Teens are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression when their parents have been recent targets of discrimination. These mental health problems may become even worse if parents use this experience to teach their children to mistrust other ethnicities, according to a new study of Mexican-American families by researchers at California State University, Fullerton, Arizona State University, and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
On the other hand, when parents who have been discriminated against are able to discuss these issues with their teens in a more positive light — such as focusing on ethnic heritage and history and not discussing mistrust or fear — it can significantly reduce harm to their teens’ mental health.
“Incidents of discrimination have implications for the family as a whole, not just the individual who experienced them,” said Guadalupe Espinoza, assistant professor of child and adolescent studies at California State University, Fullerton, who led the study.
“Such incidents continue to reverberate even a year later. Parents should be aware that the messages they convey about their own cultural group, but also about other cultural groups, will play a role in shaping their children’s reactions to those experiences.”
For the study, the researchers gave two surveys across a one-year span to 344 high school students in Los Angeles (ages 14 to 16 and mostly low-income) from primarily second-generation Mexican or Mexican-American families as well as their parents or primary caregivers (mostly mothers).
The young people were asked about their mental health issues, including whether or not they had internalized problems (anxiety, depression) externalized problems (aggression or acting out), low self-esteem, or used substances.
They also were asked about their experiences with discrimination and how often their parents talked to them about culture, race and ethnicity, discrimination, being prepared for bias, and mistrusting members of other ethnic groups.
The parents and caregivers also reported how often they find themselves experiencing discrimination (being ignored or excluded due to ethnicity, and being the target of a racial slur or racial insult).
The findings show that experiences of discrimination among parents and caregivers were related to lower feelings of self-esteem and greater internalizing problems among teens a year later, the researchers found. However, no link was found between parents’ experiences with discrimination and externalizing problems or substance use among the adolescents.
Furthermore, when parents made efforts to discuss with their teens their culture and ethnic background, and in particular made efforts to teach about ethnic heritage and history, the emotional outcomes among teens were more positive. Specifically, teens had higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of both internalizing and externalizing problems.
On the other hand, when parents who had experienced discrimination talked to their children about culture, race, and ethnicity, but in a more fearful way, such as discussing discrimination, being prepared for bias, and mistrusting members of other ethnic groups, the teens reported lower self-esteem.
Self-esteem was lowest when parents had been discriminated against talked to their children about mistrusting other ethnic groups — for example, when parents said things to “keep [teens] from trusting kids from other ethnic groups” or to encourage them to “keep their distance from kids of other ethnicities.”
“It may be difficult for parents to shield their adolescents from threats to their self-esteem when they themselves have been recent victims of discrimination,” said co-author Nancy A. Gonzales Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University.
“Parents’ efforts to instill a positive sense of cultural identity are very important, but can be undermined or even sensitize adolescents to feel more threatened when they are aware that their parents are experiencing discrimination.”
The findings are published in the journal Child Development.