The Psychological Effects of Migration on Children

The emotional impact of migration on children is extremely high. Typically, many children experience psychological distress and pressure to integrate into a new country that sometimes discriminates against them.
The Psychological Effects of Migration on Children
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 08 April, 2024

The psychological effects of migration on children can last into adulthood. Many arrive in the new country suffering from trauma, bearing the emotional anguish of leaving behind a parent or family member. However, it’s not always easy, at first glance, to understand their internal struggles, not to mention those that they’ll suffer during their adaptation to the new country.

It’s also important to consider the reasons for their migration. Some families are looking for better job opportunities. Others enter the new country illegally, yearning for a better quality of life.

Refugee children, whether alone or accompanied, almost always exhibit great psychological vulnerability. We’re going to explore the subject in a little more depth.

Recent years have seen the highest levels of forced displacement in history. This has forced the development of new psychological care programs for migrants.

The psychological effects of migration on children

There are many adults who migrated with their families in childhood and who, today, still suffer from mental health problems. For example, generalized anxiety, major depression, addictions, and post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the biggest problems for migrant children is that they don’t always receive the psychological assistance they need.

Migration is a growing phenomenon over almost the entire planet. It seems that the human being has recovered their nomadic nature. Work published by Cambridge University Press in 2011 states that knowing the anatomy of this reality would allow for a better understanding of the consequences of the phenomenon, and the adoption of preventive measures against negative ones.

It’s understood that, while children tend to develop attachment disorders, adolescents exhibit more self-destructive behaviors. That said, living without legal status or pending asylum can cause chronic stress for adults, adolescents, and child migrants alike.

1. Separation anxiety

One of the psychological effects of migration in children is separation anxiety. Sometimes, they don’t understand why they’ve had to leave their homes and belongings, and been forced to part with significant figures in their lives. Moreover, it may be the case that they’re traveling with only one of their parents. In fact, on some occasions, children will be traveling completely alone.

This separation from their attachment figures and their daily routines undoubtedly has a considerable emotional impact on them.

2. Uncertainty and psychological distress

Migration imposes a feeling of instability that can be interpreted as threatening, especially in childhood. A child is happy when they believe that their environment is safe and controlled. Even if they don’t understand everything that’s happening around them, they know or sense where the safety margins are.

Unfortunately, the migrating family doesn’t always immediately find a welcoming home. This process generates stress in adults. It’s then passed on to their children since their parents are their main reference figures.

Child playing with a rocket that goes from one world to another, symbolizing adaptation after the psychological effects of migration
Many migrant children develop anxiety disorders and depression that aren’t always addressed.

3. Traumatic processes

Among the psychological effects of migration on children, those derived from trauma are frequent. Some infants carry with them the memory of painful experiences from their countries of origin. In addition, the trip itself could be surrounded by the kind of uncertainty that’s difficult to manage, even for adults. What will the new country be like? How will they be able to communicate with people who speak another language?

Emigrating is a process that doesn’t end when the migrant arrives at the door of their new home for the first time. Sometimes, adaptation and its difficulties open in children the wound of traumas that they were already suffering, in much the same way that it happens with adults.

Many adolescents can develop maladaptive behaviors and start to defy authority, due to their unmet emotional needs.

4. Somatic disorders

Somatic complaints are common among children and adolescents who migrate with their parents. Difficult emotions, fears, trauma, or constant stress translate into feelings of discomfort, pain, and illness with no physical correlation. The Catholic University of Chile highlights this characteristic and suggests that psychosomatic disorders manifest as follows:

  • Fatigue.
  • Dizziness.
  • Headaches.
  • Tachycardia.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Sleep difficulties.
  • Musculoskeletal pain.
  • Skin problems, such as eczema.

5. Depression

Not playing, withdrawing, not being interested in their surroundings, and having problems sleeping or eating often occur in migrant children due to depression. This is a phenomenon that requires more attention. However, often, the symptoms of depressive disorder are confused with the difficulty in adapting to the new country.

But, insecure behaviors, sadness, and disconnection from the environment aren’t always due to the challenges of the adaptive process. While migration isn’t a stress-free challenge, there could also be a deeper issue.

6. Maladaptive behaviors

Among the psychological effects of migration in children are maladaptive or defiant behaviors. They usually appear to a greater degree in preadolescents or adolescents. Difficulties in managing problematic emotions, everyday problems, and the weight of many unaddressed traumas sometimes translate into the following behaviors:

  • Missing school.
  • Egocentrism and stubbornness.
  • Frequent fighting.
  • Lack of responsibility.
  • Low tolerance for frustration.
  • The challenging of family rules.
  • Destroying objects or furniture.
  • Negativist/oppositionist attitudes.
  • Disrespectful or violent communication.
  • Extreme irritability.

7.  Bullying

If the adaptation is already a challenge for the migrant child, this process can be made even worse by experiences of bullying. Sadly, figures seen as ‘different’ in these settings are often the focus of ridicule and attacks. This results in extremely painful experiences for children.

8. Second-generation migrant children

Second-generation migrant children are those who were born in the country to which their parents emigrated. They too can face particular psychological challenges. For example:

  • They often have difficulties developing their identity.
  • They feel as if they’ve been uprooted and are living between two worlds.
  • Despite being born in the country in which they live, they feel the weight of rejection or discrimination.
  • Second-generation immigrant children are also vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Many suffer the disapproval of their parents when they adopt the behaviors and customs of the new country. They’re also constantly under pressure to meet the high expectations of their parents.

High and dysfunctional anxiety is extremely common in migrant children. They often develop it by seeing certain reactions and behaviors in their own families, on a daily basis.

Alone boy sitting on the floor suffering from the psychological effects of migration
Migrant children are often bullied at school.

Caring for the mental health of migrant children

Migration is a word that’s loaded with uncertainty. It’s uncertain for adults and even more so for children who, in many contexts, are aware of their vulnerability. As a host society and as individual hosts, we must create and strengthen institutions and mechanisms for the immediate care of these groups.

Finally, in a world that’s constantly changing and where migration will only increase, we need global awareness. Anyone could find themselves in this situation at some point. Maybe you or your parents have experienced it. Undoubtedly, as a society, we have to be more sensitive and develop strategies to help and not hinder. Even more so when it comes to children.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.