What happens to the brain of a person caught between two cultures?

The decision to relocate to another country is often motivated by various factors – job opportunities, the desire to provide better educational opportunities for your children, etc.  However, many parents do not realise the outcomes of bringing up their children in a country that is different to the one they grew up in.

It has been noted that adolescents adopt the host culture values more rapidly than their parents (Heras & Revilla, 1994).  Parents who bring up their children in a different culture often feel obliged to act as “gatekeepers” of their home culture, and have a strong desire to want to pass on and maintain the cultural values of their home culture. (Hall, 1997) This can result in the phenomena where for example, Korean families living in the UK can end up being more Korean in their cultural values than the Koreans living in Korea.  It is only natural that parents would want their children to understand something of their heritage and culture, especially when they are living in another country so different to their own.  Second generation immigrant children are often sent to weekend classes to maintain their home country language and contact with other families from home culture.


Children of immigrant families often face issues of acculturation and identity as they grow up in the host culture.    There are 3 factors which influence their journey :


1)    The developmental stage at which the cultural transition occurs

2)    The age of the individual;

3)    The length of exposure to the host culture.

(Olmeda & Padilla, 1978)

Often finding themselves growing up and caught between two cultures, children of immigrant families can find that it is a confusing time especially during the adolescent years.  Growing up in two cultures is hard on the brain.  The process of getting to know a new culture is an “additive” experience, which involves new neuronal connections to be made.  Recent developments in understanding how brain plasticity works shows that while plasticity allows a person to adjust to a new culture plasticity also results in the brain “pruning” neuronal connections and neurons that are no longer being used.  This is because plasticity is competitive. Studies have shown that a Japanese child can still differentiate between “r” and “l” in sounds but at one year, this ability is lost, and so if this Japanese child was to relocate to another country, he/she would have difficulty pronouncing certain words.


Relocating to a new country causes the adult brain to be subject to an intense and unending workout and rewiring of neuronal connections.  This is why “culture shock” is literally “brain shock”.  Parents who experience culture shock can choose to either adjust to the host culture or to separate from the host culture.  Their children, however, often have a stronger motivation to identify with the host culture, but also face strong pressure from the family to maintain their home culture values, language and lifestyle. (Doidge, 2007)


While this may result in some confusion in identity and also be stressful on the brain, second generation migrants are in the unique position of having the opportunity to gain skills and the abilities to manage complexity and access multiple perspectives as they go through this process.   All of these skills and talents will certainly serve them well later on in life as they work in a global economy.

However, there can also be negative outcomes to be mindful of, especially during the adolescent years such as :

1)    Rebellion

2)    Identity confusion

3)    Depression

4)    Substance abuse

5)    Isolation and loneliness

6)    Being bullied at school

7)    Being misunderstood by family and friends


The adolescent years can already be turbulent enough for some but for adolescents who are growing up between two cultures, these years can be even more intense and confusing.

Migrant families need to be aware of the issues and it is important to think of what strategies to use to help bring about greater understanding between parents and children.

For example, humour is a great diffuser of tension and stress.  Research has shown that laughing alters the brain chemistry and helps relieve stress.  So take every opportunity to laugh often as a family.  Slowing down and taking time to relax together can strengthen family communication and understanding, which is crucial for a family whose children are growing up in a culture very different to that of the parents’.

Ultimately, knowledge and awareness is important and so, thankfully, these days, resources are always available along with cross-cultural coaching and training which has proven to be immensely helpful in reducing stress and uncertainty while on this journey.


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