This academic article aims to make a clinical and social case by helping the reader understand the family wellbeing challenges faced by immigrant children in their communities. The article explores these complexities of immigrant life and offers a developmental and cognitive-behavioural perspective on the main themes discussed here. It explains the struggles and psychological traps that can maintain social problems over the years, through the use of illustrative case studies; clinical examples and research brought to light by practitioners in psychotherapy and social sciences. Whilst the article may not help to minimise the risks of any actual harm brought to children, it is proposing that Social Workers and other child protection agents can achieve better outcomes by focusing more on cases where the parents are resistant to support or cases that preclude the need for comprehensive needs assessment because of urgency and immediate further harm to the children.
An understanding of these challenges comes from the combined 42 years of professional experience of using psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and clinical psychology by the senior practitioners and authors of this articles who are also parents of children from minority ethnic groups in the UK; therefore they are ‘experts by experience’ and have personally dealt with many cases of children taken into care in the UK throughout their careers.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), child protection, cognitive-behavioural developmental and communication model, Family Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (F-CBT).
Working with a specific ethnic category (whether immigrant or not) and generally working with cultural differences within the CBT field remains underestimated and under-researched. In spite of the fact that contributions from Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy are significant especially in regards to understanding the development of family values and core-beliefs and the maintenance of problematic behaviours over the years. That would place this school of thought in a unique position, even though this is a domain which traditionally would have been the focus of systemic therapies (Mirea and Selemo, 2015).
This field in fact seems to occupy only a marginal position in the social and mental health care with almost no NHS, charitable or private sector clinics dedicated to ethnic and/or immigrant parents. Consequently, inequalities in mental health continue, and psychological vulnerabilities can go unnoticed.
Thus, it remains important that we develop a greater understanding of the histories, values, and expectations for diverse families and individuals we come across in the therapy room. Common themes that resonate throughout the family such as family culture and beliefs, religious and spiritual beliefs, historical circumstances, immigration histories, generational differences, as well as experiences with racism and prejudice, appear to have strong influences over everyday life and choices that young people coming from such backgrounds, make for themselves. Their decisions can weaken families’ strength and unity, may bring disruption to the larger community and draw legal consequences.
The development of core beliefs and impact on communication
Salkovskis (1995) a renowned cognitive and behavioural psychologist describes core-beliefs as complex cognitive structures developed by children who seek to make sense of themselves and their world during their development. They are used to organize the massive amount of data they are constantly receiving. Further intermediate beliefs, assumptions, values or rules are the means by which they understand what they’re experiencing and decide how to proceed. According to Salkovskis whilst these rules and attitudes would have been useful during a child’s development, they can become problematic when new situations arise that call for a different understanding (Mirea and Selemo, 2015).
Diagram 1: The cognitive-behavioural developmental and communication model (printed from Mirea and Selemo, 2015a)
The cognitive-behavioural developmental and communication model (diagram on page 3 from Mirea and Selemo, 2015) explains the influence of core beliefs and defensive barriers determined by our culture, religious beliefs, parental values and community values. Mirea (2015) explains that a child that grows up in a family whose values are rooted in religious faith and tradition can strongly influence how that child will see the world and his position in the world as he grows up. As the result, communication skills and ability to translate or encode messages from significant others is greatly diminished.
Of course, the majority of young people from an ethnic minority are determined to fit in and be the best they can possibly be for their family and community. Whatever the case, values and assumptions about themselves, world and significant others seem to be rooted in core beliefs which are determined by earlier childhood experiences and parenting styles and further shaped by religious and cultural values. Those will eventually determine (according to the above proposed model) how a child or young adult fits in his/her community, thinks, appraises situations and communicates.
Culture and faith-linked ‘cognitive core beliefs’, represent helpful messages and may be considered by most communities as the pillar and very foundation of culture but it can be very difficult to predict how they will impact on the development of further values and assumptions about the world. Unhelpful ‘core beliefs are strongly-held, rigid and inflexible beliefs that are maintained by the tendency to focus on the information that supports the belief and ignoring evidence that contracts it’ (Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI (2008).
Unhelpful rules, values and life strategies
Both helpful and unhelpful core beliefs might have been developed in childhood or around a significant later life event. Those are reinforced through social learning by many parents on how to raise a good child. The difference between the two is lack of adaptability (Hickes and Mirea, 2012). Mirea (2015) explains that if a young lady is constantly told throughout her childhood that having a relationship outside marriage with someone of a different culture is a sin or it is unacceptable, this could create a conflict during adolescent or adulthood years at the moment when she steps outside of the community that holds this values and interacts with other communities, schools, peers, etc. If this comes on a platform of inadequacy or holding already a core belief that she is inadequate and does not fit in, we are faced with a predisposition to long term mental health problems.
Clash of cultures: A shocking realisation
Some parents who moved to the UK appear to have a set of beliefs on parenting. Some of these beliefs are common across cultures irrespective of the parent being ethnic or white immigrant. For example: A ‘good child’ can only be formed if the parents practise the ‘if you spare the rod you spoil the child’ and the ‘stick and the carrot’ material and emotional love parenting style. The ‘good child’ is one of value to the self, brings pride to and no shame to the parents, the family and the community. Some core beliefs are more evident in parents from certain cultures. Example, some parents of African descent may have the following: ‘My child’s failure is my disgrace and brings shame to me and my community’. ‘Blood is thicker than water’ meaning ‘never stop loving and never give up on your child or your family no matter what their failings’.
Without the psychological awareness of the risk or actual damage to the child, the parents with intended good motive may engage in excessive and sometimes desperate emotional protection and physical discipline. Coercive parenting (CP) ‘refers to parenting by domination, intimidation, or humiliation to force children to behave according to unrealistic norms set by parents’(Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). Coercive parenting (CP) is a parent’s attempt to protect the child against the above behaviours. The parents then get a ‘shocking’ realisation that they cannot raise their children the way they want. This is due to a fear of being accused of, or misinterpreted as ‘a child abuser’ by the children themselves, and child protection groups such as Social Services, professionals and schools. These parents may not understand that their children may be struggling with dual conflicting cultures (as they the parents struggle with their own dual cultures). Furthermore, these parents may not be familiar with their own core beliefs on disciplinary parenting.
The older children may end up feeling resentful towards the parent who is using coercive parenting. The children may view the CP parent as ‘cruel’ or abusive, so may run away from home or seek Social Services’ interventions against the parents (Perreira & Ornelas, 2011). Some of the older children may engage in ‘coercive child hooding’ (CC). CC is abuse or false accusations of abuse against the parents by vulnerable children who use historical, latest or false incidents of abuse and neglect to incriminate their parents. Despite the reason (unintentionally or deliberately) for CC and adult’s stand on CC, it should be considered that perpetrators of CC are vulnerable children in need of professionals’ and their family’s support. Caregivers include parents, foster parents, and other persons involved in the welfare of the child. Caregivers who are perpetrators in risk families do ‘report punitive or excessive parenting practices, frequent anger, and hyper arousal, and negative child attributions, among other stressful conditions’*. (*Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). Both CP and CC tear a family apart and risk the children being taken into care (Selemo, 2014 August). Parents must not use CC to minimise or cover up real risk or actual abuse to the child. Child protection services should be able to assess and separate CC from a child in actual harm.
Copyright©2015 Daniel Mirea & Francis Selemo, Health City (T/N for Enaikidigha Trade & Investments Ltd). All rights reserved.
Lead Author: Daniel Mirea is a Consultant CBT therapist and Hypnotherapist as well as EMDR and Mindfulness practitioner. A senior lecturer and clinical supervisor based in central London with almost 25 years experience in the mental health field. He has a particular interest in childhood trauma and characterological problems and developed his own model of engaging with long-standing emotional difficulties.
Dr. Francis Selemo is the Executive Director of Health City, a social enterprise healthcare based in central London that supports families’ and young people’s wellbeing. A senior clinical psychologist, clinical supervisor, and cognitive behavioural psychotherapist. He has +17 years’ experience in the mental health field. He has a particular interest in psychological, physical health, financial and legal wellbeing of families.
Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI (2008). What are core beliefs? Western Australia: Metropolitan Health Services. Http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/ACF3B8A.pdf.
Hickes M and Mirea D, 2012. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Existential – Phenomenological Psychotherapy: Rival Paradigms or Fertile Ground for Therapeutic Synthesis? in Journal of Existential Analysis 23.1 January 2012 (p15-31).
Perreira, K.M. & Ornelas, J.O. (2011 Spring). The Physical and Psychological Well-Being of Immigrant Children. The Future of Children, 21 (1), 197.
Rosen H (1988). The constructivist –development paradigm. In RA Dorfman (Ed.), Paradigms of clinical social work (pp 317-355). New York: Bruner/ Mazel
Salkovskis PM (1995). Frontiers of Cognitive Therapy. London
Selemo, B. F. (2014 August). Coercive parenting and coercive child hooding. London: Health City.