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“I Don’t Understand My Children”: Addressing Acculturation Stress in Latino Families

Frustrated Latino parents with teenage son

By Carmen Valdez, PhD (Member, APA Committee on Children, Youth, and Families)

When many Latino immigrant parents say, “I don’t understand my children!” they are often using the statement literally and figuratively. Many Latino immigrant parents experience a break down in family communication because they only speak Spanish and their children only speak English.  The inability to communicate about day-to-day experiences, such as school and friends, and about important family conversations, often leaves family members feeling emotionally disconnected and misunderstood. Moreover, when children’s experiences go unspoken, parents are less able to monitor their children’s activities and to support them during difficult times (D’Angelo et al., 2009).

This issue took center stage during a group therapy session I recently led with Latino immigrant mothers with depression. I asked mothers to reflect on how they talk to their children about depression. One mother reported a block in her communication with her 13-year old son because of their language difference, which also keeps them from talking about daily experiences. I followed up with the question, “if you spoke the same language, what would you like to tell him?” She thought about it for a few seconds and then with tears rolling down her face responded, “I would tell him that I love him and that I hope he forgives me for all the mistakes I’ve made as a mother.” This poignant story highlights that as psychologists, we need to better understand the impact of language, and even cultural parent-child differences, on the psychological health of immigrant families.

How do families get to the point of blocked communication due to these language barriers? One explanation is acculturation and acculturative stress.  Children learn to speak English at a faster pace than their parents and have more contexts in which they speak English than their parents (Portes & Rumbaut, 2006). Parents see their children’s command of English at a young age as an asset because it helps the family access resources more readily when a family member, albeit a child, speaks English.

However, over time, this type of language brokering leads to role-reversals in which children have more power than their parents. In addition, many children lose the Spanish they also grew up speaking at an early age, and with the language, many of their families’ traditions and practices (Falicov, 2003). By adolescence, many children have internalized the values of the host culture, also at a faster pace than their parents. This cultural and linguistic dissonance between parents and children has been associated with family conflict, decreased parental authority, and psychological distress for both children (Driscoll & Torres, 2013) and parents (Prado et al., 2008; Valdez, Abegglen, & Hauser, 2013). Thus, acculturative stress in families, or stress associated with the different ways children and parents adapt to a new culture, compounds the usual parent-child conflict that often takes place during adolescence. This leads to significant family stress in immigrant families (Chapman & Perreira, 2005; Falicov, 2003)

What can we do as psychologists to help families affected by this type of acculturative stress? In our family intervention, Fortalezas Familiares (Family Strengths; Valdez, Abegglen et al., 2013; Valdez, Padilla, McArdell Moore, & Magaña, 2013), we:

  1. Help families gain awareness of acculturative stress by talking about social and cultural stressors in their environment.

  2. Engage family members in activities that help them gain perspective on what it is like for others in the family to live in the United States. This can best be accomplished by incorporating action-based strategies (e.g., enacting scenes) in family programs. Also see Smokowski and Bacallao (2011) for similar strategies.

  3. Search for strengths and assets in family traditions and cultural rituals so that family members feel connected to one another via their culture.

  4. Encourage positive family activities and experiences so that the family feels united and interested in shared goals.

  5. Search for other, potentially non-verbal, ways that lead to emotional connection, such as physical contact, acts of kindness, and shared time and routines.

  6. Build connections between parents and their children through family school and community involvement.

  7. Offer family-focused interventions that provide the space for all family members to have facilitated conversations about family life.

This blog post calls for prompt action on behalf of psychology to both understand and address acculturative stress in Latino families, a growing and vulnerable population. Yet, how to address these in a culturally grounded manner is still unclear. Thus, we need to continue the conversation by addressing the following questions:

  1. What are other ways psychologists can support families facing acculturative stress?

  2. How can psychologists differentiate acculturative stress from usual parent-child conflict?

  3. What other family programs deal with this issue?

  4. What does acculturative stress look like in other immigrant groups?


Chapman, M. V. & Perreira, M. V. (2005). The well being of immigrant Latino youth: A framework to inform practice. Families in society, 86, 104-111.

D’Angelo, E. J., Llerena-Quinn, R., Shapiro, R., Colon, F., Rodriguez, P., Gallagher, K., & Beardslee, W. R. (2009). Adaptation of the Preventive Intervention Program for depression for use with predominantly low-income Latino families. Family Process, 48, 269-291.

Driscoll, M. W., & Torres, L. (2013). Acculturative stress and Latino depression: The mediating role of behavioral and cognitive resources. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, Advance Publication. doi: 10.1037/a0032821

Falicov, C. J. (2003). Immigrant family processes. In F. Walsh (Ed.), Normal family processes (pp. 280-300). New York: Guilford Press.

Prado, G., Szapocznik, J., Maldonado-Molina, M. M., & Schwartz, S. J., & Pantin, H. (2008). Drug use/abuse prevalence, etiology, prevention, and treatment in Hispanic adolescents: A cultural perspective. Journal of Drug Issues, 38, 5-37. doi:10.1177/002204260803 800102

Smokowski, P. R., & Bacallao, M. (2011). Becoming bicultural: Risk, resilience, and Latino youth. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Valdez, C. R., Padilla, B., Moore, S. & Magaña, S. (2013). Feasibility, acceptability, and preliminary outcomes of the Fortalezas Familiares intervention for Latino families facing maternal depression. Family Process, 52, 394–410. doi: 10.11/famp.12033

Valdez, C. R., Abegglen, J., & Hauser, C. (2013). Fortalezas Familiares Program: Building sociocultural and family strengths in Latina women with depression and their families. Family Process, 52, 378–393. doi: 10.11/famp.12008


Carmen R. Valdez, PhD, is an Associate Professor in Counseling Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a member of the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Children, Youth and Families. Dr. Valdez is committed to improving the psychological well-being of Latino families. Her research (a) examines the role of sociocultural stressors on families’ lives, and in turn on child development, and (b) seeks to address the needs of multi-stressed families through culturally-grounded interventions. Her community-based intervention, Fortalezas Familiares, is intended to support Latino families who are dealing with maternal depression.

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