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ERIC Identifier: ED252638
Publication Date: 1984-04-00
Author: Ascher, Carol
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education New York NY.

The Social and Psychological Adjustment of Southeast Asian Refugees. ERIC/CUE Digest Number 21.

Southeast Asian refugees have decreasing dependence on welfare with each year in this country, a far lower criminal record than the general population, good school behavior, and active networks and cultural societies. However, specific sources of stress related to the war and evacuation, isolation from families and home communities, changing roles, the new culture, and under- and unemployment are likely to cause depression, anxiety, hostility, somatic symptoms, paranoia and other stress reactions.


Adolescent refugees who arrived in the United States alone often had problems in Asia, and, though they used the exodus to solve family conflicts, their migration actually exacerbated their tendency toward emotional distress (Williams and Westermeyer 1983).

It has been suggested that the three best predictors of adolescent emotional distress are being female, not getting along with American classmates, and not getting along with parents (Charron and Ness 1981).

Children in the last wave of immigration may have more emotional difficulty than those in earlier waves because of the atrocities they saw in the seas and in the camps before coming to the United States (Marquez 1981).

Finally, people who have undergone shifting role identities are particularly at risk for stress. The stress may result from loss of professional status (Vignes and Hall 1979), possession of nontransferrable skills (Lin and others 1979), recent widowhood, or, among women, the necessity of both child-rearing and working or remaining isolated in the home because of young children (Lin and others 1979).


Infants arriving in the United States between six months and two years present a unique problem. They seem to adjust quickly and well, but their memories of their countries, the camps, and the trip are preverbal and, for the most part, come out only in nightmares. Because there is no way to deal with these preverbal memories, they may persist indefinitely, and this group may prove to have the most severe problems.

Children who arrived between twelve months and three years of age were in a period of rapid language acquisition, which was often disrupted or even stopped by trauma. Furthermore, these children changed language and habit systems before they were old enough to conceptualize the differences. Thus they are susceptible to language-learning problems and related neurotic behavior.

Children who were between three and ten years of age on arrival will have memories of their country, the war, and the long difficult trip. They will learn English as a second language, and their experiences of trauma and change can be dealt with verbally.

The adjustment of youth who were between nine and fifteen at the time of arrival will be compounded by the identity confusions of adolescence. Conflicts about being Southeast Asian or American -- betraying one for the other -- are often shown by limit-testing: "I'm Vietnamese. These are American rules" (Carlin 1979).


A new refugee student in an American school is beset daily by questions. School personnel need to take a little more time when doing anything with a Southeast Asian student. They should be empathetic, gentle, and soft spoken (Alley 1980).

New students will need information on:

--The structure of the academic system

--Options in various educational programs

--How academic performance is graded

--Rules of behavior for the school and with peers

--Assistance in conflicts with parents

--Ways to share their culture with classmates

Teachers and counselors need to be aware of critical areas of possible conflict, such as more rapid rates of assimilation and language learning by children than their parents (Ellis 1980); cultural differences in learning styles (though what is studied at a given grade level is similar in Southeast Asia and the U. S., the method of teaching differs considerably); and different styles of social relationships (the apparently inappropriate smile of a Southeast Asian child may be his or her cultural way of expressing embarrassment).


When a Southeast Asian student misbehaves, this misbehavior may be the result of one or more of the following sources of tension (Liu and others 1981):

--Frustration due to language problems and misunderstandings

--Imitation out of a desire for rapid adaptation

--Violent or asocial behavior learned in the camps

--Historical animosity among various Southeast Asian groups

--Adjustment difficulties because school rules here are less strict and well-defined

--Culture-gap in the family resulting from different rates of assimilation

Activities aimed at support and prevention are crucial and include special counseling; making teachers and Southeast Asian and American students aware of the cultural differences; planning activities to improve communication between Southeast Asian and other students; and giving clear strong roles to bilingual instructional aides (Liu and others 1981).

When infractions do occur, students should be handled fairly, as staff would handle any student. First infractions should be met with warnings. Since Indochinese parents are concerned about and deeply involved in their children's education, parents should be contacted, and an explanation should be given of what has happened. Finally, native speakers should be used whenever the problems are serious or there is the possibility of cultural and/or linguistic misunderstanding.


Alley, J. "Better Understanding of the Indochinese Students." EDUCATION 101 (1980):111-114.

Carlin, J. F. "The Catastrophically Uprooted Child: Southeast Asian Refugee Children." In BASIC HANDBOOK FOR CHILD PSYCHIATRY. Volume I, edited by J. D. Noshpitz and others. New York: Basic Books, 1979.

Charron, D. W., and R. C. Ness. "Emotional Stress Among Vietnamese Adolescents: A Statewide Survey." JOURNAL OF REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT 1 (1981):7-15.

Ellis, A. A. THE ASSIMILATION AND ACCULTURATION OF INDOCHINESE CHILDREN INTO AMERICAN CULTURE. Sacramento, CA: California State Department of Social Services, Office of Refugee Services, 1980. ED 213 484.

Lin, K. M., and others. "Adaptational Problems of Vietnamese Refugees: Health and Mental Health Status." ARCHIVES OF GENERAL PSYCHIATRY 36 (1979):955-961.

Liu, Shuh Yun, and others. SOME CONSIDERATIONS FOR COPING WITH SCHOOL PROBLEMS INVOLVING INDOCHINESE STUDENTS. Olympia, WA: Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, 1981. ED 204 469.


Vignes, A. J., and R. C. W. Hall. "Adjustment of a Group of Vietnamese People to the United States." AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHIATRY 136 (1979):442-444.

Williams, C., and J. Westermeyer. "Psychiatric Problems Among Adolescent Southeast Asian Refugees." THE JOURNAL OF NERVOUS AND MENTAL DISEASE 171 (1983):79-85.


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