Children's Health

Mexican Immigrant Kids Have Good Mental Health

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New research by the University of Texas at Austin indicates children of Mexican immigrants have surprisingly good mental health, despite the many obstacles they face. NPR contributing correspondent Michelle Trudeau reports on the findings of the study, which looked at kindergarten-age students across the United States.


I'm Madeleine Brand, and this is DAY TO DAY.

The children of Mexican immigrants face huge obstacles in this country--poverty, the language barrier, discrimination--and it shows up in their performance in school. But a new study of children in kindergarten reveals one area where these immigrant children do not have a problem, and that's their mental health. Researchers found that they're happy, resilient and they get along well with their classmates. Michelle Trudeau reports.


Social psychologist Rob Crosnoe from the University of Texas at Austin studied 13,000 children, five- and six-year-olds from across the United States who were just beginning kindergarten, and evaluated the children's mental health.

Dr. ROB CROSNOE (University of Texas at Austin): I looked at their ability to get along well with other kids and play well with others and how well-behaved they were. You know, were they able to sit in their desk and do their work and stay on task?

TRUDEAU: He also used teachers' reports about which kids were sad, anxious or withdrawn and which children were aggressive, disruptive, breaking things, all red flags of an unhappy child who may have trouble learning.

Dr. CROSNOE: People tend to think that doing well in school is all about IQ and cognitive development, but there's a lot more that goes on to it than that. You have to have the capacity to sit there and learn and control yourself...

TRUDEAU: What psychologists call self-regulation.

Dr. CROSNOE: ...and engage with your teacher and talk to the other kids. So these are all things that are completely independent of IQ but that affect your ability to be successful in the classroom.

TRUDEAU: In research that will be published this spring, Crosnoe compared children whose parents had been born in Mexico to native white, African-American, Asian-American and Latino-American children whose parents all were born in the United States. Crosnoe reports that the Mexican immigrant children looked significantly stronger in psychological well-being.

Dr. CROSNOE: Mexican immigrant children had better mental health; they got along better with others; they look a lot better on this measure of self-regulation.

TRUDEAU: Children of Mexican immigrants scored highest on most measures of mental health followed by Asian-Americans, then whites, Latino-Americans, and African-American children.

Mr. DON HERNANDEZ (University at Albany, SUNY): It's certainly interesting to see in a major national survey that Mexican immigrant families, the children are doing well, at least psychologically.

TRUDEAU: That's Don Hernandez, a demographer and authority on immigrant children from the University at Albany, SUNY.

Mr. HERNANDEZ: The psychological well-being of children is relatively good, despite high levels of poverty and limited work opportunities for parents very often and the linguistic barriers which they face.

TRUDEAU: And other research has shown that as children of Mexican immigrants become teen-agers and young adults, they retain their good mental health.

Mr. HERNANDEZ: I think it's a function largely of the strong families that Mexican families bring when they come to this country. They have a strong sense of family obligation, strong family cohesion, relatively low levels of parent-child conflict compared to white native families.

TRUDEAU: But these researchers also know that kids of Mexican immigrant parents typically do not do as well academically compared to children whose parents were born here. There's a significant achievement gap, says Rob Crosnoe. So their strong mental health should be seen in that context.

Dr. CROSNOE: It gives them a little boost so that the gap between them and their peers in achievement would actually be much larger than it already is if these kids weren't so mentally healthy.

TRUDEAU: Psychological well-being doesn't begin to outweigh the burden of severe poverty, Crosnoe adds. And Mexican immigrant families have the highest rate of poverty of any immigrant group in the US. But strong mental health at least cuts away a slice of that disadvantage. For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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