By Raising Children Network
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Asian Australian family playing in the park credit

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In 2012-2013, Australia experienced a net overseas migration (arrivals minus departures) of 244 400 people. This represents an increase of almost 20 000 people compared with 2011-2013.
In 2013, about 27% of Australia’s population was born overseas. Different languages, different cultures and different beliefs about the role of parents can make it hard for parents to raise children in a new country. Read about the experiences of three culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) families who have immigrated to Australia, and the challenges facing CALD parents all over the country.

Profile: Zamzuri from Malaysia

Zamzuri and Aziah are parents of a daughter, aged eight years, and two sons, aged six and four. The family migrated to Australia from Malaysia. They’ve faced problems with language and with finances.

‘We arrived in Australia in 2005, after spending five years in Sweden. We are originally from Malaysia. We left our home country so I could further my studies in industrial design, to complete a Masters degree and PhD.

‘Because we’re here on a tertiary studies/research visa, we have found it very difficult financially. Before we came we had to make sure our children were booked into a school and we needed to pay $7000 just so they could attend a government school. We also had to have private health insurance for all the family before a visa could be issued.

‘Compared to Sweden, living in Melbourne has been very difficult because it’s so expensive. We are not eligible for any government support or Medicare, so going to the doctor and educating the children is very expensive. To get an affordable house you need to move a long way from the city. But then you need a car because Australia is such a big country. 

‘My wife, Aziah, was a teacher in Malaysia – she taught English and mathematics. But even though she speaks English well, she cannot get a job because of her accent. So she works part-time as a housekeeper and I work as a cleaner before and after I go to university. Even if she did work more, we would need to pay a lot for child care, so it’s not worth it. Because of these problems, my wife isn’t so happy. She is always so tired from looking after the children and working. Sometimes she even takes the children to work with her because she has no other choice. Sometimes they come with me to the university.

‘When we first arrived my eldest daughter had a very hard time with the language because she only spoke Swedish and Malay. It took her six months to learn English and she would come home and cry every day. Now she speaks very well, even with a good Aussie accent! The other two haven’t had so many problems because they are younger. But we are not sure about where we will go in the future. Because the children have grown up here, we want to stay in Australia so they can keep their English language skills. If we return to Malaysia, they might lose the language.

‘Because there are many people from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia living in Australia, it’s not as much of a shock compared to living in Sweden. There we were the only Malaysians in the north of Sweden. Here we feel much more a part of the community in a cultural sense.’

Profile: Maria from Chile

Maria, her husband Juan and their two daughters moved to Australia from Chile 20 years ago. At the time, her two daughters were teenagers and faced many difficulties getting used to Australian society. Their daughter Isabel is now 34, and Rebecca is 32.

‘I came to Australia from Chile 20 years ago when my girls were 12 and 14. We came because my mother-in-law and father-in-law were here and we wanted to give our girls a better opportunity for the future.

‘When we arrived it was so hard. I didn’t speak English and my girls didn’t either. Only my husband spoke a few words. We suffered very badly because of this. We couldn’t communicate, I couldn’t explain things properly to people, and I became very sad. We had to rely on a migrant resource centre to help us. We did courses there and slowly picked up some language. The girls did some courses before they started high school but it was very hard for them. I’m a teacher and I couldn’t work and couldn’t help them with their homework. Also, when we arrived there wasn’t much help for migrant families. It would have been easier with some advice on becoming part of the Australian society and surviving in it, economically and socially. We needed help on so many topics but we couldn’t get it.

‘I would suggest to people not to go to another country when the children are that age. Maybe if they’re younger it would be OK, like four or five years old. That way they can still learn the language before school and learn about the society. For my girls it was very hard. They were very homesick and they suffered a lot and always asked, “Why did we come here?” I always said, “It will get better”, but they kept saying that it wasn’t getting better.

‘There was always a big gap for the girls being here. At first they tried to make friends with Spanish people. Now they feel better, they have friends and don’t feel so alone. For me there was always a spiritual and emotional gap that can’t be filled in this country. It’s from a lack of my own culture and being in a country where there are so many different cultures. This has affected our girls – they see their parents feeling a bit lost and empty. We keep in touch with our culture by speaking Spanish, eating Chilean food and talking to our relatives in Chile. But we miss so many things from our old life.’

Profile: Arzu from Turkey

Arzu is a 32-year-old mother of baby girl Lorin, who is five months old. The family lives in Broadmeadows, Victoria.

‘I immigrated to Australia from Turkey in 1999. I moved because I wanted to join my fiancé, who had immigrated to Australia. We had met in Turkey while we were both studying. We eventually got married in Australia.

‘The hardest thing about migrating for me was being separated from my family. This feeling has been especially strong since I’ve had Lorin – I would like to have my mother around. Although my husband has family here, I didn’t know anyone when I arrived. But I haven’t felt lonely because I made a good group of friends in the local area who I see often.

‘My attitude, when I came to Australia, was to remain positive and not become disillusioned, because I knew we would probably be here for a long time. I did 510 hours of English classes and then completed a Diploma of Business and Accounting. Although I’ve found it difficult to find a job, my impression of Australia is that it provides many good opportunities for education and a healthy life. In the future I hope to get a job in the area of accounting. At the moment, my husband supports us as a bricklayer.

‘I’ve really appreciated the level of services in Australia, in particular the health and interpreting services. The health services are much better than in Turkey. Once a week I visit the local maternal health centre where midwives teach us about parenting. I really enjoy this and seeing other mothers from the local area.

‘I’ve been back to Turkey twice since I’ve been living in Australia, but I’m looking forward to my daughter experiencing the opportunities presented here, and I intend to raise her here. If she wants to go back and live in Turkey in the future she can, but for now, I think living here will be the best for her. Of course I wish Lorin’s grandparents could see more of her, but how often we return in the future will depend on our financial situation.’

CALD families at a glance

  • Around a quarter (27%) of Australia’s population was born overseas. China, India and Italy are the three most common nations of origin.
  • A significant proportion of Australia’s population comes from countries where English isn’t the native language.
  • Over 400 languages are spoken in Australia, including a large number of Indigenous languages – 16% of the population speaks a language other than English at home.
  • A person’s culture – that is, beliefs and values – can affect the way the person parents.

Challenges of raising children in a different culture

Starting a new life in another country is one of the biggest changes that can take place in a person’s life. When this change is made as a family, each member can experience the challenges in different ways. Even once a family has been in a new country for some time, it’s likely that at least some of their customs will be continued by future generations.

The main ways culture influences family life is through beliefs, values and actual parenting practices. Within the home environment, this might mean speaking in a language other than English, following religious beliefs, cooking and eating in traditional styles, and raising children with traditional parenting styles, stories and values.

Yet regardless of culture, parents throughout the world share the same basic goals for their children. They want their children to be healthy, develop skills for surviving financially, and possess the positive values respected by their own culture. Goals also include marriage, tertiary education and successful employment, as well as the values of self-respect, respect for others, honesty and caring.

Overall, Australia is a very multicultural country, and these days there are many services to help parents with cultural challenges they face in achieving their goals for their family.

One of the most difficult things a person must face when living in a different country is speaking the language. Not being able to speak English in Australia can make life very difficult and can leave people feeling very lonely and frustrated. This can make finding work difficult, as well as making everyday events harder, such as accessing community services, shopping and just being able to talk to people. If children don’t speak English, they might struggle with school and making friends.

Differences between cultures in hands-on parenting practices can be seen in the way babies are soothed, the amount of physical affection shown by parents and attitudes towards physical punishment.

Around the home, differences can involve the sorts of play and learning materials the child has and the amount of time parents spend with children reading books and teaching skills. As a child becomes older, parenting differences might appear in the way parents communicate. As long as children feel safe, loved and are given the necessary supports to become capable and mature adults, all differences in cultural approaches to parenting are to be respected and encouraged.

Parenting young children while migrating to another county can be very hard. Parents must deal with caring for children and the children’s experience of migration, as well as their own difficulties and experiences. These experiences can be both physical and emotional and can include:

  • dealing with language difficulties and feeling isolated because it’s hard to communicate
  • experiencing grief and a sense of loss from being separated from family, friends, culture and identity within a familiar community
  • feeling frustrated at not being able to find employment or a job to use qualifications or skills
  • finding it difficult to find assistance, support and services in the new community
  • struggling to cope financially
  • feeling lonely, hopeless or overwhelmed at such an enormous life change, to the point where it becomes too much and they develop a mental illness
  • feeling alone because they don’t feel like part of the community or feel they don’t belong.
Parents’ ability to deal with these challenges affects how well they can care for their children. Parents who are suffering emotionally and who are depressed and unhappy will be less able to respond to their children’s needs or emotional difficulties.

Young children don’t have much say in whether they migrate – it’s usually a decision made by their parents. In some instances, the experience can be very unsettling as children adjust to their new life and deal with the loss of the old home while missing friends, familiar sights, sounds and smells. The most important factor for children’s emotional wellbeing during this period is having a stable home environment while the family adjusts to the change.

Children’s experience of migration also depends on their age. Younger children and babies might not understand what’s going on. But because they’re completely dependent on their parents, their emotional experience will reflect their parents’ experience in many ways. Toddlers, busy testing out their independence, need parents to provide a secure environment for exploration. If parents are anxious or there’s major disruption, children might have behaviour problems.

Older children’s experience of migration also depends on their sense of self and how secure they feel in their new environment. Adjusting to a new school and meeting new friends can play a big role in children’s ability to deal with migration. Many children cope very well, particularly if they have some language skills.

As children become older, they often play a central role in the whole family’s experience of migration. Children often pick up language skills faster than adults, and parents can come to rely on children to communicate for them. Sometimes no-one in a family speaks English and without the support of friends or neighbours, this can make communication very difficult. In some cases, children might find the responsibility of communicating for their parents too much pressure.

For further help

You can also read our article on multicultural services for more links to services and support in each state and territory.
  • Last updated or reviewed 23-04-2014