Latinx youth and their families have for decades experienced unique stressors in adolescence. These stressors have come to the forefront of many families’ consciousness following the isolation and sense of loss brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and the re-focusing of national attention on conversations about race.
In this Q&A, Joanna Lee Williams, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University, interviews Gabriela Livas Stein, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.
Dr. Stein’s research has long focused on the mental health challenges newly immigrated families face in this country, and understanding how cultural values in Latinx families can help protect youth as they adapt to a new country and culture.
In this conversation, Dr. Williams and Dr. Stein discuss the value of familism, the importance of preparing youth for discrimination, the unique stressors faced by Latinx youth, and the strengths within this community that have become even more important in the current moment.
Joanna Lee Williams: Something that is central to your work, and to Latinx culture, is familism or familismo in Spanish. Tell us what it means and why it’s important.
Gabriela Livas Stein: Familismo is broadly defined as loyalty that one has to family as well as the expectations of emotional and social support that one gives to one’s family. It is the hierarchical family organization with respect to family and to older family members, including parents into adulthood. It’s a way of defining the self in the context of the family and for our purposes the way that familismo promotes resilience and well-being is really important.
JLW: How does familism promote resilience? And does loyalty to family and defining oneself through family ever interfere with other obligations in adolescence in a way that becomes challenging for youth?
GLS: Working for your family and centering your identity within your family gives you a sense of meaning, purpose, and accomplishment. Latino adolescents and others who hold this value feel connected to their family, which is important in itself, and familism can also promote connection with others and prosocial behavior like respect to others.
High levels of obligations at home can interfere with teens’ ability to complete schoolwork, for example. But family obligations and schoolwork don’t have to be opposing forces. If we think about how communities and schools can garner familism to find a sense of purpose in teens, it can really lead to positive outcomes such that familism is protective rather than harmful to kids. Schools can say, for example, bringing your family pride is really important to us; how can we help you support that? And what can we do to help you live up to the expectations your family has of you, and you have of yourself?
JLW: How do you help parents think about balance and know when those additional obligations at home may be too much, especially when teens are juggling demanding schoolwork?
GLS: Many immigrant parents may not know the level of expectations for their kids in the American school system. So, the first step is to help them understand and have some shared language with their teens about expectations. After that, they can moderate their expectations and different types of demands that can help teens organize themselves and multitask. But you have to be mindful not to put too much weight on either the home or academic side too fast. In both areas, they have to develop skill sets that we know are learned best when parents slowly add reasonable demands.
JLW: I want to ask you also about the recent shift in the national conversation about race. How are you supporting conversations about race, and specifically about discrimination in your community, and what does this look like at home with your own 12-year-old daughter?
GLS: I think parents’ instincts for discussing issues of discrimination with their kids are that this will be hard for them, and they are probably right. So, we need to think about how to give these messages as a package with lots of other types of messages we’re giving about race and ethnicity, promoting identity, pride, resilience and hope; realizing that kids need this skill set. They need to know what to do if someone calls them a racial slur and what to do if a teacher keeps ignoring them in class, or they’re feeling uncomfortable in their interactions with their peers, or kids are teasing them.
With my daughter one of the important things is to just ask her what she thinks. We have to teach our kids, but we also need to hear our kids. So we focus on open ended questions — what made you see that or what makes you think that? Or what did you see that made you think about that? When I engage her in this way, I must realize that what I would do may not be what she would do, and I have to honor that she has a different personality. But my ultimate goal when she comes to me about different situations is for her to be thoughtful about her actions and to have a set of tools she can use, without telling her exactly what to do in that moment or exactly how to do it because I think that stifles future conversations.
JLW: We are in a moment of increased national stress related to the pandemic. Your expertise as an adolescent mental health professional predates the current moment, so can you explain some of the stressors among Latinx youth prior to this pandemic?
GLS: Kids in Latinx families face similar stressors to other kids- fitting in, doing well in school, etc. But they may also face stressors that are unique to them, such as experiences of discrimination and xenophobia –being told to “go back to your country,” or they don’t belong here or constantly being told that they’re not part of the larger fabric of the United States of America.
Then beyond this type of discrimination, immigrant teens may face stressors within the family — they’re trying to figure out how to adapt to life and to this society, while their parents may be feeling fearful that in assimilating to this “American culture” they’re going to become too independent or wild or try drugs and have premarital sex. The kids want to feel American. Being American is part of their identity, so the challenge becomes how do they negotiate and navigate the parental fear and their need to honor, protect and love their families with their own sense of autonomy. What we know from our work is that it is possible for families to adapt together. Still, we have to recognize that this may be a stressor for kids as they navigate it.
JLW: What do you say to parents who are experiencing these types of fears and stressors? How can they successfully navigate them in the best interest of their children?
GLS: One thing I focus on is that they’re not leaving a culture as much as just adding more things to their cultural pot. Their cultural values are not going away, and in fact we know that retaining those values is protective for kids. So you look around and you think about what are the values in this American culture that you think are good, what are the things you want for your kids in this context, and you remember that it can add to your own, not take away.
JLW: What are some of the strengths that you see within Latinx families that are becoming more important right now, in this historical moment we are living through?
GLS: One thing that has become key is resilience — that flexibility and ability to adapt and think about how as a family, we are going to navigate this and how we can include kids in the discussion in a developmentally appropriate way. When we bring children into the conversation, we give them a sense of meaning and accomplishment. They get this feeling that we are doing something together as a family unit and that in turn protects them against feeling hopeless and promotes a sense of personal power and effectiveness when so much can feel out of their control.
Another important skill is finding and creating joy together. There’s a lot of things that maybe we didn’t get to do, like go on trips to visit our family, but maybe we can do these other things instead to create daily happiness and meaning. I think that that sense of what you can do in the face of a lot of uncontrollable stress is an important way to foster resilience in adolescence.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez.