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Study: Children of 'immigrant background' have lower grades, more mental health problems

An extensive study carried out by health agency THL found that parental background can significantly impact a child's welfare.

Oppilas kirjoittaa koulukirjaansa.
File photo of a child in class in a school in the city of Kouvola. Image: Antro Valo / Yle
Yle News

Children born in Finland into a family where one parent or both parents are of immigrant background are more likely to perform worse at school and suffer mental health problems, according to an extensive research study carried out by the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).

The study suggests that parental background that can have a significant impact on the course of a child’s life in Finland, with the family’s ability to support the child’s growth affected by such factors as financial status and the use of social and health services.

"If we talk about a prolonged situation, it affects what conditions parents have to secure the child's basic needs, such as food and clothing, or how they can support the child's studies or hobbies," THL researcher Antti Kääriälä, who led the research group, told Yle.

Kääriälä emphasised that most of the children studied had developed well but differences were found, especially in relation to the background of the children’s parents.

"Child poverty was more common in families where one or both parents were born abroad," Kääriälä said.

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The wellbeing of an immigrant-background child born in Finland in 1997.

The research study, titled Suomi seuraavan sukupolven kasvuympäristönä in Finnish (or 'Finland, the Next Generation’s Growth Environment') is the largest study undertaken to date on children with an immigrant background, although their number has grown rapidly in Finland over the past 30 years.

Last year, one in ten children in Finland had a 'foreign background', which is defined (siirryt toiseen palveluun) by Statistics Finland as "persons whose both parents or the only known parent were born abroad".

However, Kääriälä told Yle News that there is a subtle, but important, difference in the definition used by the research group during the study.

"Our report only investigated individuals who are born in Finland. In addition, our study involved persons whose one parent is born in Finland and one abroad—hence these people are not persons with foreign background according to the Statistics Finland definition," he said, adding that the more accurate definition for the group in the study would be 'a person whose one/both parents were born abroad'.

Included in the study were about 4,000 children born in Finland in 1997, both of whose parents had moved to Finland from abroad. These children can also be called 'second-generation immigrants', and the study followed them until they reached adulthood.

Clear differences in primary school grades

The well-being of children and the use of services that support their development were studied through categories such as education, health, the need for child protection and crime.

The study also mapped out the various background factors that influence children's well-being, such as family type, parents' level of education and income, and the place of residence.

Children with an immigrant background included in the study showed significant differences in terms of success at school, mental health problems and the need for protective custody, compared to the children of Finnish parents.

One-third of children whose both parents moved to Finland from abroad graduated from primary school with an average of less than seven (out of ten), which was significantly lower than that of other groups, including children with just one parent from abroad.

The report also found a similar division in boys' and girls' school success, as has been found in other studies: girls with an immigrant background do better than boys in primary school. However, the differences in the grades of girls with a foreign background and girls with only Finnish parents were greater than those of the corresponding boys.

According to Kääriälä, there are many factors that can affect a second-generation immigrant child’s success at school. For example, parents may have a low level of education, and the Finnish school system is not able to even out all the differences caused by children's varying backgrounds.

"On the other hand, children with a foreign background fared even better compared to the family's financial background. The children of parents born abroad who receive income support did even better at school than the corresponding children of parents born in Finland," Kääriälä pointed out.

Mental health, child services and crime

The study also found that mental health problems were most common in children who had one parent born abroad. One in four of this group had been diagnosed with a mental health issue, and they also used psychiatric drugs more often and for longer than other groups.

"This may be affected by the fact that the other [Finnish] parent of the child knows the Finnish healthcare services system and is able to seek help," Kääriälä explained. "Divorces were also more common in families where one of the parents had been born abroad. There may be conflicts in families, which can affect a child's mental health."

The study further revealed that children of parents both born abroad were placed outside the home twice as often as children of parents born in Finland.

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Terveyden ja hyvinvoinnin laitoksen erikoistutkija Antti Kääriälä.
THL Research Specialist Antti Kääriälä. Image: Antti Kääriälä

"Does the Finnish service system lack the preventive work that families with a foreign background would need in order to prevent child protection measures being implemented, such as the child being taken from the home? These families should be able to be supported at an early stage," Kääriälä said.

He added that there may also be cultural differences that affect this finding too: the Finnish child protection system and families with a foreign background may have different interpretations of what constitutes good parenting or how children should be raised.

According to the study, children of parents born in the Middle East or Africa, especially girls, had a lower school performance and were taken into care more often than any other groups.

This may also reflect how well their parents have integrated into Finnish society, Kääriälä added. The family’s economic situation can have a wider impact on the child’s well-being, as well as how Finnish services respond to the need for support.

"Growing up between two different cultures can also be challenging. Young people themselves can naturally combine cultures, but it can cause tensions with parents. This may be one factor why child protection placements are more common in these families," Kääriälä said.

There was no significant difference in criminal convictions or sentences obtained as a minor between children with an immigrant background and children of Finnish parents. In fact, children whose both parents had been born abroad received the least number of criminal convictions.

Numerous different factors

The differences observed in the study are the sum of many different factors, Kääriälä stressed. For example, the lives of the age group studied were affected by many social changes.

Those born in 1997 lived their childhoods during the first two decades of the 21st century when there was an economic upswing from the mid-1990s until 2008. After the financial crisis, a recession and economic uncertainty began and lasted into the late 2010s.

It is also noteworthy that the children in the study had a legal right to early childhood education, which came into force in 1996.

Kääriälä pointed out that families with a foreign background are a very diverse group. Some of the children's parents have come to Finland in search of work, some as refugees. This gives very different starting points for success in society.

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Lapsia kirjastossa.
File photo of children reading in a school library. Image: Petteri Bülow / Yle

The situation of families with a foreign background is further significantly affected by the integration of parents into Finnish society. Immigrant services were created in Finland in the 1990s, so most parents of the children included in the study have participated in them.

However, Kääriälä adds that the children of parents from the Middle East and Africa in particular would need more focused support and services. In this group, long-term dependence on income support was most prevalent.

"How has society succeeded in integrating their parents, for example in education, language learning and employment support? These would be the keys to tackling child poverty," Kääriälä said.

The research group therefore recommends investing more in the education and employment of foreign-born parents. At the same time, an adequate level of social benefits should be ensured. Social and health services should also be available to all, regardless of family language and cultural background. Now, not all families know how to apply for them, so more counselling in their own language is needed.

In addition, the group added that additional investments should be made to support the schooling of children with a foreign background. During the coronavirus crisis, the need for support has become even more pronounced.

If parents born abroad do not speak Finnish properly, they will not be able to help their children with school tasks such as homework.

EDIT 29.11.2020 The first line of the body text originally read "Children born in Finland into a family where one parent or both parents are of immigrant background are more likely to perform worse at school, suffer mental health problems and become involved in crime, according to an extensive research study carried out by the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL)."

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