Sept. 17, 2002 -- For the millions of American teens whose parents were born in another country, fitting in at home and at school is often a struggle. But a new study suggests that participating in activities that put teens in touch with their ethnic heritage can provide a valuable boost to their self-esteem.
The study shows that ethnic identity isn't necessarily a stable, rigid sense of self, but a complex idea that changes over time. If teenagers consider their ethnic identity as central to who they are, then participating in activities of their ethnicity --such as speaking the language, eating the food, and reading or watching the media -- can make them feel better about themselves.
The study appears in the September/October issue of Child Development.
Researchers asked nearly 100 first- and second-generation Chinese-American students in New York City-area high schools to complete daily diaries about their ethnic feelings and behaviors for two weeks. The students were also given tests that measured their ethnic pride and self-esteem.
The study found that the adolescents' awareness and sense of ethnicity grew as they participated in ethnic activities. The more they spoke Chinese, participated in Chinese cultural activities, or spent time with others that shared their heritage, the "more Chinese" they felt.
Some students also tended to feel better on days when their awareness of their ethnicity was particularly high. However, this finding only applied to those youths who said they strongly identified with their heritage.
In addition, older students were less likely to report a strong association between their ethnic identity and their overall moods.
Those findings show that ethnic identity seems to have at least two components: one that is stable and another that is dynamic and changes both over time and on a daily basis, according to study author Tiffany Yip, a doctoral student in the department of psychology at New York University.
Researchers say the link between ethnic identity and mood also seemed to be stronger among boys than girls -- even though girls were more likely to report that they had a strong sense of ethnic identity.
"It is possible girls' well-being is grounded in aspects of life other than their social identity," says Yip in a news release. "For example, interpersonal relationships may be more influential for their well-being."
The authors say that by acknowledging the diversity within various ethnic groups, we can better understand the role of ethnic identity for all youths of color, including those who choose not to make their ethnic heritage important to their overall identity.