3 Principles for Counselling Immigrant and Refugee Families

When it comes to families from collectivist cultures, there is often the perspective that the well-being of the family as a whole is the priority and that individual needs are secondary Collectivist cultures are ones that value cooperation, unity, selflessness, cohesiveness, and placing family and community needs above personal ones; individualist cultures are ones where independence, personal goals, personal identity, assertiveness, and personal achievements are valued. It is important to note that there are strengths and advantages to both sets of values. It is also important to note that while most cultures tend to favor one over the other, aspects of both collectivism and individualism may be present in the same culture. Finally, North American culture tends to be more individualist; one should not assume that all clients share those default values.

As we approach our work with this population, it is critical to do so with cultural competence. There are many definitions of cultural competence, but for this purpose, Allan Barsky’s (2018) definition fits well. He defines cultural competence as “having values, knowledge, and skills that embrace cultural humility, awareness, sensitivity, and responsiveness” (para. 14). He goes on to note:

Integrating cultural competence and cultural humility, social workers acknowledge that each client’s experience of culture is unique. Social workers can have some knowledge about a client’s culture and treat the client as the expert in the helping relationship. Similarly, social workers can integrate cultural awareness, sensitivity, and responsiveness by raising self-awareness, attending to cultural differences and similarities, and ensuring that their assessments and interventions respond to the cultural strengths and needs of the people they are serving (Barsky, 2018, para. 14).

He writes in the context of social work, but this translates to any helping profession. If your clients’ cultural experiences are different than your own, treating them with respect, dignity, and an attitude of service will go a long way toward facilitating the success of the counselling relationship.

As we consider the concept of cultural self-awareness, I’d like to share with you a bit about how I identify. I identify as a Muslim (someone who follows the teachings of Islam) and as a Sudanese Canadian. I have learned to become aware of how those identities, as well as my lived experience as a refugee, can lead to a shared understanding between my clients and I, and how they can sometimes cause me to struggle to understand or identify with other clients.

If your clients’ cultural experiences are different than your own, treating them with respect, dignity, and an attitude of service will go a long way toward facilitating the success of the counseling relationship.

As we move into the chapter, I would also like you to consider that the case example provided is just one representation of the identified culture. I invite you to avoid generalizing and stereotyping, and to consider that all cultures have rich diversity within them.

Counseling Insights and Guiding Principles

Supporting any family can feel complicated as we try to balance each member’s needs along with the needs of the family. Working with newcomer families is no different in that they will experience many of the same challenges as any other family. The added variable, however, is that they are also navigating a move to a new country, a new culture, and a different way of engaging with society. This added element is what I want to focus on. It is important to simplify one’s process; there is no one prescriptive methodology that will work with all immigrant and refugee families. As such, I invite you to see this as a lens through which you can view these populations as you support them.

I will walk you through three principles that will help guide your work, drawing from several models. Bowen’s family systems therapy (Bowen, 1966; Kerr, 2002) highlights the interconnectedness and complexity of family relationships; Gordon Neufeld’s developmental attachment paradigm (Neufeld, 2013) identifies the importance of healthy and secure attachment relationships as the foundation for emotional maturity and emergence; and Bemak and Chung’s multiphase model of psychotherapy, counselling, social justice, and human rights (Bemak & Chung, 2014) speaks to the importance of context and being trauma-informed and responsive to clients’ sociopolitical and cultural contexts.

1. Establish rapport and position the family as the experts

While therapeutic rapport is crucial in any counselling relationship, it is even more so in this context. For many first-generation immigrant and refugee families, counselling may be a foreign concept and, as such, the counselor–client relationship is the foundation on which a successful counselling experience can be built. This often involves a delicate balance between positioning the family as the expert in their own lives and positioning the counsellor as someone with expertise in family-centered work. This will take both direct (client-centered) and indirect (self-reflection) work on the part of the counsellor.

2. Explore strengths of connection and patterns of disconnection

As mentioned earlier, counselling is quite often a last resort due to its foreign nature. By the time these families make it to the counselling room, things have often deteriorated quite a bit. Many families may be experiencing emotions such as shame, hopelessness, and overwhelm. Before work can be done to address the issues that brought them to counselling, it is important to begin the work of repairing relationships. This can be done by identifying the family’s existing strengths and ways of connection that have helped them to this point.

Depending on each family member’s level of acculturation, frequent miscommunications and misunderstandings may be occurring. In addition, different generations within the same family, particularly when they are living in the same home, will often experience problems differently. Family members may need help identifying where each of them are in the acculturation process and exploring how this impacts their family system. They will also benefit from support in identifying any patterns of dysfunction.

3. Identify common family goals and desires for one another

Immigrant and refugee families experience so much upheaval in multiple areas of their lives; this often takes a long time to resolve. As families navigate their way through issues in counselling, it is helpful for them to be reminded of their connection and good intentions for one another. In the height of conflict and disconnection, families can lose track of their hopes for the family unit and for each individual member. When families are reminded of the common goals they have for one another, and of this positive intention that drives their actions, it can help unite families so they can move forward together.

Our upcoming book, Counselling in Relationships –  Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections is available for pre-order on our website.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Marwa Fadol

MA, RPsych – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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