Ego Identity and Perceived Family Functioning: Comparing At-Risk Native-Born and Immigrant Ethiopian Adolescents in Israel

By Romi, Shlomo; Simcha, Getahun | Adolescence, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Ego Identity and Perceived Family Functioning: Comparing At-Risk Native-Born and Immigrant Ethiopian Adolescents in Israel


Romi, Shlomo, Simcha, Getahun, Adolescence


Two waves of Jewish immigration from Ethiopia arrived in Israel in the 1980s and early 1990s, bringing some 48,000 people, many of whom were children and adolescents (Schindler & Ribner, 1997; Central Bureau of Statistics, 1999; Itzhaky & Levy, 2002). Studies of this population in its native Ethiopia indicate that there were no at-risk adolescents in the community (Benita, Noam, & Levy, 1994; Naftali, 1994). In Ethiopia, the nuclear family was characterized by a clear, traditional division of roles between men and women, and a flexibility whereby members of the extended family assumed roles as necessary, at times functioning as parents. Adult children took their elderly parents into their homes and cared for them with devotion. Family boundaries were broad, and a large family was considered to be beneficial for the individual, especially in times of crisis (Bodowski, David, & Eran, 1990).

Conditions in Israel undermined this structure. For one, women left home to join the workforce, a change which often led to a deep crisis resulting in womamheaded households. In addition, children learned Hebrew before their parents did, an advantage that eroded parental authority. At the same time, adolescents faced the double challenge of their age-related developmental issues and the difficulties of immigration (Horowitz, 1989; Mirsky & Prawer, 1992; Cohen, 1993; Kozulin & Venger, 1993; Benita et al., 1994; Eisikovits & Beck, 1994).

Israeli Educational Frameworks for Ethiopian-born Adolescents

Upon arriving in Israel, most Ethiopian-born (EB) adolescents were sent to residential schools, a practice later criticized for creating conflict between the demands of the immigrant family and those of the school, entrenched in local social norms (Lehman, 1989). Residential schools, which were usually vocational, also hindered advancement as they did not provide the opportunity to matriculate, thus blocking the road to higher education (Naftali, 1994).

In examining the fieldwork, Lahav (1996) identified several factors that contribute to detachment and risk among EB adolescents in Israel: (1) Family problems. Many at-risk adolescents come from single-parent families (usually because one parent remained in Ethiopia or died), economically disadvantaged families, or families that are forced to relocate frequently, all in marked contrast to their situation prior to immigration; (2) Learning process. Upon arrival in Israel, EB children were placed in classes according to their age, regardless of previous schooling, and despite the discrepancy between their learning skills and Israeli requirements; (3) Culture and environment. EB adults face a gap between their tradition and the Western style adopted by adolescents, often leading to a communication crisis, lack of parents' ability to protect their children, and disagreement as to how to deal with life in Israel; (4) Integration into informal settings. EB adolescents are usually the minority in informal settings (e.g., community centers), resulting in feelings of exclusion and competition, or ignoring these settings, possibly turning to leisure activities which could involve loitering and perhaps criminal behavior; (5) Identity. The difficulties unique to immigration may exacerbate the natural adolescent conflicts in developing an ego identity (Erikson, 1964; Minuchin-Itzigsohn, 1989).

Ego Identity and Problematic Issues in Identity Formation among Ethiopian-born Adolescents

Ego identity is a key concept of Erikson's (1964, 1968, 1980) theory, and refers to a psychological construct composed of components or dimensions that are dynamically integrated and gradually change with age and experience. According to Erikson, the task of identity formation, or that of gaining a clear and coherent sense of knowing oneself and what one will be in life, is regarded as a normative developmental process influenced by personal and social contextual factors. …

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