July 20, 2017 / 9:05 PM / a year ago

Support at home and in school tied to resilience in child refugees

(Reuters Health) - Refugee kids may fare better in their new country when they have support from a variety of people at home, in school and in their community, a small Australian study suggests.

Researchers followed 43 new arrivals for two to three years and found that kids with at least four so-called protective factors, like a two-parent household, financial security and proximity to their own ethnic community, had better social and emotional wellbeing than refugee children with less support.

Previous research has found refugee children can be highly resilient and adjust well to their new homes, the authors note in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

“This is very important for us to know as it enables host countries to actively address these factors in order to optimize health and wellbeing in refugee children,” said lead study author Dr. Karen Zwi of the University of New South Wales and Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network.

To foster a more supportive environment for child refugees, host countries might, for example, provide families with housing and financial assistance, help parents find jobs and assist schools in creating supportive environments with sports clubs, homework help and language assistance, Zwi said by email.

“For those more vulnerable children who have fewer protective factors, or are at higher risk for poor social-emotional outcomes, we can provide preventive and proactive support to try to buffer them or protect them to make their outcomes as good as they can be,” Zwi added.

“In the long run, better social-emotional wellbeing is likely to predict improved adult productivity, educational level and overall capacity to give back to the host country,” Zwi said.

For the study, researchers examined data collected on refugee children two and three years after their arrival in Australia between 2009 and 2011. At the start of the study, kids ranged in age from 4 to 17 years old.

After children had been in the country for two years, researchers asked their parents to complete questionnaires designed to assess social and emotional wellbeing and the risk of stress-related illness. Parents were asked to do the same questionnaires again a year later.

Among the children for whom there was data from both questionnaires, all of the kids with at least six protective factors had similar or better results in the second social and emotional wellbeing assessments compared to the first time around.

In contrast, for roughly two-thirds of the kids with only one protective factor wellbeing had deteriorated by the time of the second assessment.

The protective factors that seemed to have the biggest impact on improved wellbeing scores were having a father present when kids arrived in the country, coming from Africa, having relatives in Australia prior to arrival and proximity to their own ethnic community, the study found.

One limitation of the study, however, is that only 39 kids had complete questionnaires at two years and just 38 kids had complete questionnaires after three years. In addition, researchers only had data on protective factors for 31 kids at year two and 33 children at year three.

Even so, the findings highlight the importance of post-immigration factors in shaping how well refugee children adjust to their new country, said Dr. Hamish Graham, a researcher at the Center for International Child Health at the University of Melbourne.

“Other studies have also found that parental psychological wellbeing and family functioning are among the most significant predictors of child health and wellbeing, and this has certainly been my experience working with refugee children and families,” Graham, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

“Refugee families commonly experience ongoing stress due to financial hardship, housing, making social connections, and navigating new school, health and social service systems,” Graham added. “As a society, we should view support for families through these challenges as an important investment in their social and emotional wellbeing.”

SOURCE: bit.ly/2tjDXb0 Archives of Disease in Childhood, online July 11, 2017.

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