In the Doorway:
The Ins and Outs of Childhood Immigration and its Effects on Development in Young Adults
Joanna Symeou, PsyD
For many immigrant students, college is seen as a gift. As a therapist for many of these students, I often see them studying hard, feeling motivated to succeed. Along with motivation comes gratitude for the risks their parents took and sacrifices they made to offer their children a better life. Students whose parents are undocumented or have endured significant struggles in their journey as immigrants, often also carry the burden of guilt associated with their own privilege, opportunity, and potential success, in relation to their parents’ more restricted lives.
Many of my patients’ parents who left their home countries as young adults 20-30 years ago have faced long-term immigration-related challenges of legal, cultural, and linguistic nature, limiting their occupational and financial lives and complicating relationships with their children. Some parents remain undocumented for years; some rely on their children for translation, financial support, and as a means of obtaining a green card. Such role reversal is common in immigrant families and can lead to feelings of parental disempowerment and shame. The chronic aggravation of these immigration-related complications is only amplified by the current President’s Administration which further destabilizes and jeopardizes the very ground beneath the immigrants’ feet. For example, my patient’s father was detained at the airport on his journey back to the US after a short trip to their country of origin. He was held and questioned for hours despite having a green card. The stress of this experience led to a physical illness: days later, he experienced chest pain, and the family now fears for his physical health as well as his immigration status. This lack of security is subtly conveyed by the following Nayyirah Waheed poem from her collection Salt. Other poems from this collection are also scattered throughout this text.
you broke the ocean in half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you.
Immigrant students often feel pressure to excel and have a decreased tolerance for academic difficulties. Time and time again I hear things like: “If I don’t get an A, I am a failure. My family went through so much to get me to where I am now, I cannot mess this up. If I fail, I will be disappointing my family.” When immigrant students struggle academically, the feeling of shame can be immense. It is not the failure alone that brings this feeling, but it is the idea of letting down the generations that came before, disappointing all those who paved the way for the current opportunities in the student’s life. As one of my Chinese-American patients expressed, the pressure often does not come from the family, but from a place within oneself.
In her famous book Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola-Estes tells the story of a dream she once had:
I once dreamt I was telling stories and felt someone patting my foot in encouragement. I looked down and saw that I was standing on the shoulders of an old woman who was steadying my ankles and smiling up at me.
I said to her, “No, no, come stand on my shoulders for you are old and I am young.” “No, No,” she insisted. “This is the way it is supposed to be.”
I saw that she stood on the shoulders of a woman far older than she, who stood on the shoulders of a woman even older, who stood on the shoulders of… (1992, p. 19),
The list goes on. This dream illustrates the premise that we are where we are today because of those who came before us. Although this premise can apply to anyone, I believe there is a heightened intensity to the sense of oneself in relation to other generations, specifically, in immigrant families. This dream also reveals the importance of story-telling within communities.
In the immigrant family, there is a special significance given to the passing down of stories from one generation to the next. The act of ancestors telling stories of their lifetime can have profound psychological and spiritual impact on young adults. Through the personal content of these stories, as well as through the meaningful interpersonal process between the story-teller and the listener, between ancestor and descendant, the young adult can find one’s place within the family history, developing a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself.
My grandmother loves to tell me stories. On many occasions, I have sat with her as she told me about her childhood living in Kyrenia, a city which has been under Turkish occupation along with the entire northern region of Cyprus since 1974. There, my grandmother remembered the excitement of going to school and the joy of playing in the streets with her sister and friends. With both happiness and sadness, she described the outings to the marina, eating ice cream and dancing to the sounds of music coming from the tavernas. The death of her mother at a young age was followed by years of grief, poverty, and sacrifice. As a young woman, she was presented with the photograph of an interested suitor who was living in London. This photograph and the offer that came with it symbolized hope and the potential for a brighter future. She gathered her belongings into a suitcase and boarded a ship, leaving behind her younger sister and her home. My grandmother was afraid of her uncertain path, but she was also brave and determined to turn her life around. And she did, paving the way not only for herself, but also for her sister and the future generations of their families.
Through the sharing of stories, young adults can develop a deeper understanding of the other as well as a stronger sense of self. As we know, the quality of our relations with each other, particularly our early and ongoing relations with people who have a significant presence in our lives, plays an integral role in the development of self-esteem. As Harry Stack Sullivan said, human beings exist in relation to each other, and personality develops within this interpersonal context. Story-telling is one vehicle through which the young person gathers data, identifying with or differentiating oneself from others, developing agency to make choices that reflect his or her own life goals, desires, and values. The emerging adult years (age 18 into the early twenties) are a particularly important period for young immigrants because it is during this time that they are often in the crux of developing their identity.
In Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, adolescents form a sense of their identity within their social environment as a result of their explorations of beliefs, values, and goals. The idea of exploration is also a systemic and relational one in the sense that we can only explore what is available to us through others, culture, and circumstances of our environment. In my patients, identity development often continues into the emerging adult years, because migration can significantly impact the process and pace of psychosocial development.
According to Erikson’s theory, relationships with peers become more important to children between ages 5 and 12. In this stage, children also start to engage in activities that are valued by society, developing a sense of pride and self-esteem through their achievements. Many of my patients migrated with their families during this crucial period. Changing country, culture, language, and school at this time can impact the formation of friendships, confidence, and identity. In the new environment, the child feels insecure and different. I believe that compensatory factors and adjustment support (such as language support, inclusion in athletic or creative peer groups) can facilitate psychosocial development, but identity and personality are inevitably shaped by the experience of migration.
Young adults who migrated as children carry with them a sense of being different from their environment. As adolescents, they often have difficulty fitting in with peers and find solace in isolation. In college, they are once again faced with this feeling of “newness.” They face the dilemma of challenging themselves to find their place, or to continue living in the dubious comfort of isolation. For undocumented students, the difference between themselves and their peers is all the more real. Exploring and forming one’s own identity is an integral part of self-development and happens within the context of the person’s life. Therefore, young immigrant identity is influenced by both the culture of origin and the culture of the current country. Moving away from traditional cultural norms can often be felt distancing or disconnecting from the family, which further complicates the development of a multicultural identity.
In her text “Seeking Home in the Foreign, Otherness and Immigration” Julia Beltsiou mentions the concept of “third-culture kids.” Various definitions of this concept have been offered over the years, but Beltsiou defines the term as “individuals who do not feel at home in either their parents’ home country or the country to which their family migrated” (2016, p. 98). For some of my patients, their relationship to their ethnic origin is often in a stage of bias and assumption based on their limited experience with people and aspects of their home culture. In these cases I make it clear that the sample they have had, often restricted to their family and perhaps a few neighbors, is a small one and perhaps not representative of all the possible ways to belong to that culture. My patients often do not explore their culture further, although I wonder if perhaps they retain a seed of curiosity that might germinate later on in their journey. For many immigrant young adults, the concurrent experiences of the parental culture and the US mainstream culture are felt as an uncomfortable in-betweenness. They often feel belonging to neither of the two cultures and confused in their sense of identity. For example, a Bengali student remembers very little of his life in Bangladesh or “BD” as he often calls it, revealing both affection for and disconnect from his motherland. For this student, his identity is “somewhere in the middle,” as he says, hovering between Bengali and American. For those who migrated as young children, then, the connection to the motherland is unquestionably present, yet eerily vague, like a shadow lurking in the distance.
A third neutral place, physical or symbolic, can offer neutrality and the potential for freedom to be oneself, whatever that “self” may be. One patient repeatedly expresses that she is “sacrificing her personal liberty” in her current life as a young Egyptian immigrant in New York, living with her traditional and strict family. Two of my patients (one Mexican and the other Indian) speak of moving to Canada hoping to find themselves there. Having just one or two friends or relatives in Canada, makes this country just familiar enough to be a potential new home for these young women. As Beltsiou notes, “leaving home for a place far away opens up potential space to experience ourselves in a new way,” (2016, p. 98). These young women feel somewhat disconnected from their mother cultures as well as from their environments in New York. They both find solace and a sense of home and connection through Korean pop music, a product of a third foreign culture. Similarly, a young man finds his own neutral territory in art, where he can freely express himself and make visible the complexity of the conflicts and emotions he carries within; or a Vietnamese woman finds a sense of belonging in a group of people who share a love for fantasy fiction. The internet is often used as a neutral space through which to connect and make friends; many of my patients speak of their “online friends” from other states or countries.
can we speak in flowers.
it will be easier for me to understand.
Similarly, the therapy room is also experienced as a neutral territory. Even within this neutral space, guilt has a strong presence, especially in the beginning of the therapeutic process. Immigrant students often feel guilty talking about their experiences with the family, feeling that they are dishonoring it by sharing their personal story. Throughout the therapy, my patients use the space symbolically and physically to grapple with the internalized forces of judgment, restriction, and guilt, while they concurrently try to explore and develop themselves more freely. When they go out into the world, they explore other neutral spaces, such as diverse school environments, where they can continue to navigate through their internal conflicts.
The experience of my patient B., a young Pakistani-American woman, illustrates this struggle. B. had been invited by a peer to attend an event in her college, and she was excited to go. When she arrived at the event, she became nervous about entering the room where the event was held and stood at the door until it ended. In a sense, she was both there and not there, half in - half out. She had found her place in the doorway. This is where she felt most comfortable, yet also uncomfortable. We explored together the meaning of this. “What were you nervous about?” I asked. “I was afraid I would disturb them.” Consciously she was fully aware of the seeming absurdity of this thought. The event was open to all. Everyone was welcome.
As I was writing this paper I remembered that a few days before, I had noticed a huge sign in the entrance of the school, saying: “Refugees Welcome Here.” Although B. is not a refugee, but a woman of color and an immigrant, I wondered just how welcome she truly felt at that event, in this school, in this country. I wondered how at home she truly felt in her family, in her house. I remembered that her older brother had been sleeping in the living room for most of his life, using space that he could not claim as his own. The experience of this young man is not uncommon in immigrant families who live in the same house for many years and outgrow the available space. I am also reminded that this feeling of “disturbing” others is not foreign to me. I am forced to remember my own experiences of standing in doorways, being on the fence, feeling different, unwelcome, foreign in some way, and struggling to feel that I belong.
As we pondered her thoughts and their meanings, B. shared her feelings of being trapped, of not having the freedom to live her life in a way in which she desires. She wept as she thought about the restrictions imposed by her parents, and the hours she spent working every week to pay for her tuition, leaving almost no time for extracurricular involvement. She reflected on all the internship applications she submitted that had been denied. In the moment of standing in that doorway, she was not just a student hesitating attending an event. She was a young immigrant in this country, a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient, an atheist in a religious family, a somewhat Americanized young woman of traditional immigrant parents, standing at the threshold of her new life. Standing and watching this event from a distance, grappling with the idea of having the freedom to go inside. I said to her: “In so many areas of your life you feel trapped. I wonder in that moment if…” She smiled and finished the sentence: “If I trapped myself!” She laughed as patients often do in the moment of a freeing realization. In that moment, B. was able to embrace her agency. The idea and the reminder that, in some moments of her life, she is, indeed, free to act was a welcome and most invigorating one.
For young immigrants, the grounding presence of what Donald Winnicott called “the good-enough parent” can provide a basis from which to launch into the unknown. On the most basic level, having a good relationship with your parents means that you have one less significant thing to worry about. Conversely, insecure attachments and problematic parent-child relationships often lead to emotional insecurity, fear, and lack of confidence and make every life challenge much harder.
my mother was
my first country.
The first place I ever lived.
The following cases illustrate the interaction between migration-related and attachment- related influences on young adults. M., is a young woman who was born in Mexico and moved to New York at the age of seven with her mother. Her relationship with her mother is problematic. M. grew up isolated, feeling different, with few friends and little self-confidence. She has minimal contact with her father, and most interactions with her mother are abusive. For M., her mother-figure is her great-aunt who lives in Mexico. The separation from this great-aunt is a painful one. M. thinks of her daily, and feels connected to her through the distance that physically separates them. Although the motherland is always close to her heart, M. feels that New York is the place where she can truly thrive as a student and the young professional woman that she wishes to be. The long-term abusive presence of her mother and the absence of the grounding, protective presence of her great-aunt, however, colors M.’s relationship to her surroundings. Although M. believes that New York is an exciting place to learn and grow, she faces internal struggles in finding her sense of agency, security, and belonging.
Another patient, P., was brought to the US as a baby from the Dominican Republic. She identifies as American and feels little connection to her birth country. P. is outgoing and has a number of solid interests and friends. However, P. speaks of living “in limbo” with a feeling of insecurity and discomfort in relationships that perhaps stems from her experience of being in limbo within a divided family, having little connection to either parent. In addition to feeling inherently insecure in her position in the family, P. also differs culturally from her parents on views concerning womanhood. When her parents criticize her clothing and comment on her behavior as insufficiently feminine, it does not only signify a cultural difference, but also feels to P. as another form of rejection. Being in immigration limbo as a DACA recipient surely adds to this feeling of overarching insecurity, especially under the current political circumstances. My therapeutic work with P. explores this feeling. Paradoxically, it also resides within the realm of limbo, as neither she nor I know where it will lead us.
Cultural differences and disconnect between parents and children in immigrant families can also influence their relationship without necessarily shaking the core quality of the attachment. For young adult immigrants who live with their families, cultural differences between parents and children are present and palpable within the small space of the home. As young adults begin to acculturate in ways that their parents cannot, tension and rifts between the two generations create estrangement within the family. For the parents, the family often comprises what remains of their culture, of their home country. Thus, accepting intergenerational cultural difference can mean great loss.
i am trying to remember you
let you go
at the same time.
- The mourn
A., brought to the US as a young child from Pakistan, differs culturally from her parents and can identify these differences with logic and insight. A. differs significantly from her parents in views of what it means to be a woman (what is expected of her from a traditional perspective conflicts with her identity and desires for her own life). However, A. still feels an inherent sense of love, security, and belonging in the family. This feeling, however, is endangered when she is faced with threats from her parents that undermine this connection, such as: “If you do this we will disown you; if you do that you will no longer be a part of this family.” Nevertheless, A. continues to feel loved and is logically able to “see where they are coming from” as she says in almost every session. A. has heard stories about how her parents met each other, their relationship history, and their individual lives before they married. Knowing the socioeconomic and cultural context of her parents’ choices helps A. to develop a deeper understanding of them and of herself within the context of her own life. Increasing communication with her family members has helped A. to develop an understanding of her parents’ views, which, in turn, has led to the dilution of her anxiety about disappointing and disobeying them. Understanding the chronic insecurity and anxiety of her parents, who have been living in the US as undocumented immigrants for many years, she is able to empathize with their expectations of her, seeing their actions from the perspective of their deep concern, care, and love for her. Hearing stories from her mother and siblings and then sharing these stories as well as her own story with me, she has moved away from feeling trapped, a place of self-punishment, guilt, and thoughts of suicide, to a position of increased self-acceptance and a sense of freedom.
A.’s courage also seems to have triggered a corresponding change within her mother, who appears to be inspired to discover her own freedom, as she now explores options that were previously too terrifying to acknowledge. As Pinkola-Estes writes, “the daughter’s search for identity may even inaugurate the mothers ‘maiden’ journey for her lost self at last” (1992, p.193).
As I argue in this paper, working with young adult immigrants, who came to the US as children, is a complex process, requiring attention to culture, family dynamics, attachments, intergenerational influences, and coping and defense mechanisms. With attunement, analytic attitude, genuine connection, and the provision of a neutral, growth-enhancing space, the young adults can recover sufficiently from their depressive and anxious symptoms, developing a sense of identity, confidence, and connectedness.
Beltsiou, J. (2016) Home in the Foreign, Otherness and Immigration, in J. Beltsiou, (Ed.), Immigration in Psychoanalysis, Locating Ourselves (pp. 89-108). New York: Routledge.
Pinkola-Estes, C. (1992) Women who Run with the Wolves. New York: Ballantine Books.
Dr. Joanna Symeou is a licensed clinical psychologist living in New York. She is of Greek-Cypriot origin, born in the UK and raised in both London and Cyprus. Joanna has experience in psychotherapy, assessment, teaching, organizational consultation, and supervision. She has worked in a variety of settings including college counseling, substance abuse treatment, the Greek Cypriot National Guard, and private practice. Her professional interests include the mind/body connection and psychoanalysis. Joanna works primarily with young adults and is committed to serving clients of immigrant, minority, and marginalized backgrounds. Joanna can be contacted at email@example.com