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Teens Affected by Parents’ Discrimination Experiences

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A new study led by Guadalupe Espinoza, Cal State Fullerton assistant professor of child and adolescent studies, reveals evidence of how teens are affected by the discrimination experiences of their parents.

Published in the journal Child Development in May, the study drew upon data collected from 344 Mexican and Mexican-American families from two public high schools in Los Angeles over the span of one year.

Parents and students reported on their discrimination experiences through questions, such as “How often has someone yelled a racial slur or insult at you?” and “How often has someone ignored or excluded you from some activity because of your ethnic background?”

The ninth- and tenth-grade students reported on four areas of psychological adjustment, including internalizing problems, such as anxiety and depression; self-esteem; externalizing problems, such as aggression; and substance use. They also reported on the frequency of ethnic socialization messages they received from their parents, including cultural socialization, preparation for bias and promotion of mistrust.

“What we found is that high levels of discrimination among parents, along with frequent discussions regarding culture, ethnicity and discrimination, were related to the most negative impact on self-esteem for youth across time,” said Espinoza.

The study, “Parent Discrimination Predicts Mexican-American Adolescent Psychological Adjustment 1 Year Later,” was co-authored by Nancy A. Gonzales from Arizona State University and Andrew J. Fuligni of UCLA.

“If we just look at cultural socialization itself, that’s a positive factor for youth. It’s related to higher levels of self-esteem, lower levels of internalizing and lower levels of externalizing,” said Espinoza. “There’s something about the combination of parents experiencing discrimination and having discussions with their children about race and ethnicity that is related to lower self-esteem for youth.”

Researchers did not find a correlation between parents’ discrimination experiences and teens’ externalizing symptoms or substance use.

“You might expect that if your parent gets discriminated against, that you might display external problems in some ways,” said Espinoza. “It was surprising that we didn’t find that link, and it’s worth looking into more.”

At a time when culture, race, ethnicity and discrimination are part of a national conversation, Espinoza says it is important to better understand the nuanced ways in which they affect adolescents.

“The study helps us further understand the impact of discrimination, and it helps us understand it within the context of family,” she said. “It also shows some of the complexity of discrimination — the fact that even if it’s happening to one person in the family, it can have lasting effects on other family members.”

While her primary research interests include Latino adolescent development, bullying and cyberbullying, Espinoza says the discrimination study has broadened her perspective on how to better integrate these areas of study.

“There hasn’t been a lot of cross-conversation between discrimination and bullying research,” she said. “That’s something I’m interested in looking at in my future studies: When asking adolescents about their bullying experiences, asking them more specific questions regarding whether they perceive that the bullying was due to their ethnicity or race.”

Much of Espinoza’s research is directly applicable to discussions with her “Age 9 Through Adolescence” and “Adolescence and Early Adulthood” classes at Cal State Fullerton.

“I love being able to bring these findings into the classroom and to have discussions about these topics,” said Espinoza. “A lot of students in our child and adolescent studies major want to be teachers, so it’s important that they be attuned to the impact that discrimination and bullying may have on their students.”