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Immigration stressors in pre-K: What we might be missing

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

A young child sitting on an adult woman's lap.
A young child and his caregiver.

From threat of family separation to a compromised sense of safety and more, children in immigrant households face unique stressors shaped by ever-changing immigration policy and enforcement. With one in four U.S.-born children having an immigrant parent, scholars have made significant strides demonstrating the explicit links between immigration stress and the well-being of adolescents, especially those from communities of color. But how are young children affected?

Today, we are eager to share an article written by our colleagues at the Center for Early Childhood Health & Development, led by assistant professor R. Gabriela Barajas-Gonzalez, PhD, that adds a critical perspective to this growing body of work: how parents with pre-K children experience immigration-related stress due to an anti-immigrant sociopolitical climate, and how that stress is associated with pre-K children’s well-being. This article was published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, and has been highlighted in various media outlets, including Los Angeles Times, Salud America and La Opinión (the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the U. S.).

The study found that, while immigrant parents of all races and ethnicities reported greater perceived immigration threat to their family and children than U.S-born parents, Latinx families were most affected. This is unsurprising, the authors theorize, given how Latinx families have been uniquely affected and targeted by the xenophobic sociopolitical climate of recent years, including changes in immigration policies in 2017, racist anti-immigrant rhetoric, and increased immigration enforcement activity. Their study found direct associations with pre-K children’s well-being, including child separation anxiety, over-anxious behaviors, and attention issues.

Notably, pre-K parents who perceived higher immigration threat reported their children had lower self-regulation (i.e. an individual’s management of attention, emotion, and stress in ways that facilitate executive function) – but, when those same children were evaluated by independent assessors at school, they showed high self-regulation. Drawing upon previous literature, Barajas-Gonzalez and co-authors again found this unsurprising, stating that children may learn to behave differently in and outside of their home to remain “under the radar” as a form of protection.

In other words, pre-K children may not show immigration-related fears in overt ways at school, and thus their anxiety may go undetected. As the authors write, “Educators and healthcare providers working with young children from immigrant and Latinx households should be aware of the disproportionate stress experienced by immigrant and Latinx families.”

Read the full article: “Parental Perceived Immigration Threat and Children’s Mental Health, Self-Regulation and Executive Functioning in Pre-Kindergarten” in American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, by R. Gabriela Barajas-Gonzalez, Alexandra Ursache, Dimitra Kamboukos,

Keng-Yen Huang, Spring Dawson-McClure, Anya Urcuyo, Tiffany June Jay Huang,

and Laurie Miller Brotman.

Cindy Gray is a ParentCorps Educator.

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