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September 27, 2016
by Hilda Huj

Immigrant Children: Value of Play Therapy

September 27, 2016 22:02 by Hilda Huj  [About the Author]

Throughout human history, migration has been a fact of life. However, as a result of globalization, it currently affects more people than ever before. Amnesty International ("People on the move", n.d.) reports that more than 230 million people live outside their country of birth. That is about 3% of the world's global population. And that number grows every day. Therefore, it is extremely important to focus attention on psychological and psychosocial effects that immigration has on individuals. 

Who is Immigrating?

Psychologists in the past have focused their attention almost exclusively on immigrating adults, and have tended to present children as appendages to their parents rather than as distinct subjects worthy of investigation (Sung, 1985). Therefore, a typical immigrant was conceptualized as a young adult, who has been socialized in his or her home country and then relocated to another country. Little attention was given to children. 

What About the Children?

Immigrant children were often thought to be socialized in the new country. Thus, it was thought that immigrant children generally have an easier time adapting than adults because they are younger, more malleable, and more exposed to the new culture through the school system in the new country (Chud, 1982).

However, with time, it became obvious that information gained from research on immigrant adults lack developmental perspective. Furthermore, Ashworth (1982, as cited in  Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, &Qin-Hilliard, 2014)  pointed out that children’s immigration experiences vary greatly from the experiences of immigrant adults. Immigrant children do not choose their migration, and in some instances neither understand nor accept the reasons they are given to justify their move to a new country. Because of that, more researchers have sought to focus their attention on immigrant children, and the impact that immigration can have on their well-being. 

How Immigration Affects Child Well-Being?

UNICEF (2007) established six dimensions of child well-being: material well-being, health and safety, educational well-being, relationships, behaviour and risks, and subjective well-being.

There is no doubt that immigrant children face different and various problems that can adversely affect their well-being. Hernandez (2004) noted that the socioeconomic background and family situation, problems of integration, language difficulties, school segregation, the process of selection of migrants, the level of parents’ education and time since migration present crucial factors that affect the education of migrated children. Furthermore, immigrant children are more likely to suffer from social exclusion, often due to an inability to participate in economic, social, and cultural life, and in some characteristics, alienation and distance from mainstream society (Duffy, 1995). 

According to Mendoza, Javier, and Burgos (2007), health of immigrant children is seriously threatened by stress due to the loss of family, friends, and habitual surroundings. Also, if children learn the foreign language faster than their parents, the latter will urge children to communicate with the authorities; consequently imposing pressure upon them. Furthermore, questions about their identity and sense of belonging, the fear of deportation, and discrimination can cause problems and that problem can be transferred into adulthood.         

There is far more adversity that immigrant children might face, and there are different variables (motivation for immigration, socio-economic status, social support, sex, age, etc.) which may affect their developmental experiences over time. Ironically, studies have shown that majority of immigrant children are not maladjusted. In fact, research show that there is substantial heterogeneity of outcomes among immigrants and that there is the so-called immigrant paradox: children of immigrants often fare better than children of natives, even when they appear to face some disadvantages (Washbrook, Waldfogel, Bradbury, Corak, & Ganghro, 2012). However, when disorders do appear, they tend to manifest in two distinctive ways: as behaviour disorders and identity disorders in adolescence (Aronowitz, 1948; as cited in Suárez-Orozco et. al, 2014). 

Therefore, we can conclude that immigrant children do face difficulties when they move to a new country, but most of them find ways to adjust. Our duty is to help them on their journey and keep their well-being at a high level. Very useful tool in this fight for their well-being is play therapy because it can be used as a prevention and/or intervention tool. 

Why Play Therapy?

Play is the "native language" of children. It presents an innate and universal communication system, in which children communicate in a director symbolic way (Landreth, 2002). In the play, there are no cultural and/or language barriers.

For almost 100 years, play has been used in play therapy. And, today, play therapy presents recognized and practiced therapeutic alternative with children, for a variety of issues.

Play therapy provides a secure relationship between a therapist and a child, in which the child can reach self-awareness, self-direction, and self-healing ability and access the self-actualizing tendency (Ogawa, 2006). Play therapy is also culturally responsive. The basic tenets of play therapy are universal, however, careful considerations and some modifications of play therapy can be incorporated in order to make therapists more cross-culturally competent and responsive. These modifications could include: building sensitivity, gaining knowledge responsibility, and translating obtained knowledge into action (Gill, 2005).

Therefore, it is apparent that there are many ways in which play therapy can help immigrant children. 

How Will Play Therapy Benefit a Child?

Play therapy helps children to (Axline, 1948; Costantino, Malgady, & Roger, 1986;  Garza& Barton, 2005, as cited in Ogawa, 2006; Reddy, Files-Hall, & Schaefer, 2005):

  •        feel less anxious
  •        have less externalizing behaviour problems, such as aggressive behaviours
  •        comprehend better
  •        develop respect and acceptance of self and others
  •        develop the ability to get beneath the surface
  •        be more mature, feel better and more adjusted
  •        develop new and creative solutions to problems
  •        learn how to experience and express emotions
  •        learn new social skills and relational skills with family.

The curative powers inherent in play are used in many ways in play therapy. Therefore, it is not possible to list all benefits of play therapy with immigrant children. However, from the latter, it is evident how important play therapy is and how it has a big potential to help children to keep their well-being at a high level. 


Working in a multicultural environment ( and coming from a different cultural environment (Central Europe), made me recognize the importance of cultural sensitivity in therapy. From my personal experience, I can see how important it is for a therapist to develop cultural competence, and have seen what great results that can have in therapy with children. 

It is very important to highlight that play therapy is not only a treatment for problems that occur, but also a useful tool that can prevent those problems to ever show up. Therefore, every adult should be sensitive to needs that children have and, if they think that a child could benefit from play therapy, reach out and find someone who is able to help. And, even though this seems like an easy and simple task, we have to be aware of the difficult situation that parents of immigrant children face. The process of immigration is not easy, and can easily overwhelm a person. So, it is really important that we all are sensitive to the needs that children have. Especially professionals who work with children.


Amnesty International. (n.d.). People On The Move. Retrieved from

Chud, B. (1982). The threshold model: A conceptual framework for understanding and assisting children of immigrants. In R. C. Nann (Ed.), Uprooting and Survivin: Adaptation and Resettlement of Migrant Families and Children (pp. 95-100). Dordrecht Holland: Reidel Publishing.

Duffy, K. (1995). Social Exclusion and human dignity in Europe. Strasbourg, France : Council of Europe.

Gil, E. (2005). From sensitivity to competence in working across cultures. In E. Gil. & A. Drewes (Eds.), Cultural issues in play therapy (pp. 3-25). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Hernandez, D. (2004). Demographic change and the life circumstances of immigrant families. The Future of Children, 14, 1748.

Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play therapy: The art of the relationship. Bristrl, PA: Accelerated Development. 

Mendoza, F. S., J. R. Javier, & Burgos, A. E. (2007). Health of Children in Immigrant Families. In J. E. Lansford, K. DeaterDeckard, & M. H. Bornstein (Eds.), Immigrant Families in Contemporary Society (pp. 30-50). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Reddy, L., Files-Hall, T., & Schaefer, C.E. (2005). Empirically Based Play Interventions for Children. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Suárez-Orozco, M. M., Suárez-Orozco, S., &Qin-Hilliard, D. (2014). The New Immigrant and the American Family: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the New Immigration: 4. London, UK: Routledge Chapman Hall.

Sung, B. L. (1985). Bi-cultural Conflicts in Chinese Immigrant Children. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 2, 255-269.

UNICEF (2007). Child Poverty in Perspective: An overview of child wellbeing in rich countries – A comprehensive assessment of the lives and wellbeing and adolescents in the economically advanced nations. Florence, Italy: Innocenti Research Centre.

Washbrook, E., Waldfogel,J., Bradbury, B., Corak, M., &Ganghro, A. A. (2012). The Development of Young Children of Immigrants in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Child Development, 83(5), 1591–1607.

About the Author

Hilda Huj Hilda Huj, B.A., M.A.

Hilda is a registered clinical counselling and forensic psychologist in Edmonton, Alberta. She specializes in working with youth, adults and families that have been impacted by trauma. She completed a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degree in Psychology in Osijek, Croatia, and subsequently equated her academic credentials to Canadian standards. Currently, she volunteers with the Edmonton Police Services as a Victim Support Worker and also helps to promote Psychology by volunteering for the Psychologists’ Association of Alberta.

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