The Unique Needs of Immigrant Children


Many who immigrate to the United States do so with the hope of securing a better life for their families and children. Consequently, in your role as an immigration evaluation therapist, you may receive requests to provide mental health assessments for immigrant children.

The stresses immigrant children may face can be wide-ranging and involve disruption to their families or education and the witnessing of traumatic events. These experiences can affect a child’s intellectual, social, emotional, and physical development.

Should you provide assessments for children in your practice, it is important to screen for two key experiences often faced by immigrant children—traumatic separation and acculturative stress.

Traumatic Separation

Being separated from one’s parent or primary caregiver can be extremely traumatic for a young child as such relationships are critical for developing a secure sense of safety and trust.

There are many reasons why an immigrant child may have been separated from their parent or primary caregiver. For instance, their parent or caregiver may have been incarcerated, deported, deployed in the military, or had their parental rights terminated (NCTSN, 2016). No matter the circumstances, the consequences of this separation for a child’s development tend to be more severe when the separation has occurred under frightening, sudden, chaotic, or prolonged circumstances (NCTSN, 2018).

A child suffering from traumatic separation may exhibit clinical symptoms that are similar to those of childhood traumatic grief. They may also exhibit posttraumatic responses, such as intrusive thoughts, difficulty concentrating (e.g., in school), behavioral changes (e.g., irritability), or changes in mood and self-image (NCTSN, 2016).

Acculturative Stress

Acculturative stress is another common challenge faced by immigrant children. Acculturative stress is the stress associated with adapting to a new culture, and it has been shown to negatively affect children’s psychological health (Rogers-Sirin et al., 2014). Multiple factors can contribute to children experiencing acculturative stress, including a family’s legal status, forced versus voluntary migration, and perceived discrimination. These factors can, in turn, contribute to conditions such as anxiety (Potochnick & Perreira, 2010).

Notably, first-generation immigrant children tend to draw on mental health support services at lower rates than second-generation immigrant children (American Academy of Pediatrics, n.d.), so it is all the more important to connect the families of these children to resources and support.

Supporting Immigrant Children

There are several ways you can look out for immigrant children experiencing traumatic separation or acculturative stress.

Guide Caregivers on Communication with Children

Encourage caregivers to enquire with children about their interpretation of their experiences using age-appropriate language. Remind caregivers that when they do not know all the answers (e.g., regarding the pending outcome of an immigration case), assuring the child that they will be kept up-to-date about unfolding events is important and can go a long way in providing reassurance to the child.

Sensitively Discuss Trauma and Acculturative Stress

When children are suffering due to ongoing stressors in a new culture or as a result of trauma (e.g., stemming from violence in the country of origin, abuse perpetrated by a former caregiver), it is important to start a dialogue about these experiences. In doing so, clinicians can assess these experiences’ impacts and help children gain mastery over them, such as by teaching coping strategies.

Encourage Connection and Identify Support Networks

Help the child to maintain connection and support networks by identifying adults in their communities they can turn to in times of need (e.g., pastors, family members, teachers).

Closing Thoughts

Being the first point of contact for a child to discuss their experience of traumatic separation or acculturative stress is a significant responsibility. As an immigration evaluation therapist, you have the opportunity to screen your young client appropriately and connect them to appropriate forms of support, so it is critical to be aware of strategies for facilitating discussion and supporting the family in meeting the child’s needs.

For more information and guidance, visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network for a range of useful resources and case studies.


American Academy of Pediatrics. (n.d.). Mental and Emotional Health.

Potochnick, S. R., & Perreira, K. M. (2010). Depression and anxiety among first-generation immigrant Latino youth: key correlates and implications for future research. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 198(7), 470-477.

Rogers-Sirin, L., Ryce, P., & Sirin, S. R. (2014). Acculturation, acculturative stress, and cultural mismatch and their influences on immigrant children and adolescents’ well-being. In R. Dimitrova, M. Bender, & F. V. D Vijver (Eds.), Global perspectives on well-being in immigrant families (pp. 11-30). Springer.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). (2016). Children with traumatic separation: Information for professionals [Fact sheet].

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). (2018). Traumatic separation and refugee and immigrant children: Tips for current caregivers [Fact sheet].

Cecilia Racine: Immigration Evaluation Therapist

I’m Cecilia Racine, and I teach therapists how to help immigrants through my online courses. As a bilingual immigrant myself, I know the unique perspective that these clients are experiencing. I’ve conducted over 500 evaluations and work with dozens of lawyers in various states. Immigrants are my passion, I believe they add to the fabric of our country.

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