[Individual articles from the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
All families with children probably experience delicate tensions as the children become teenagers, with subtle struggles for power unfolding between parents and their adolescent children. For resettled refugee families (or newcomer families), the immersion in a new culture, language, norms and values exacerbates those challenges. When a newcomer family has experienced forced migration, the challenges are even greater. Agencies tasked with resettling refugees must attend to the impact of resettlement on family dynamics, especially on relationships between parents and their adolescent children.
Newcomer families often experience a shift in power dynamics within their family units. Youth are immersed in mainstream culture, language, norms and values through their participation in school. As such, they quickly become masters of their new environment. Parents, in contrast, typically have less exposure to the new cultural context, while also holding deeper connections to their native cultural contexts. They therefore not surprisingly often adapt more slowly to their new environment than their teenaged children. This contrast in adjustment periods lends itself to the scales of power being tipped in favor of the youth.
One way this power shift plays out is in language acquisition. Teenage newcomers’ developed language abilities often place them in the role of translator and cultural navigator for their parents. Parents might rely on their teenaged children at doctor’s appointments, school meetings, interpretation of government documents and more, placing newcomer children in a position of both responsibility for and power over their parents. The pressure of added responsibility experienced by resettled refugee youth can exacerbate familial tensions. It can also lead to awkward family dynamics. For example, children may be put in a position of communicating a parent’s intimate health condition to medical professionals.
School is another place for integration struggles. For youth who have experienced forced migration, interrupted schooling has a significant impact on their ability to resettle. The Canadian school system aligns students’ ages with their grades, which can result in students’ grade placement conflicting with their school experience. A 16-year old who only completed grade 5 may be placed in a grade 10 classroom. Such young people understandably often experience feelings of isolation and frustration at their difficulty in adapting to the curriculum and the expectations of educators and peers. As a result, newcomer youth sometimes become vulnerable to participating in destructive behaviors.
A further point of tension arises from conflict between the values held by newcomer students’ families and the values espoused by schools and service providers. Zeinab (not her real name), a young woman in high school whose family had recently resettled in Winnipeg after fleeing war in Somalia, was delighted to find out that she made the high school basketball team. Teachers and support workers at the local community center celebrated with her and encouraged her to pursue this extracurricular activity. In their eyes, this represented an opportunity for Zeinab to develop friendships and find her place in the new school environment. Zeinab’s mother, however, did not approve of this activity. As a single mother with three young children at home, she needed Zeinab’s help after school. Zeinab, feeling frustrated and confused at the diverging opinions of trusted adults in her life, soon began sneaking away from home to play basketball. When her mother challenges her behavior, Zeinab threatens to call 911.
Newcomer mothers and fathers cite feelings of a loss of authority in parenting their teenage children. The child protection policies meant to strengthen families in Canada can be misunderstood by parents and misused by youth. Stories of government authorities removing children from their homes circulate within newcomer communities—children’s threats in the heat of an argument with their parents to call an emergency helpline incites fear into newcomer parents and simultaneously strips them of their confidence to enforce boundaries or expectations. This shift in power dynamics within resettled refugee families can also lead to greater vulnerability of newcomer youth to engaging in destructive actions.
Organizations working with newcomers seek to strengthen newcomer family bonds during these times of stress. In Winnipeg, the General Child and Family Services Authority seeks to combat fears associated with their services within the newcomer community. The Authority developed and circulated a video resource among newcomer-serving agencies to familiarize newcomer parents with Manitoba’s child welfare system and parenting rights, responsibilities and laws and to facilitate dialogue, break down barriers and support newcomer families in their transition to life in Canada. Organizations supporting resettled refugee youth in Winnipeg provide programming that facilitates relationship building between parents and their children, such as the Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services (NEEDS) Centre’s Mentorship Program, which pairs newly arrived refugee youth and their families with a Canadian-resident mentor. Field trips to local events and activities allow parents and youth to interact in a neutral environment and create positive memories together.
The changing power dynamics experienced by resettled refugee families can produce considerable strain on the family unit. By supporting parent-youth relationships, service providers are laying a foundation for newcomer family success and simultaneously mitigating the vulnerability of newcomer youth to increased participation in destructive behaviors.
Katie Froese is MCC Manitoba International Volunteer Exchange Program coordinator. She has worked with resettled refugee youth at NEEDS Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Fast, Matt. “Making a Way When There is No Way: The Experiences and Challenges of Gang Affected Young Adult Refugees in Winnipeg.” Master’s thesis, University of Manitoba, 2013. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/1993/22126
General Child and Family Services Authority. “Sounds through the Wall.” Video available at http://www.generalauthority.ca/sounds-through-wall.
Rezania, Shahrokh. “Refugee Fathers in a New Country: The Challenges of Cultural Adjustment and Raising Children in Winnipeg, Canada.” Master’s thesis, University of Manitoba, 2015. Available at http://needsinc.ca/asset_library/page/yktt/RefugeeFathersInANewCountry.pdf.