and their adjustment to life in the U.S.? Leave your comments below.

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9 thoughts on “Successful Adjustment for Refugee Youth

  1. Judith

    I was recently in a situation where I was trying to explain to a Somali mother and father why it would be a good idea to act on their PCP’s referral of their son to a behavioral health agency. The child has issues with anger and aggression. Unfortunately, I did not realize that the agency I was referring them to, CPSA, sounded suspiciously like CPS (Child Protective Services) to them. They thought I was sending them somewhere to have their child taken away from them! I spent a great deal of time explaining that the agency was not CPS, telling them it stood for Community Partnership of Southern Arizona and that it had no connection at all with CPS. Not only that, but I tried to explain that going there would help their son feel better and do better in school.
    It seems that the obvious gaffe was the unfortunate resemblance of the two acronyms to each other, but my question is how mental health agencies and issues are explained to refugees from countries where the medical system is much different from ours. I am concerned that the parents will not get their son the help he needs, which could result in some serious consequences as he gets older.
    I am looking for suggestions on how to manage situations like this in the future.

    May 3, 2012 at 8:32 pm Reply
    • Staff from the Children’s Hospital Center for Refugee Trauma & Resilience/RHTAC

      Thank you for your question regarding how best to present information about a behavioral health referral to a Somali family. You have brought up some interesting issues that often come up in referring refugee families to mental health or behavioral health services.
      The first issue that you raised is related to confusion regarding the name of the agency and its possible association with child protective services. This confusion highlights the importance of attending to differences in language and culture, particularly when using language associated with the US medical or behavioral health systems. In addition, child protective services are often associated with fear and stigma in Somali and other refugee communities because of the widely held belief that they want to take children away from their homes. In presenting the information about behavioral health some key questions to consider include: Do they understand what behavioral health is? What is the most powerful and effective way to present this information? What should I be aware of? Who can help? It is particularly important, as demonstrated by your example, to use descriptive words rather than acronyms which are often confusing. For example, saying something like “I work with this wonderful person who works at an agency that helps families like yours with these issues”. Then describe the services and ask if they have ever heard of the agency or these types of agencies.
      In talking with this family one of the things that might be most helpful is working with someone who can serve as a cultural broker—this could be someone who acts in this role professionally or someone that has been identified by the community as a representative who can help families bridge the cultural differences between their culture of origin and US culture. If you do not work with agencies that have cultural brokers, you might be able to contact local mutual assistance agencies who might be helpful in identifying staff or community members who might be willing to assist in this type of situation. Further, if you do have access to interpreters, taking some extra time with an interpreter before talking to the family to discuss what you are trying to present to the family and talking with the interpreter about how best to explain this situation in the language and culture can be very helpful. Interpreters are often aware community narratives that might help a provider avoid pitfalls such as the similar acronym in this case but they might not be able to say anything in the encounter, so having a conversation with them before hand can be very helpful.

      You also raised an important issue around how mental health or behavioral health concerns can best be framed or presented to families who may have different cultural views/stigma around the meaning of mental health and lack familiarity or comfort with the US service systems. We commend your efforts to talk about your concerns in terms of the impact on the child’s academic functioning. In fact, we often find that talking about behavioral health concerns in the context of the impact on a child’s academic or school functioning is helpful since many refugee families are invested in their children succeeding in the education system. This also can remove some of the stigma associated with “mental health problems” in Somali culture. Again, it is helpful to think about who can help you explain your concerns and talk through the best way to present them. A cultural broker, community representative, interpreter/with extra consultation can all be helpful in this regard. Further, it may also be helpful to identify someone the family trusts such as a school teacher or counselor, or even a case manager, who can also support the referral and talk about how this could help the child’s school performance. In addition, it may be helpful to address concerns families might have about medication and clarify that the referral is not necessarily for medication, but to help identify ways to help the child succeed. In all cases, trying to step away from medical language and working with those familiar with the culture to use language that is inclusive and less threatening is recommended. Another thing to consider (which is something we often experience with the families we work with), is that it may take time to build trust with this family before the referral actually goes through. Over time you may be building more sensitivity to the issues, trust in the providers, education about the system, and ultimately increasing the family’s comfort with trying this new service.

      May 17, 2012 at 9:33 am Reply
  2. Charles Johnson

    Great data; thank you for doing this. I manage a program that is targeted at helping to close the academic achievement gap in my community. Yes, we have run into the very problems that you speak of, and they are all of equal importance. On one hand, the public school community here has created several programs aimed at dealing with many to all of the problems listed in the spectrum of the social ecology; that is to be celebrated, although there could be some execution problems. On the other hand, there is a community divided on the influx of refugees to our community and to our country, many forgetting that at some point, their families were in the same situation, only years ago. But, not only do many of these individuals resist the whole refugee notion, many of them actively work against it. It becomes much like fight a war on several different fronts. In your opinions, what is the outlook for this multi-faceted problem, and how should we prioritize our plans?

    February 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm Reply
    • Catherine Dicksno

      I think it is wonderful that the public school system is working to incorporate refugee youth into special programs. We held a Children’s Art Contest last year with one of the elementary schools. All the students – refugees, immigrants, and Americans – participated by drawing or painting a picture in response to a prompt with an essay on the back. The prompt asked the American or immigrant child what they first thought of refugee children coming into their school and how they feel now. The refugee-specific prompt asked the child what it was like before they started school in America and how it is now.
      The pictures and answers were incredibly creative and a committee chose the top 3 from each category, handing them awards at a ceremony on World Refugee Day. It raised awareness about refugee children in the schools, how they benefited others, and encouraged tolerance between the various ethnic groups. The American parents and children appreciated being included in a refugee-centered event.

      May 9, 2012 at 2:47 pm Reply
  3. Carolyn

    I work with refugee youth in grades K-8 at an after-school program. Often, we have misbehavior issues with some of the children. With many of those children, the problem seems to stem back to the parents, who do not yet know how to manage behavior of their children according to standards in the US. Does anyone have any tips on behavior and classroom management for refugee youth? Or for how to help refugee parents learn how to effectively discipline their children in a more-American fashion?

    February 8, 2012 at 1:33 pm Reply
    • Charles Johnson

      It is my believe, after working in close association with many of the various diverse families, that no matter the place of flee, when they come here, repeated exposure to many different facets of the new culture works. They have to be able to “see” what the norms are in order to acclamate towards them. But, we have to be cognizant of whether or not the particular community is embracing and welcoming. If these groups are not feeling embraced and welcomed, they are going to retreat to a more “oppositional identity” mode. Remember, they want to fit, but if they are not being provided with the space to fit and the resources to fit, then we will all have problems.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm Reply
    • Dina Birman

      Dear Carolyn,
      I have seen misbehavior in a number of refugee kids in that age group, and have great empathy for you struggling with how to be respectful, yet get the behavior under control. Of course it would be ideal to engage the parents; but you still have to deal with the kids in your classroom when the parents aren’t there. What I’ve found helpful is to keep reminding myself that these kids don’t know the norms or rules of behavior in this particular program, and it’s important to be be incredibly explicit and repetitive in teaching them EXACTLY what is expected of them, what IS ok to do, and what IS NOT ok to do. And when behavior occurs, to respond immediately. It is important to set limits; and of course of possible, always better to start by rewarding desirable behavior. Also kids may not be used to the way American teachers and adults interact with kids; they may expect teachers and others in teacher-like roles to be very strict. Many kids experienced physical punishment from teachers. Sometimes they misinterpret our behavior when we try to be friendly, for being permissive. I know that even with my graduate students (!) I need to be very clear about what I need them to do, otherwise they misinterpret my casual style for inot having strict expectations for what they need to do. Can you find a way to remind them about what is and isn’t ok to do in the classroom? Can you work it into an English language learning exercise? Can you make it into a game? Can you establish some routines so that kids understand the structure you are going to follow? I wrote about some of these things in two publications published by the Spring Institute and available for free here:
      http://www.springinstitute.org/Files/mentalhealthrefugeechildren3.pdf
      http://www.springinstitute.org/Files/refugeechildrenbehavior3.pdf
      Maybe they will be helpful to you?
      Good luck to you, and let me know if you have questions.
      all best,
      Dina

      February 9, 2012 at 8:33 pm Reply
  4. Shazia Waters

    How can we foster opportunities for refugee youth leadership – maybe through mentoring

    February 8, 2012 at 1:32 pm Reply