Bicultural Stress and Drinking in Hispanic Immigrant Teens

Immigrating to the U.S. is the dream of many people throughout the Hispanic world, but once arrived, immigrants often struggle. Hispanic immigrants, especially young people, face a lot of pressures and difficulties in this country. For adolescents, the pressure of bicultural stress can be overwhelming. They face pressure from their parents and other older relatives to remember their heritage, and yet they also feel immense pressure to fit in with their new American peers. Recent research shows that, unsurprisingly, this stress can lead to an increased risk of substance abuse.

What Is Bicultural Stress?

Young Hispanics in America live within two cultures. At home and among family members they may be expected to adhere to the culture of their country of origin. In school and in other situations outside the home, they are pressured to fit into American culture. The need to adapt to both cultures can create difficulties. We call this bicultural stress. Adult immigrants may also feel bicultural stress, but it is amplified in teens and adolescents. Being able to utilize cultural traditions from two sources can be a benefit in many ways, but for most Hispanic teens it is more often difficult to be a part of both cultures. Switching from one to the other can be challenging and stressful. Just one simple example is that of language. Many teens must speak both English and Spanish. They use English all day at school and with their peers, but then are expected to switch back to Spanish at home. Adult immigrants make cultural transitions slowly, but young people have to do it quickly and have to change between two cultures quickly.

Youth Study on Bicultural Stress and Drinking

To investigate how bicultural stress impacts Hispanic youth, a recent study from the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences surveyed over 300 adolescents in Los Angeles and Miami. The young people involved in the study had immigrated within the previous five years. The researchers surveyed them twice a year for three years to see how bicultural stress changed and how it affected their behavior and well-being. The results of the survey and analysis of the data proved that bicultural stress is a troubling problem. The teens experienced confusion about their identities and felt pressure to fit into two different worlds. This pressure and stress led to alcohol abuse in many of the young people. Alcohol is used as a coping mechanism and as a way to find relief from the stress. Being a teen is already difficult, and it is a time during which we develop our personal identities. To add bicultural stress to that process is clearly damaging. The researchers found that it significantly impacted the ability of these young people to solidify an identity. Without a clear vision of identity, the teens are particularly vulnerable to the pressures of peers already engaging in risky behaviors, such as drinking. In other words, Hispanic teens, due to bicultural stress, are more easily swayed to drink because of a weak sense of identity. This new information about how bicultural stress affects young Hispanics is important. It should inform educators, parents and health professionals who are responsible for helping young people. For instance, prevention programs that involve Hispanic teens need to take into account the ways that bicultural stress disrupts identity formation. If programs can focus on the importance of developing a strong sense of identity, they will be more effective in helping young immigrants resist the pressure to start drinking or recover from alcohol use.

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