Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Adolescence

pp 263-274


Bicultural Stress

  • Andrea J. RomeroAffiliated withFamily Studies & Human Development, Mexican American & Raza Studies, University of Arizona Email author 
  • , Kali Van CampenAffiliated withFamily Studies & Human Development, University of Arizona


Central to the experience of many adolescents is how they navigate between multiple cultural contexts in a pluralistic environment (Garcia Coll et al. 1996; Romero and Roberts 2003a; Stanton-Salazar and Spina 2003). Today’s youth may be encountering individuals from different cultures on a firsthand basis at earlier ages than ever before, given the globalized environments that youth are exposed to via transnational media and worldwide immigration (Arnett 2002; Zagefka and Brown 2002). When adolescents encounter bicultural contexts, they may experience unique and interesting new social interactions and fusions; however, these multiple cultural contexts also shape the experience of stress. Bicultural contexts will impact adolescents’ types of stress, appraisal of stress, and coping mechanisms (Aldwin 1994; Donnelly 2002; Walters and Simoni 2002). The bicultural context of stress describes how different cultural environments may be subjectively perceived by individuals to be stressful due to social interactions that result from cultural conflicts within families, between peers, and in community contexts (e.g., police, schools, businesses) (Romero and Roberts 2003a). Bicultural stress is reported widely by adolescents of ethnic minority groups, as well as by ethnic majority groups; moreover, bicultural stress is significantly associated with more depressive symptoms, less optimism, and more risky behaviors among adolescents of diverse backgrounds (Romero et al. 2007a; Romero et al. 2007b). A greater understanding of bicultural stress may lead to research on bicultural strengths and bicultural navigation skills that may improve positive youth development (Pedrotti et al. 2009).

Adolescent Bicultural Context of Stress

Central to the experience of many modern adolescents is how they navigate between multiple cultural contexts in a pluralistic environment (García Coll et al. 1996; Romero and Roberts 2003a; Stanton-Salazar and Spina 2003). Today’s youth may be encountering individuals from different cultures on a firsthand basis at earlier ages than ever before, given the globalized environments that youth are exposed to via transnational media and worldwide immigration (Jensen-Arnett 2002; Zagefka and Brown 2002). When adolescents encounter bicultural contexts, they may experience unique and interesting new social interactions and fusions; however, these multiple cultural contexts also shape the experience of stress. In pluralistic environments, culture is an important context of stress and coping for adolescents across all of their ecodevelopmental contexts of family, peers, schools, and neighborhoods (Gergen et al. 1996; Folkman et al. 1986; Walters and Simoni 2002; Youngblade and Theokas 2006). The bicultural context of stress describes how different cultural environments may be subjectively perceived by individuals to be stressful due to social interactions that result from cultural conflicts within families, between peers, and communities (e.g., police, teachers, store clerks ) (Romero and Roberts 2003a). Bicultural contexts will impact adolescents’ types of stress, appraisal of stress, and coping mechanisms (Aldwin 1994; Donnelly 2002; Walters and Simoni 2002) Understanding stress among adolescents is important because of the well-established negative impact of stress on mental and physical health (Lazarus 1997; Karlsen and Nazroo 2002). However, from a strengths perspective, it is also important to understand specific factors that lead to stress that are amenable to modification through prevention, intervention, or mental health services (Pedrotti et al. 2009). In particular, greater knowledge of stressors associated with navigating between cultures can lead to more awareness of necessary skill sets in bicultural contexts that may improve not only individual mental health, but also social interactions between different cultural groups. This essay begins by describing the theoretical foundations of bicultural stress found in orthogonal acculturation theory and stress and coping models. Then, it will summarize the extant research on bicultural stress among adolescent populations and its relationship to mental and physical health.

Where It Started: Acculturative Stress and Assimilation Models

The concept of bicultural stress is derived from early research on acculturative stress, which was defined as stress due to the process of acculturation (Berry 1980, 2003, 1989). The classic definition of acculturation, according to Redfield et al. (1936), considered the bidirectional nature of cultural change for both minority and majority cultural groups that arises from continuous firsthand contact over time. Given the melting pot beliefs of the United States in the early 1900s, it was assumed that “melting” or assimilating into a new culture would, and should, require letting go of one’s native culture (Keefe and Padilla 1987). Another assumption was that trying to maintain one’s culture of origin would be detrimental to assimilation and lead only to more cultural stress and mental health complications for immigrants (Stonequist 1961). Thus, native cultures were often generally viewed as deficits that contributed to disparities in health and adaptation, as described in the Cultural Deficit Model (Pena 2003; Ramirez 1998). As such, psychologists were likely to assume that complete assimilation to the dominant culture and letting go of the native culture were essential for positive mental health; this model was referred to as the Assimilation Model (Keefe and Padilla 1987; Pena 2003).

Additionally, the majority of research on acculturative stress assumed that stress was inherent in the acculturation process and that the experience was similar for all individuals. However, these assumptions oversimplified the complex process of acculturation that occurred not just among immigrants, but also for Native Americans and ethnic minorities who have resided in the United States for many years, such as Mexican Americans or Puerto Ricans (de la Torre and Estrada 2001; LaFromboise et al. 1993). Furthermore, empirical research findings did not corroborate the theoretically anticipated linear association between assimilation and better mental health. In fact, reviews of the literature demonstrated that the associations between acculturation and mental health were equivocal and did not support the Assimilation Model or Acculturative Stress Model (Rogler et al. 1991). Thus, one turns to the concept of bicultural stress to extend the psychological research on acculturative stress, but also to address these basic assumptions of the Cultural Deficit Model and Assimilation Model.

The assimilation model, and the Acculturation Model have the following assumptions: (1) stress is inherent in the acculturation process for all immigrants and ethnic minorities, (2) acculturative stress is the same for immigrants and ethnic minorities, (3) maintaining native culture is detrimental to healthy development and impedes assimilation, (4) assimilation to the dominant culture is necessary for positive health, and (5) ethnic majority groups experience little or no stress from acculturation. The concept of bicultural stress addresses these assumptions because it is based on a bicultural model of acculturation, Orthogonal Cultural Orientation, and is combined with Stress and Coping Models. The Orthogonal Cultural Orientation Model recognizes that individuals may identify with more than one culture at the same time without necessarily sacrificing one cultural identity for another (Oetting and Beauvais 1990–91). Drawing on this model, bicultural stress acknowledges pluralistic cultural environments and the stress that may result from navigating between more than one cultural context while trying to maintain both cultural orientations. Bicultural stress also draws on classic definitions of stress and fundamental elements of stress and coping models that describe the importance of the subjective appraisal of stress in order to understand the link between stressful events and mental health. Thus, bicultural stress addresses one of the earlier assumptions—that stress is inherent in the acculturation process and is the same for everyone—by identifying and quantitatively assessing an individuals’ agency in perceiving and interpreting stress due to navigating between more than one culture. This essay further elaborates on these theoretical foundations and how they led to the concept of adolescent bicultural stress.

Theoretical Foundations in Orthogonal Cultural Orientation and Stress and Coping Models

The Orthogonal Cultural Orientation Model acknowledges that youth live within pluralistic contexts in which multiple cultures exist simultaneously. Culture can be defined here as the shared set of learned experiences that include norms, values, language, subjective experiences, physical objects, and shared symbols (Foster and Martinez 1995). Thus, culture is more than just a one-dimensional, static backdrop for adolescent development; instead, adolescents are active agents who are fully interacting with culture (García Coll et al. 1996). The Orthogonal Cultural Orientation Model did not assume that maintenance of the native culture would impede acculturation to the dominant culture; rather, it emphasized that maintenance of one’s native culture was independent of adopting another culture (Oetting and Beauvais 1990–91). In this way, the model acknowledges the bidirectional process of acculturation in which individuals of both cultures are influenced by acculturation, and both are maintained (LaFromboise et al. 1993; Oetting and Beauvais 1990–91). For example, just because an individual begins to speak more English does not necessarily mean that they will in turn speak less Spanish; rather, they may become bilingual. Orthogonal models of acculturation elucidate that cultural maintenance is not necessarily pathological; rather, it can be highly adaptive and a form of positive youth development, in part because it increases youth resilience to interact with more than one set of cultural norms and languages on a regular basis (LaFromboise et al. 1993; Oetting and Beauvais 1990–91).

This early work on orthogonal models and biculturalism was based on research with Native American adolescents, whose familial developmental contexts on the reservation were multigenerational and bilingual (LaFromboise et al. 1993; Oetting and Beauvais 1990–91). For Native American youth who lived betwixt both US and native culture on a daily basis, it was clear that adopting the US culture and maintaining native culture was beneficial to overall mental and physical health.

Clearly, the Orthogonal Cultural Orientation Model has important implications for understanding acculturation as a bidirectional process in pluralistic contexts for immigrant, ethnic minority, and ethnic majority adolescents. Contemporary multicultural contexts that are highly integrated through cell phones, Internet, and transnational media further increase regular exposure between different cultures and also may increase the ability of immigrants to maintain their native cultures even over wide distances. The maintenance and valuing of native cultures among immigrants and minorities may also influence the experience of bicultural stress among ethnic majority groups who live in pluralistic environments and interact on a regular basis with individuals who have a different cultural context than their own. Research based on Orthogonal Cultural Orientation Models demonstrates that when individuals were able to successfully integrate being bicultural, they reported better mental health (Haritatos and Benet-Martínez 2002; LaFromboise et al. 1993). At the same time, this research has not yet addressed differences in success rates among individuals in bicultural contexts at integrating both cultural identities; in fact, research has not investigated the developmental process of becoming an integrated bicultural person, and there is a need to understand the bicultural process that is experienced by children and adolescents. Given the reality of pluralistic nations, that not all cultures are equal in power and privilege, it is necessary to understand the process of moving between these different cultures that have power differentials and how this process may be perceived as stressful, especially among young people. Thus, in order to understand the potential process of stress involved in navigating between more than one culture, one turns toward models of stress and coping to advance the understanding of the relation between bicultural contexts and mental health.

Lazarus (1997) argued that, in order to truly understand the relation between acculturation and mental health, acculturation researchers needed to adopt a stress and coping model approach that would more directly link acculturation experiences to mental well-being. Specifically, in response to reviews of the literature that reported equivocal results between acculturation and mental health, Lazarus (1997) argued that the experience of stress involved with acculturation would vary by each individual’s subjective appraisal of stress. He suggested that acculturative stress research needed to utilize cutting-edge stress and coping approaches to quantitatively measures stress in order to detect individual differences at a psychological level. It is necessary to know more than just whether the event occurred; it is critical to know the individual subjective perception of the level of stress due to an event (Aldwin 1994; Folkman et al. 1986). Based on Stress and Coping Models, stress is defined as the external or internal demands that an individual cognitively appraises as taxing or exceeding their existing resources (Folkman et al. 1986; Selye 1980). This individual level variation component to understanding bicultural stress is partly attributed to youths’ active engagement with the environment around them, because not all youth will have the same skills or resources to cope with the stressor, or the same perception of what is taxing. This theoretical stress approach of subjective cognitive appraisal of stress ensured that it was not assumed that all individuals equally experience stress as part of the acculturation process. Furthermore, it led to advanced measures of acculturative stress that were able to detect differences between immigrants and ethnic minorities and were found to be significantly associated with depressive symptoms (Cervantes et al. 1990, 1991).

In sum, the study of bicultural contexts of stress was theoretically based on Orthogonal Cultural Orientation and Stress and Coping Models and has extended research on acculturative stress by both acknowledging the maintenance of minority cultures, as well as by measuring the individual subjective appraisal of stress. Thus, this essay addresses the assumptions that assimilation is the only healthy option, that stress is experienced by all immigrants and ethnic minorities, and that ethnic majority groups do not experience bicultural stress. Bicultural stress acknowledges that adolescents may perceive moving between more than one culture as stressful, particularly when they feel that they do not have sufficient resources to cope with external demands of the different cultural contexts. Not only can firsthand social interactions with individuals of different ethnic groups be stressful simply by the sheer act of taking in different cultural values, norms, or languages, but also prejudice or discrimination may occur between ethnic groups due to differences in power and privilege between different cultural groups. The authors explore the bicultural contexts of stress during the unique period of adolescence when young people are beginning to assert their independence from their family and develop their own unique ethnic identities; at the same time, they are also more likely to have firsthand contact that is not mediated by parents with peers and community contexts (e.g., police, border patrol, schools, and businesses). They further elaborate on bicultural stress in ecodevelopmental adolescent-specific contexts and how bicultural stress relates to mental and physical health of adolescents.

Ecodevelopmental Contexts of Bicultural Stress

Before detailing more descriptions of bicultural stress, it is important to note that one does not assume that all youth will experience all of the bicultural stressors all of the time. In fact, some youth may have these experiences of navigating between more than one culture, yet report little to no stress. Other youth may report high levels of stress from even a few experiences that may negatively impact mental health outcomes. It can be the chronic nature of daily hassle stressors that builds up stress over time and over multiple contexts. The cumulative effect of stress over time can have a strong negative influence on mental well-being (Folkman et al. 1986). Thus, it is argued that it is critical to consider the holistic environment of adolescents that includes multiple components of bicultural stress within multiple contexts. The primary documented subcomponents that contribute to bicultural stress are monolingual stress, discrimination, prejudice, and differences in cultural values (Romero and Roberts 2003a; LaFromboise et al. 1993). The following sections will describe how each of these subcomponents of bicultural contexts may create stress within each of the primary ecodevelopmental adolescent contexts, including family, peers, and communities (Bonfenbrenner 1979, 1986). It is argued that each of these stressors due to monolingualism, discrimination, and differences in cultural values may be experienced at each ecodevelopmental level (family, peers, and communities) and it is the cumulative effect of stress over time that will negatively impact adolescent health.

Family. Family contexts are the primary means for socializing children into their ethnic minority culture and language (Hughes et al. 2006; Romero et al. 2000; Padilla 2006; Umaña-Taylor et al. 2006), and the pressure to maintain native languages within family contexts may be strong for adolescents. Being bilingual in bilingual contexts may be important in order to communicate with monolingual family members or even to feel comfortable in bilingual conversations (Romero and Roberts 2003a). Adolescents report feeling bicultural stress from needing to fluently speak both their native language and the dominant culture language (Romero and Roberts 2003a; Romero et al. 2007a; Romero et al. 2007b). Additionally, language differences within family contexts may lead to unique family-based stressors. For example, youth may learn to speak the dominant language quicker than their parents as a result of school, peer, and media exposure to the dominant language. Subsequently, youth may find that they are asked to translate for their parents in order to help them negotiate interactions with dominant cultural institutions, such as medical, financial, or other adult responsibilities. While some youth may feel proud and gain self-esteem from stepping into this critical family role, other youth without resources to translate effectively may feel stress. Some youth may feel stress translating only at certain times or in certain situations, despite the fact that overall they may feel pride in their family role as translator or proud to help family members when they need it most. However, some youth report that they feel stress because they are not fluent in both languages or do not have the authentic accents in both languages (Romero and Roberts 2003a; Romero et al. 2007a). Immigrant Latino youth were more likely than later generation Latinos to report stress from having to translate for parents or having to help parents, whereas, US-born Latino adolescents have been found to be more likely to report stress from the need to speak better Spanish (Romero and Roberts 2003a). No significant differences were found between Latino and Asian youth for reporting stress from having to translate for their parents, arguing with family about cultural traditions, feeling family is not united, and feeling like they cannot be like American kids; however, both groups reported significantly more of these stressors compared to European American youth (Romero et al. 2007a). European American youth often reported bicultural stress due to family obligations and stress from parents saying that teens don’t respect elders, there were no significant ethnic differences for these stressors compared to Latino or Asian youth.

Within nuclear and extended families, it is highly likely that family members will be at different stages of acculturation; moreover, they may have different immigration or documentation status, and they may have different levels of interactions with out-group members. Adolescents are likely to acculturate faster than their parents, grandparents, or other siblings; these family intergenerational differences may cause family conflict and stress (Gil et al. 2000; Szapocznick et al. 1978). When adolescents do not agree with all the same values or have the same experiences as other family members, they may feel stress due to lack of resources in minimizing family tension. One specific source of intergenerational acculturation conflicts has been documented among Latino families in mental health counseling sessions and is termed “cultural freezing,” which is described as when individuals become culturally “frozen” in a previous time period from their native country and idealize the culture and gender patterns from that time period (Flores-Ortiz 1993). Cultural freezing may be accompanied by a fear of losing one’s culture, and results in becoming more rigid about maintaining cultural norms, values, languages, and behaviors. This rigidity may lead to family conflicts around issues of cultural traditions. Immigrant Latino youth specifically have been more likely to report that they feel that they cannot be like American kids because of their parents’ values (Romero and Roberts 2003a). It has also been found that cultural-value gaps between parents, their children, and their children’s peers heighten within family conflicts (Baptiste 1993; Coatsworth et al. 2000). Conflict over peer relationships has been linked with more depressive symptoms not only for adolescents, but also for their mothers (Coatsworth et al. 2000). Parents may perceive that peers with different cultural values may influence their own child’s acculturation and some parents may want to limit the firsthand contact intercultural contact for their children due to rigidity in maintaining cultural values and norms.

Peers. Peer contexts are becoming increasingly relevant during adolescence, even for adolescents of collectivistic ethnic groups who tend to continue to place a high value on family relations (Cuéllar et al. 1995; Jensen-Arnett 1999). Peers may have strong influences on adolescents’ healthy development, identity, and values (Jensen-Arnett 1999). However, during middle school and especially during high school, young people also begin attending larger school contexts, in which they are more likely to be exposed to more heterogeneous demographics among their peer groups. For some youth, it may be the first time in their life where they begin to have continuous firsthand contact with individuals from a different cultural background than their own. Latino, Asian, and European American adolescents all report at some level that they feel stress from being uncomfortable around people from different cultures and from not understanding how people from different cultures act (Romero et al. 2007a). This is a commonly reported stressor among all ethnic groups, and in part may be because adolescents may be interacting for the first time with people from different cultures. Not all within-ethnic peer groups will have the same level of acculturation or be from the same ethnic or linguistic background; thus, peer conflicts may arise due to cultural differences in norms, values, languages, or shared symbols. For example, arguing with romantic others over cultural norms of dating or sexual behavior has been documented among Latino, Asian, and European American youth, although they were more common among Latinos (Romero et al. 2007a).

During adolescence, peer discrimination may be particularly stressful because positive acceptance by peers is highly salient and the perception of rejection, or the negative appraisal of one’s ethnic group by others, may have a strong impact on the mental health of adolescents (Arnett 2002; Romero and Roberts 1998; Spears-Brown and Bigler 2005; Williams-Morris 1996). Researchers define prejudice as the everyday negative interactions between ethnic groups that may result from ethnocentrism, and suggest that it may be a major source of stress for many minority groups (Allison 1998; Clark et al. 1999; Meyer 2004; Sellers and Shelton 2003). In fact, in a longitudinal study of diverse adolescents, Greene et al. (2006) found that peer discrimination had the most negative impact on self-esteem as compared to discrimination in general. Although a significant amount of research has investigated racial discrimination among African American adolescents, limited research has been conducted on the impact of negative stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination among other ethnic minorities (e.g., Latino or Asian Americans) or ethnic majority groups (Romero and Roberts 2003a; Umaña-Taylor et al. 2008). In one study, male adolescents were significantly more likely to report more stress due to being uncomfortable around ethnic jokes, which may suggest that some of these stressors have a gendered component in terms of frequency of experiences and degree of stressfulness (Romero et al. 2007a). Acculturative stress and assimilation models assumed that prejudice would be perpetuated by ethnic majority groups onto ethnic minorities; however, ethnic majority groups also experience stress from negative stereotypes or derogatory jokes about their ethnic group as well (Romero et al. 2007a; Romero et al. 2007b).

Through bicultural stress, youth also report stress within peer contexts from pressure to maintain their native culture. Thus, youth may also feel stress among their same-ethnic group peers to maintain the cultural values and language of their own ethnic group (Romero and Roberts 2003a). Another example of within-ethnic group stress is the use of derogatory terms to refer to within-group members who are perceived as “too assimilated” to the dominant culture and seem to be forgetting/losing their ethnic culture (LaFromboise et al. 1993; Oetting and Beauvais 1990–91). Commonly used derogatory terms such as “oreo” (Black on the outside, and White on the inside) indicate that, despite exterior racial phenotype, individuals are really more oriented to the dominant white culture and may even be turning their backs on their own culture and within-ethnic group members. Similar sentiments and examples exist among other ethnic minority groups in the United States, including “apple” (Native American), “banana” (Asian), or “coconut” (Latino) (LaFromboise et al. 1993; Oetting and Beauvais 1990–91). Latino youth were more likely than Asian or European American youth to report stress from friends thinking that they “act White” (Romero et al. 2007a); this type of derogatory term may be used to try to maintain within-group culture by putting down the dominant group culture. Another source of within-group ethnic pressure may be to join a gang to represent one’s ethnic background or neighborhood; it is common for some gangs to have strong affiliations with their native countries, languages, or customs. Stress to join a gang to represent one’s ethnicity was reported by youth from Latino, Asian, and European ethnic backgrounds, but was significantly more often reported by Latinos and Asians (Romero et al. 2007a). For ethnic majority adolescents who are numerical minorities in some peer settings, they may also feel pressure to adopt the minority culture or learn the native language so that they can communicate with peers and understand shared cultural symbols (Romero et al. 2007a; Romero et al. 2007b).

Community. Community contexts for adolescents will most likely include schools, but may also include police, border patrol, and neighborhood stores. In schools, youth may experience language and prejudice issues from teachers and administrators. Asian youth report that they feel stress because of being treated poorly in school due to poor English fluency (Romero and Roberts 2003a; Romero et al. 2007a). Latino immigrant youth were significantly more likely than US-born Latinos to report that they have problems at school because they are not fluent in English (Romero and Roberts 2003a). There is also the potential that, within school settings, language issues and prejudice may lead to discrimination or unfair treatment based on ethnicity or race that may impact adolescents’ grades, disciplinary results, or access to school services (Cammarota 2004). Discrimination and prejudice may also occur for adolescents during interactions with police or border patrol (Fisher et al. 2000). Neighborhood stores are another setting where adolescents may experience bicultural stressors with store clerks; in some communities, youth may feel the need to be able to effectively interact in a language other than English in order to obtain services. Youth also report that at times they are followed in stores and made to feel uncomfortable because of their race, phenotype, or accent. Community level discrimination may have serious implications for adolescents because it may result not only in negative interactions, but also in arrests. Additionally, research has documented how community expectations of adolescents may result in self-fulfilling prophecies (Niemann 2004), such that stereotypes that criminalize adolescents may influence adolescent risk behaviors (Romero et al. 2007b). In fact, the authors have found that more bicultural stress is significantly associated with more risky behaviors that range from substance use to violent behavior among adolescents from European American and Latino backgrounds (Romero et al. 2007b).

Bicultural Context and Ethnic Majority Groups

While many acculturation models emphasize exchange between cultures (see van de Vijver and Phalet 2004; Zagefka and Brown 2002), most acculturation research has focused on the one-way acculturation of minority groups to the majority culture (Carvajal et al. 2002). In the past, it had been argued that minority ethnic groups experience unequal pressure to assimilate due to less power and lower status, whereas majority ethnic groups have minimal or no pressure to acculturate to the minority culture (Berry 2003). Thus, acculturative stress from navigating between more than one culture would be predominantly experienced by minority groups. The bidimensional aspect of orthogonal acculturation theory makes investigating bicultural stress more applicable to majority groups. Furthermore, demographics are rapidly changing on a worldwide basis such that societies are no longer as homogeneously stable as they once were, and the lack of numerical majorities can shift the power dynamics of cultural exchange (Pedrotti, et al. 2009). However, culturally dominant groups who retain privilege in terms of norms, values, and politics will not experience acculturative stress in the same manner as numerical minorities because there is likely to be significantly less pressure to adopt new cultural ways of being. So, although ethnic majority groups may experience acculturative stress to adopt aspects of the minority culture, they may not feel as much pressure to adopt cultural values and norms. Thus, acculturative stress may be more frequent among ethnic minority groups, although such stressors have also been reported among European American individuals (Romero et al. 2007a; Romero et al. 2007b). For example, one study found that, while not as many European Americans reported experiencing the stressor, ethnic differences on degree of stressfulness only occurred for 2 out of 20 items. This finding may indicate that while bicultural stress may not be as prevalent for ethnic majority groups, when they do experience bicultural stressors, it can have a stressful impact that is similar to that experienced by ethnic minorities. However, given that scales of bicultural stress were created and normed based on ethnic minority samples, it is possible that unique types of bicultural stress experienced by ethnic majority youth have not yet been captured in existing quantitative measures; perhaps qualitative research would be useful to further investigate the experiences of navigating between more than one culture among ethnic majority groups.

It is believed that a broad perspective on acculturative stress is an important contribution to the understanding of youth stressors globally, not only for immigrants, but also for minority and majority groups (e.g., Bourhis et al. 1997). While not all types of bicultural stress may be as relevant for ethnic majority groups, one that is more often reported is that of prejudice/discrimination. In a previous study of discrimination among a multi-ethnic group of adolescents, perceived racial prejudice reports were generally higher for African American and Latino youth, even though all ethnic groups, including European Americans, reported some level of perceived prejudice. Negative stereotypes of ethnic minority groups have been well documented; yet, little research has considered the existing stereotypes of ethnic majority groups. For example, popular culture stereotypes such as “white men can’t jump” or “white men can’t dance” are perpetuated by ethnic minority communities in the United States. In fact, one of the most frequently reported bicultural stressor for European American adolescents was derogatory ethnic jokes (Romero et al. 2007a; Romero et al. 2007b). Power and privilege does impact the tenor of these types of stereotypes, such that the stereotyping of a Latino or African American as a criminal may lead to fear, racial profiling, and criminalization; serious impacts from the type of stereotypes about ethnic majority groups are less likely (Niemann 2004).

Bicultural Stress and Mental/Physical Health

Adolescents’ mental health and externalizing, or risk behaviors, are central indicators of their health during this developmental period (CDC 2004; Jessor 1998). Epidemiological reports indicate that ethnic minority youth have disparate rates of depressive symptoms, suicide, and an array of risk behaviors (Eaton et al. 2008). One way to advance health disparities research is by examining plausible psychosocial factors that may better explain disparities than broad ethnic labels (e.g., Bradby 2003; Nazroo 2001; Walsh et al. 2000). Stress has been found to be associated with more risky behaviors in multiple studies (Bennett et al. 2005; Booker et al. 2004; Krieger et al. 2005). Scholars have increasingly articulated the negative impact of stress on health outcomes, particularly stress related to discrimination and prejudice (Karlsen and Nazroo 2002; Mays et al. 2007; Williams et al. 2003). Understanding risk factors that are amenable to change can improve the efficacy of prevention, intervention, and mental health services for adolescents.

Latino adolescents who experience acculturative stress and/or discrimination report more negative mental health outcomes (e.g., Cervantes et al. 1991; Hovey 2000; Krieger et al. 2005; Samaniego and Gonzales 1999; Szalacha et al. 2003; Vega et al. 1998). Moreover, measures of subjective bicultural stress and/or bicultural conflict have been examined in Mexican American and Chinese American samples and were positively associated with depressive symptoms among both immigrants and US-born individuals (Benet-Martínez et al. 2002; Romero and Roberts 2003a). The combined additive nature of bicultural stress is important to explore in terms of the negative effect on mental health among adolescents. In a study with Latino, Asian, and European American adolescents, bicultural stress was found to be associated with depressive symptoms for all ethnic groups, even after accounting for gender, socioeconomic status, and language (Romero et al. 2007a). Furthermore, bicultural stressors have been empirically linked with more risky behaviors among both Latino/a youth and White youth, including smoking, drinking, drug use, and violence (Romero et al. 2007b).

Bicultural stress has been found to have similar effects on mental and physical health among Latino and Asian adolescents, who are ethnic minorities; moreover, it has also been found to have similar significant associations with mental and physical health with White adolescent populations, who are ethnic majorities in the United States (Romero et al. 2007a; Romero et al. 2007b). In fact, in two studies on bicultural stress, most ethnic differences between Latinos and Whites were no longer significant after accounting for sociodemographic factors. These findings support arguments that ethnic labels need to be contexualized within sociodemographic factors in order to capture the multiplicity of social positions; for example, socioeconomic status and gender may also contribute to stress (e.g., Phinney 1996). Bicultural stress has implications for individuals from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and has been considered in health research with ethnic groups that include European American, Mexican American, Latino, Asian American, American Indian, Muslim Americans, French-born US immigrants, Soviet Union immigrant girls, and Chinese Americans (Benner and Kim 2009; Chédebois et al. 2009; Jeltova et al. 2005; LaFromboise et al. 2007; Sirin and Fine 2008). This research may lead to a better match between prevention, intervention, and mental health services for all adolescents that meet their needs while considering bicultural contexts.

Predictive Differences by Immigrant Status and Gender

Bicultural stressors have been found to be most prevalent among adolescent immigrants (Berry 2003; Cervantes et al. 1991; Hovey 2000); immigrating during the adolescent developmental period has been associated with the worst mental health and educational outcomes compared to immigration during earlier childhood periods (Padilla et al. 1986). Youth may directly experience issues of immigration, or native-born adolescents may indirectly experience immigration stressors through their family members, romantic partners, or friends (Romero and Roberts 2003a). Young people, immigrant or not, may also be experiencing effects of anti-immigrant sentiment which is shaped by national and local rhetoric connected to immigration policy (O’Leary 2009). Immigrant youth were significantly more likely to report a high level of stressfulness due to immigration concerns with friends and family (Romero and Roberts 2003a). Immigrant youth may have less proficiency in the dominant language, and youth speaking less English have been found to report more bicultural stressors compared to bilingual or English speaking youth (e.g., LaFromboise et al. 1993; Romero and Roberts 2003a; Romero et al. 2007a; Romero et al. 2007b). Given the worldwide increases in immigration, issues of healthy development for immigrant youth are important at a global level; yet there is minimal research with this population. More investigations with immigrant youth that consider individual and ecological context theories with longitudinal methodological approaches are much needed in this area.

Although gender differences are minimal in the reporting of bicultural stressors or in the intensity of stressors, males were more likely than females to report frequency of stress due to discrimination resulting from being treated badly because of accent, problems at school because of poor English, and significantly more intense stress due to derogatory ethnic jokes (Romero et al. 2007a). Previous studies have not reported gender differences in acculturative stress or its relation to mental well-being (Cervantes et al. 1991; Hovey 1998; Romero and Roberts 2003a). In terms of the relation between bicultural stress and mental well-being, Latina girls who reported more bicultural stressors were significantly more likely to report less optimism, whereas this relation was not found for boys (Romero et al. 2007a). Given that Latina girls also have the highest national rates of depressive symptoms, suicide plans, and suicide attempts compared to other ethnic/gender groups, it may be worthwhile to further investigate the gendered differences of experiences of bicultural stress (Zayas et al. 2005). The work of Zayas et al. (2005) describes an ecodevelopmental approach to understanding family interactions for Latina girls and the impact on their mental well-being as a way to capture both family conflict and family support and coping. By integrating multiple elements of girls’ ecologies within bicultural and family contexts, researchers and mental health service providers may be able to create more effective prevention strategies and services. There is a need to further investigate cultural strengths that exist within ethnic minority groups as well as understand the effective strategies that adolescents develop to navigate more than one cultural context and that can be generalized to other adolescents.


Bicultural stress is the subjective appraisal of stress that may result from social interactions in family, peer, or community contexts that require consideration of different cultural norms, values, languages, or shared symbols. Bicultural stress has been found among adolescents of ethnic minority and ethnic majority groups. Furthermore, bicultural stress has been found to be associated with more depressive symptoms, less optimism, and more risky behaviors. Clearly, the consideration of bicultural contexts on the experience and perception of stress among adolescents of all ethnic backgrounds is relevant for their mental and physical health. Additionally, given the increased globalization of societies across the world with transnational media and immigration, it is more critical than ever to understand adolescents’ ability to effectively navigate between more than one culture – among both ethnic minority groups as well as ethnic majority groups (Compas, Davis et al. 1987; Haritatos and Benet-Martínez 2002; LaFromboise et al. 1993). It is hoped that, by articulating the specific details of bicultural experiences of stress, the work will lead to elucidating the type of bicultural skill building necessary for healthy development of adolescents in bicultural contexts. Future research can advance the understanding of adolescents in bicultural contexts from a strengths approach that can lead to improved adolescent health and improved social interactions between different cultural groups (Pedrotti et al. 2009).





Language Brokering

Multiracial Identity

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