Australia is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world:

  • one in four Australians are born overseas
  • 46 per cent of Australians have at least one parent who was born overseas
  • nearly 20 per cent of Australians speak a language other than English at home (Australian Bureau of Statistics, April 2013).

Understanding the particular challenges facing children from CALD communities

Health and community professionals like psychologists, counsellors and social workers can play a positive role in supporting children from diverse cultural backgrounds and make a positive difference to their mental health and wellbeing.

In order to do this, it is important to understand the particular circumstances of children from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities and the factors that can impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

Developing an understanding of these common challenges will help you support children in a culturally sensitive and responsive way.

While children from CALD communities can have high levels of resilience and resourcefulness, recent research shows that they also face disadvantage in health, education and access to social opportunities (1).

Some of the common challenges facing children from CALD communities include:

1. Migration and resettlement

Migrating and resettling in a new country or community is a complicated and complex process that affects all members of the family, including children.

Some families may migrate because they fear they will be harmed and discriminated against and they might ask to be recognised as a refugee to be protected.  Alternatively, some families may be fortunate enough to have a choice about whether they stay in their country of origin or seek a new life in a new country.

While children share their family’s migration experience, they own individual experience can also be very different. For example, children may initially have a greater level of engagement and interaction with Australian culture than their parents through having to go to school.

2. Language and communication

Language can be a major barrier for newly-arrived families and can make finding a job or learning at school more difficult, and contribute to social isolation.

Parents and carers may find it difficult to communicate with schools and other health and support services.

Communication issues can arise in other ways as well. When the experiences, customs and beliefs of children and families from different cultural backgrounds are not recognised or valued, it can lead to miscommunication.

For example, making eye contact when speaking to someone else may be considered a sign of respect in some cultures; however, in some other cultures respect is shown by lowering eyes or looking away.

If these differences are not understood by both people, it can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding on both sides.

Even if a family can speak English, they may still need an interpreter for long complicated conversations where important health information is being communicated.

3. Effects of trauma

Difficulties associated with past trauma and resettlement can affect the learning and school performance of children who have been traumatised. 

When migration is prompted by particularly stressful experiences, as is the case for refugees, there can be additional challenges for resettlement and wellbeing. Traumatic experiences may have occurred through being exposed to violence, war or torture.

Some of the common reactions that may occur in children who have been through traumatic events include an increase in fear and anxiety, which may lead to clingy behaviour, re-experiencing the trauma when feeling threatened, or difficulty in trusting and connecting with others. Such difficulties may make it difficult for a child to form relationships with adults or with their peers.

For some children who have been traumatised, feelings of pain and anger can sometimes be seen in their behaviour. For instance, some children may have tantrums or show high levels of emotional reactivity (eg. become upset very easily).

4. Discrimination and racism

The effects of racism and discrimination can make life more difficult for children, and create undue stress and social disadvantage.

Discrimination impacts negatively on individuals, families and entire communities. Being subject to discrimination can be a difficulty faced by many people from different backgrounds.

Both direct discrimination (eg name-calling, bullying) and indirect discrimination (eg ignoring or excluding others from important events) can leave people feeling shut out and powerless.

This can then have a negative impact on mental health and wellbeing. Racism increases children’s sense of difference and vulnerability by devaluing their culture and making them feel unwelcome.

Valuing other cultures and being inclusive helps promote respectful relationships and reduces the likelihood of discrimination and isolation.

5. Cultural identity and conflict 

Questions of cultural identity are common themes causing tensions within CALD families, as family members may try to maintain their own cultural values while adapting to the range of cultural influences found in the wider community.

When children from CALD backgrounds are exposed to different cultural values, parents and carers may find practices that once worked in the home culture may no longer be effective.

This can create confusion and miscommunication, and may also become a source of family conflict and tension, especially as children grow into the teenage years.

Families might also be concerned about children losing their cultural identity through contact with children with different cultural backgrounds, for instance through the influences promoted in the media, at school, or through contact with children from different backgrounds.

It takes time and effort for families and individuals to work out how to keep their own cultural traditions and, at the same time, understand and find a place within the wider Australian culture.


(1) Children and young people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, Commissioner for Children and Young People Western Australia, September 2013

For more information

Thinking about cultural diversity

Cultural diversity: further resources