The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

The Influence of Intergenerational Trauma On the Psychological Adjustment of Cambodian Adolescents

Thursday, January 16, 2014: 5:00 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 003A River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Cindy C. Sangalang, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Purpose: Despite increased understanding of how the severity and magnitude of trauma has contributed to mental illness among first-generation Cambodian refugees in the U.S. (Marshall et al., 2005), few studies have explored how trauma may be linked to developmental outcomes in subsequent generations within this population. The body of research examining the intergenerational consequences of trauma indicates that parental trauma adversely affects family communication and parent-child relationships, thereby influencing child outcomes (Rowland-Klein & Dunlop, 1998; Nagata & Cheng, 2003; Eng, Muslow, Cleveland, & Hart, 2009). Research has noted that silence and lack of communication about past traumas is a common response among Cambodian survivors of war and genocide, which may present challenges for survivors’ children (Lin, Suyemoto, & Kiang, 2009). For ethnic and racial minority groups, the intergenerational effects of trauma are often accompanied by contemporary stressors such as racial microaggressions and discrimination (Walters et al., 2011; Chae & Walters, 2009). However, few studies have investigated how intergenerational trauma and contemporary stressors simultaneously influence psychological adjustment. The aim of this study was examine the influence of intergenerational trauma and contemporary discrimination experiences in a sample of Cambodian-origin adolescents.

Methods: Data were collected from 426 adolescents of Cambodian descent between the ages of 13 and 18 residing in California. Variables in this analysis included psychological distress, knowledge of family trauma (i.e. adolescent’s knowledge of family’s history and reasons for coming to the U.S.), maternal closeness (i.e. level of comfort and openness with one’s mother), ethnic identity, and perceived discrimination. Structural equation modeling (SEM) was used to simultaneously test the relationships among knowledge of family trauma, maternal closeness, ethnic identity, perceived discrimination and psychological distress. The comparative fit index (CFI) and root-mean-square error approximation (RMSEA) with a 90% confidence interval (CI) provided measures to evaluate model fit.   

Results: Results from SEM indicated the model provided a reasonable fit with the data (CFI=.972; RMSEA=.041, CI=.032, .049). Adolescents’ knowledge of family trauma was positively associated with maternal closeness (β=.15, p<.01) which was, in turn, negatively associated with psychological distress (β = -.15, p<.01). In addition, a separate path linked knowledge of family trauma with psychological distress via ethnic identity and perceived discrimination, such that great knowledge of family trauma increased ethnic identity (β = .23, p<.001) and perceived discrimination (β = .13, p<.05), which was, in turn, associated with psychological distress (β = .44, p<.001).

Implications: The findings provide novel evidence linking intergenerational trauma to psychological adjustment, highlighting the influences of parent-child relationships and contemporary stressors for adolescents of Cambodian descent. Interventions that support positive parent-child relationships and minimize stressors such as discrimination may serve as promising avenues for promoting mental health and well-being for adolescents within refugee families and others affected by intergenerational trauma.