Adolescence is a vulnerable time for a person of any ethnicity or immigration status. This is a time during which the brain is still developing and self-identity is forming. Young people have to make choices that can be conflicting, no matter the individual’s background. Behind every choice are the opposing forces of peer pressure or the desire to fit in and the need to do what is right or what fits with the developing sense of identity. For young immigrants, this time period is even more fraught with important and difficult choices. They feel the need to acculturate, to fit in with American peers and to maintain the values and traditions of their own ethnic cultures. This is called bicultural stress, and when it occurs during adolescence, it can put a young person at risk for making bad choices and engaging in risk-taking behaviors, like drinking. Drinking can also serve as a form of self-medication, a way to feel relief from the pressure of bicultural stress.
Bicultural Stress and Identity Formation
A recent study investigated self-identity and drinking among young Hispanic immigrants. Researchers from the University of Georgia regularly interviewed several hundred newly immigrated Hispanic youth for a period of three years. They found that the phenomenon of bicultural stress disrupted the normal process of creating a self-identity that all adolescents go through in their teenage years and early 20s. This disruption in developing a strong sense of self is what leads to risky behaviors, according to the study authors. This particular study examined drinking patterns and found that the teens were more likely to drink than their peers. Without a strong sense of self, these young immigrants were vulnerable to being swayed by those peers already engaging in risky behaviors, like drinking. The immigrant teens were also more likely to drink as a way of acting out because of the lack of self-identity. The participants in the study ranged in age from 14 to their early 20s, but the researchers found that peak drinking occurred between the ages of 18 and 20.
Older vs. Younger Immigrants
The study on immigrants, identity and drinking examined only young people because they have a very different experience in coming to the U.S. compared to older immigrants. Young Hispanic immigrants feel more pressure to acculturate in the U.S. than their older counterparts. They go to school, participate in extracurricular activities and make friends with greater diversity. Older immigrants may be more isolated and feel less pressure to fit in, especially if they are not working. They spend more time in the home with their families and close friends than do young immigrants. The bicultural stress that teenage immigrants experience is typically much more intense than anything adults feel.
Prevention and Awareness
The data regarding young Hispanic alcoholism rates is informative and helpful. While more research will better outline just how bicultural stress impacts young people, the message about identity and drinking is clear. Young immigrants are particularly vulnerable to making bad choices, and this means that they need better interventions. The researchers who led the current study hope that their work will help lead prevention and education programs to identify teens at risk for drinking and other dangerous behaviors. Schools and other community groups need to be aware of the risks these teens face, implementing programs for education, awareness and prevention, as well as providing education about treatment options for alcohol use. In doing so, many young people will avoid making choices that could negatively impact them for the rest of their lives.