The children of immigration are a heterogeneous universe. The term refers, on the one hand, to children and young people who have accompanied their parents in the migration process, either by making the journey together, or by joining them after a few months or years through family reunification.

Those young people who were born when their parents were already residing in the foreign country can also be considered as the sons and daughters of immigration, the so-called second generation immigrants, as if their immigrant status could be transmitted, carried over or inherited. This article intends to gather some reflections about the sons and daughters of immigrants who are or have reached a stage of the life cycle commonly considered critical as it is the adolescence, and the “exiles” that occur in them.

Transits of adolescent children from immigration

The adolescent suffers, among many aspects, from maturity. It is assumed that they have a deficiency that must be resolved, prescribing a period of formation and development that will allow the lack to be resolved. From an anthropological perspective, adolescence can be approached as a period of transit, of passage; it is a stage that in pre-industrial societies has been fully ritualized. Here it is proposed that the adolescent children of migration are forced to go through all kinds of vicissitudes; not only those related to a migratory process, parallel and with particularities with respect to that of their parents, but a fourfold migration around 4 elements: body, territory, certainties and rights. Four metaphorical and literal migratory processes that intertwine, feed back and enhance each other; journeys in which children-youth are led involuntarily, and in principle without the possibility of return, allowing these last particularities to consider these transits, more than a simple migration, as an exile.

With respect to migration and exile, it is common to talk about the duels that it brings. The word mourning works in all four exile in its two connotations, that of pain, around the rupture and acceptance of the multiple losses that adolescents are forced to assume; and in the connotation of conflict, challenge and struggle, regarding the obstacles and challenges to be overcome.

Exile I: Body

The first exile refers to the transformations that adolescence itself brings with it. Adolescence is not a sought-after option: mutations simply happen. The adolescent is expelled, forcibly, and without any possibility of return, from his infantile world, from his pre-pubertal body, from his magical thinking . They increase on the one hand their quotas of freedom, but diminish (and it is necessary to renounce) aspects to which they were firmly attached, and which provided privileges, prerogatives and comforts.

It is necessary to adapt to a new body, to the new demands of their parents, of their peers, of society, which through the media floods them with messages about what is expected of them. The sense of what they have been and what they have been doing is in crisis.

Questions arise about who one is, how one would like to be, how one should be, how one is perceived. Hormones are pressing. Priorities and aspirations change, become more complex. Games have increasingly serious implications. The paradise of the childish world no longer provides multiple satisfactions and new responsibilities are acquired. In the face of emptiness and uncertainty, there is a great need to belong, that is, to be equal and at the same time unique, to be different. The gaze and opinion of others are despised and at the same time their approval and recognition becomes vital.

It is a time of exploration of the different areas to which one begins to have access and is therefore also a period of confusion, of falls, of discoveries, of illusions and disenchantments. Of facing up to an accumulation of insecurities, contradictions and ambiguities.

For him or her, parents are no longer wise and omnipotent, but annoying, backward and coercive adults who are loved or hated, denigrated and admired according to the moment. Idols are now singers, actors, sportsmen, the group of friends. One of the challenges for adolescents is to recognize their parents and themselves in their humanity, in their imperfection, in their contradictions. The greatest desire of the adolescent is to be left alone, but at the same time he or she longs for parental care and protection. These contradictions sometimes make him feel like the best in the world and sometimes the most unfortunate.

Adolescence represents the updating of the myth of children’s rebellion against their parents, that indispensable challenge for the establishment of a new social order, or at least new conditions of that social order. It is an act in the adventure for the encounter with oneself. The expulsion from the children’s paradise is the path of knowledge, of choice, of transformation. It is a painful and enriching exile necessary for the development of autonomy and of a broader, more complex and deeper awareness of oneself and of the world.

The wound from the exile of adolescence does not fully heal. The relative adaptation that has been achieved is no longer appropriate in the face of new demands of the context. Thus, after some period of relative stability, in which the foundations of a flexible identity are built, circumstances will emerge that will conveniently awaken our nonconformity, our rebelliousness and the desire to do things, to be or live in a different way.

Exile II: Territory

The adolescent children of immigrants add to the identity crisis, dissatisfaction and conflict that usually occurs in adolescence, the conditions generating tension and uncertainty that surround the migration process.

In adults, migration is usually a voluntary decision supported by desires and motivations that function as a support to get a constructive idea of the situations that can be found in the host environment, thus facilitating the process of adaptation. Children and adolescents, on the other hand, can be considered as involuntary migrants, since they are frequently taken out of their living space, their daily life, their ties, their territory, those aspects that provide them with security, without being able to actively participate in the decision and above all without being able to measure the ruptures and abandonment that it implies. They are, in a way, dragged into the decision of adults, who often rationalize their well-being (that of the children) as a motor for family migration. For many children and adolescents, migration can be perceived as more than an opportunity, it can be seen as a threat to lose many elements to which they are strongly attached.

Probably the ones who have to deal with more loss situations are the children or teenagers who were in charge of a close relative while their parents got certain conditions that allowed them to bring them with them. They have to face a double mourning, first the separation of one or both parents, and later that of their caregiver, who after, in many cases, years of waiting, may have become a parental figure with strong emotional ties to which they have to detach themselves again. In addition, building a bond with the parents, after years of estrangement, can also be problematic.

For them, for those who have come with their parents and for the children of immigrants who were born in the host country, it is particularly relevant to be exposed to two environments of socialization, that of their place of origin, represented by their parents, and the place of reception that is manifested in the interactions that they establish in their school, with the media and in the “street”. These two environments of socialization can have dissimilar demands, expectations and principles. Even the same conception of adolescence and what is expected of them at this stage may differ in both contexts. There are usually differences in the consumption models, in the way of relating with adults, in the relationships established inside the families.

The double context of socialization becomes relevant during adolescence, considering that it is a critical period for the construction of identity, becoming of utmost importance the way in which one is perceived and valued by others, being these last aspects the basis on which one builds self-esteem.

With the arrival of adolescence, the cognitive capacity to recognize the values with respect to the group to which one belongs and with which one relates is intensified. In this way, the adolescent becomes more aware of, and even sometimes hypersensitive to, situations of discrimination, pejorative prejudices and xenophobic attitudes to which he may be exposed at school and in the street. This ability to distinguish between social groups is also evident in the adolescents of the place of refuge, and it is the moment when they tend to express prejudices and xenophobic attitudes that had not been manifested in childhood. Many children in the receiving group who used to share time and space with immigrant children, stop doing so when they reach adolescence. Attitudes of discrimination towards immigrant adolescents may also increase as they are perceived by people in the receiving group as more threatening by getting closer to the adult body.

The negative feedback the adolescent receives from the majority group, which places their reference group as inferior in a social hierarchy, can be a great source of frustration and emotional distress. In view of the above, the adolescent may choose to try to blend in with the majority group, adopting in a forceful way the ways of being and behaving of their adolescent peers in the receiving group. Sometimes the attempt to blend in is received by the adolescents of the receiving group with indifference or manifest rejection, which is quite devastating for the adolescent immigrant. It is clear that not all adolescent children of immigration are exposed to the same prejudices, and it is usual that a social hierarchy related to the place of origin, physical appearance but above all by the socio-economic condition attributed to them can be revealed.

The attempt to mimic and identify with the receiving group as a reaction to the negative perception of the group itself may be accompanied by a feeling of rejection of one’s culture of origin. This adds to the generation gap between parents and adolescents, which often has an impact on the conflicts that arise between them, the rejection and shame that they may feel with respect to their parents, as they are representatives of the culture that is negatively valued in the host context.

Faced with the rejection and indifference of adolescents from the majority group, the adolescent can then seek refuge and welcome in adolescents from the same culture or who are going through similar circumstances of discrimination. Identities of resistance are then built, in which adolescents mostly relate to other immigrant adolescents, trying to highlight or build ways of being with which they can feel part of a community that supports them, manifested in certain types of music, ways of talking, dressing, walking. The group of peers becomes a refuge from the perception of a hostile environment.

The double context of socialization can also be experienced by adolescents as diverse demands and requirements of two groups to which they keep a feeling of loyalty. It can be seen as an updating of the archetypal conflict between the tradition represented by the parents and the new and renewing, represented by the receiving culture.

When the adolescent has a family environment that provides sufficient support and recognition, and a social context of the receiving group that is sufficiently respectful of their particularities. The adolescent manages to maintain the tension of the conflict of loyalties, allowing him/her to explore and “play” with the possibilities and benefits of each socialization context. The adolescent then identifies and promotes in himself those aspects of both contexts that are more attractive and interesting to him according to the vital moment he is going through. They then obtain a broader and more complex perspective of themselves and others, perceiving the fact of living between two cultural contexts more as an enrichment than as a limitation. The double contexts of socialization allow adolescents to develop the so-called multicultural competences, that is, the positive management of cultural diversity that is currently common to find in working environments, leisure, etc… as well as the ability to develop adequately in cultural contexts different from their own.

Many writers and artists attribute part of their creative capacity to the strangeness and tension of living between two cultures. The children of immigrant adolescents have the advantage of being more aware that each person and culture is a kaleidoscope of influences of ambivalent dynamics, of mixtures.

Exile III: Certainties

This third exile is shared by the adolescents with the rest of the inhabitants of the contemporary world, but they are more vulnerable to its impact because of the sum of the previous exiles. It refers to the involuntary expulsion without the possibility of return of the certainties and rationalities of modernity.

The world to which contemporary adolescents have landed is an unpredictable one, where ambiguity of roles, fading utopias and fluidity of attachments predominate. It is described as a liquid, volatile world, difficult to grasp. A society in which it is necessary to constantly coexist with risk and uncertainty; where time and space have been constrained. It is proposed that religion, science, politics have ceased to be institutions that mediate meaning, or at least in the way that they were for previous generations.

In today’s world, there are more and more choices for adolescents in terms of their ways of being and doing. Such a magnitude of options gives feelings of freedom but also generates vertigo and confusion. Their identifications are therefore ephemeral, volatile, emotional, contagious, and paradoxical. Traditional ways and progressive attitudes can coexist in a person. A desire for novelty and an interest in their roots.

The predominant dynamics of the contemporary world have many aspects that make it similar to the adolescent character. Like them, the post-modern world is not very clear about what it is or where it is headed.

For some social scientists like Michel Maffesoli, the contemporary world is in search of new principles, logics and modes of relationship. He considers that modernity and its conception of the world are saturated, even questioning one of its fundamental premises, the notion of progress. We find ourselves then in the somewhat erratic search for new paradigms that will make viable or at least postpone for a while more the experiment of humanity as part of the ecosystem of this planet.

Migration, which has increased dramatically in recent decades, is a defining feature of the contemporary world, being both a consequence and a driving force of the transformations that are being generated. The adolescent children of migration are therefore an exalted expression of the emerging world, in which they and their descendants will be the protagonists.

Exile IV: Rights

The condition of immigrant or certain type of immigrant continues to be a strong factor of vulnerability to discrimination and inhibition in the enjoyment of fundamental rights on which human dignity is based. For former exiles, the adolescent children of migration have to face the fact that many of them are excluded from the possibility of leading a dignified life, in which they can develop their potential on an equal footing with other adolescents.

Many of the teenagers have to live with the fear that one of their parents will be expelled because they have not managed to regularize their residence after many years and a life built on it. Some are forced to return to their country of origin, sometimes a place they hardly know.

They may also be suspected by the police of having links with gangs or groups that have committed violence, and their right to travel without having to explain their appearance or manner of dress is restricted.

They are also exposed to their parents’ precarious work, to their frustration, to the fact that they sometimes have to work many more hours than other parents, in order to get enough money to support themselves. They are not able to participate in the election of those in power, to influence the policies that affect them.

It is not possible to renounce human rights and dignity without feeling mutilated. The exile of rights should not be mourned, but channelled into becoming the motor of activism and claiming against any kind of exclusion. Conveniently unresolved mourning for rights is the spark for resistance to unworthy living conditions.

And the parents of the exiles?

Faced with the difficulties, some parents wonder if it was not a mistake to have emigrated and expose their children to situations that now feel out of hand. There may be uncertainty as to whether the difficulties they are going through are part of adolescence, or a consequence of being between two cultures, or their personality, or the way their relationship with them has deteriorated. Doubts, for example, about whether when your child states that he or she is discriminated against at school, this corresponds to objective facts, to a hypersensitivity, or an excuse to justify his or her neglect.

Fear and impotence in the face of ambiguous gender roles, the experience of sexuality, and the high consumption of alcohol and drugs to which their children are exposed. Doubts also about how far they should go in their role as parents, about the limits between being authoritarian and understanding, controlling or too permissive, about what is the best strategy to get what we would want from them, and about what is in their best interest. The use of leisure time is perhaps one of the biggest issues of conflict.

You may feel guilt for the mistakes that may have been made in your education, and anxiety for those that will surely continue to be made.

For parents, their children’s adolescence can also be experienced as exile. They may feel the degrees of autonomy they acquire and the identification of their children with the host context as an abandonment. They are forced to mourn their child’s childhood, to renounce being their idol, to sometimes endure being the subject on which they channel their frustration. To gradually lose their degree of dependence, which on the one hand may have been experienced as a relief, but also with frustration at no longer being so immensely important to someone.

It is necessary to learn to renegotiate a new type of relationship with a person who is no longer a child but also not completely an adult, who asks for responsibilities, who needs limits, but also confidence to take risks.

It also implies that they assume that no matter how much they want to, it is impossible to control all the variables that prevent their children from being exposed to situations that will make them suffer. Assuming also, that they did not come into the world to fulfill the expectations and dreams of the parents. Be open to being surprised by their uniqueness, and try not to burden them with your own fears, prejudices and labels.

An adolescent usually implies a resituation of the whole family dynamic, roles that are transformed, attitudes and behaviours that no longer make sense. Adolescents, for example, require less attention, less energy than when they were children. Leftover energy that parents will need to re-situate in their own lives, in their own projects. The best thing that can happen to a teenager is to have a parent who feels relatively comfortable with himself or herself. A father and a mother who take care of part of his motivations and interests for his own well-being and who assume and manage his own exiles.