Despite the increasing concerns about mental health of adolescents in immigrant families along with the increase in their population in the United States, little is known regarding how their acculturation experience contributes to their mental health problems. Segmented assimilation theory suggests that dissonant acculturation (e.g., acculturation gap between parents and children) may be a significant contributor to immigrant adolescents’ negative future outcomes (e.g., early pregnancy, incarceration) since immigrant adolescents experiencing acculturation gap with their parents tend to have little family support, impeding them from overcoming external obstacles such as racial discrimination in a host society. However, despite the potential negative effect of acculturation gap on immigrant adolescents’ lives, little is known regarding the mechanism how acculturation gap influences adolescents’ mental health. Drawing on segmented assimilation theory, this study posits two hypotheses: (1) the effect of dissonant acculturation on depression of immigrant adolescents and (2) the mediation effect of parents-children conflict between acculturation gap and depression.
This study uses a sample of Hispanic (N=2,391) and Asian (N=1,472) immigrant adolescents in the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study, collected at two time points with three-year interval. The dependent variable, depressive symptom of an immigrant adolescent was assessed by using four items of the modified CES-D scales at time 2. Acculturation gap was assessed as the difference between adolescents’ preference of American way of life and their parents’ preference of American way of life at time 1. Parents-children conflict was measured using four items of the perception of adolescents’ conflict with their parent at time 2. Covariates include adolescents’ academic performance and self-esteem as well as demographic information. Structured equation modeling analysis was used to test our two hypotheses.
The results showed significant association between acculturation gap and depression of immigrant adolescents (b = .042, p < .05), supporting first hypothesis of the effect of acculturation gap on immigrant adolescents’ negative mental health. The results also showed the mediating effect of parents-children conflict. Acculturation gap significantly affects parents-children conflict (b = .085, p <. 001) and then parent-children conflict influences adolescents’ depression (b = .175, p < .001). It produced a significant positive indirect effect of adolescent’ perceived acculturation gap on adolescent’s depression via parents-child family conflict, (b = .015, p < .001). The relationship of acculturation gap on adolescent’s depression remained significant after adjusting for the mediator (b = .027, p < .05), suggesting partial mediation effect. Although these findings remain in Hispanic subsample, the relationship between acculturation gap on depression were insignificant in Asian adolescent subsample.
Conclusions and Implications
Our findings suggest that immigrant adolescents who experience higher acculturation gap with their parents are more likely to experience depressive symptoms three years later. We also found that this relationship is mediated by parents-children conflict. These results empirically support the argument of segmented assimilation theory regarding the effect of acculturation gap (i.e., dissonant acculturation) on adolescent’s mental health outcomes. Our findings also suggest that Asian adolescents may experience acculturation processes (e.g., emphasis on heritage culture) different from their Hispanic counterparts.