Family Dynamics and the Teenage Immigrant: Creating the Self through the Parents' Image

Article excerpt

Much recent research on adolescence in the United States indicates that teenagers do not so much rebel at and break away from their social world as test out, try on, modify, and ultimately consolidate a variety of roles they play (Erikson, 1963; 1968). Despite the apprehension of adults watching in the wings, and the stress involved for youngsters making the decision of "who to be," as a rule most people navigate the transitions of their teen years with no undue hardships. Smooth transitions are particularly typical of teenagers who have supportive parents (or other significant adults) as guides and advisors (Offer, Ostroy, Howard, & Atkinson, 1988; Esman, 1990). Indeed, Ianni (1989, p. 75) contends that the family is the cornerstone on which the adolescent's formation of self is based, so that guidance from parents "is the first step in providing congruence and continuity for the adolescent transition and in developing the attachments which produce positive social bonds" (see also Hausner, 1991).

Cross-cultural and American-based research support Ianni's claim. While peer groups and adult institutions (such as schools, the workplace, and the military) have their impact on the identity-consolidation process, teenagers usually spend the greatest amount of time in their family households with family members (Schlegel & Barry, 1991; Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984). Studies of American teenagers show that the family is the strongest predictor not only of their school performance and professional aspirations, but of how they develop ego identity and a sense of self-esteem (Hollingshead, 1975; MacLeod, 1987; Hausner, 1991).

In light of the impressive amount of recent research in this area, it is surprising that the experiences of teenage immigrants have attracted so little attention (Looney, 1979; Aronowitz, 1984). Perhaps this is due to widely held assumptions about the nature of the teenage immigrant: On the one hand, teenagers who immigrate with their families are considered to be flexible, adaptable, able to absorb and transcend culture shock (Scott & Scott, 1989, p. 64) and thus serve as "good" cultural bridges between their parents and the host society (Johnston, 1972; Min, 1988). On the other hand, those who view both migration and adolescence as inherently stressful (e.g., Redl, 1969, p. 91) may portray teenage immigrants as potential or actual juvenile delinquents who are alienated from their parents and from the host society (Schermerhorn, 1949, pp. 472-473), and carve out an anti-social persona for themselves in a "bad" subgroup (Child, 1943; Whyte, 1943; Eisenstadt, 1950, 1951; Shoham, Shoham, & Abd-el Razek, 1966; Beauchesne & Esposite, 1981; Llaumett, 1984; Dinello, 1985; Minces, 1986). But virtually none of these studies specifically focuses on the structure and dynamics of the family units that supposedly serve as the cornerstone of these teenagers' identity development. (Some of the case studies (Mindel, Habenstein, & Wright, 1988; Galperin, 1988) are exceptions to this rule.) What do immigrant families look like, and what impact do they have in shaping the future of their teenagers?

This paper is a retrospective examination of the family dynamics of Soviet Jewish teenagers who arrived in the U.S. during the late 1970s. Its aim is to document and assess the effect of coming of age in transplanted households. How have families changed as a result of immigration? What messages do parents transmit to their adolescent children, and how do these teenagers interpret and act on them? It is hoped that the findings of this study will provide some insight into how "American success stories" are created in immigrant households--and, at what cost to the child.

METHOD

During my 1984-86 ethnographic research among Soviet Jewish emigres in New York, I was faced with two contrasting characterizations of immigrant teenagers: First, my own finding was that children of all ages are closely involved in their parents' social life. …