How to work with families from refugee and migrant backgrounds

How to work with families from migrant and refugee backgrounds


Barriers and successful solutions:

Lack of trust of family services/ cultural differences to parenting in families

Communities from migrant and refugee backgrounds and those working with these communities report that families may not trust family services or do not see them as relevant to their needs. Some of these views can arise from differences in approaches to parenting across different cultures. Many family services programs  promote an authoritative approach to parenting, which stresses the importance of warm relationships between young people and families, the absence of use of corporal punishment, and an expectation that young people will be supported to move towards independence.

Sometimes this approach can appear to contradict collectivist cultures common in families from many migrant and refugee backgrounds, which are often characterised as authoritarian, with clear roles for family members, and an expectation that young people will take on responsibilities assigned in families and respect family rules.

Research into families has stressed the importance of close and caring relationships between adolescents and families in adolescence. Strong relationships were shown to be protective against a range of behaviours which can have a negative impact on adolescents, such as substance abuse, violence, and early initiation of sexual behaviours.

However, many families from migrant and refugee backgrounds fear a loss of control or authority which can lead to parents resorting to more authoritarian approaches, which can lead to conflict between young people and their families.

A lack of  what  refer to as a “shared intergenerational cultural understanding of appropriate parenting practices”  can contribute to this conflict, particularly in reference to what is an appropriate level of parental control over adolescents and what is appropriate use of discipline and punishment.

 Collectivist cultures questioning what is of value in essentially modern Western ideas of parenting remains a tension in how most family services work with families to explore their parenting practices. It is one of the reasons that families may not see the programs as culturally appropriate or relevant.


What works

  • Services who manage this tension well allow families to talk about the differences between expectations families have on how they will parent in their country of origin and how they are expected to parent here.
  • For more information on challenges faced by families settling in Australia and resources to support family services to work with these families, Spectrum Migrant and Resource Centre, who have developed a program and a series or practical guides specifically designed to improve parenting practices for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities. 
  • Family Relationship Centres may also be able to offer assistance working with families. Family Relationship  services are aimed at parents, step-parents, care givers, and other family members to assist people to resolve family law issues. The centre can also support children, teenagers and grandparents.
  • For more information on  Family Relationships Centres please refer to

READ MORE: Case Study - Parenting solutions in Australia


Lack of knowledge that family services exist

 Family services need to be able to promote their services to families from migrant and refugee backgrounds. This includes successfully explaining how family services may be able to support families. Many families who arrive as migrants or refugees do not have an understanding of the role of family services in supporting families. There may be no equivalent of family services in their country of origin, or they may have no trust that western services can understand or support their families with issues that arise for them.

Families from migrant and refugee backgrounds may feel that talking to professionals about their family problems is inappropriate/ alien/ something that they are not familiar with or comfortable with.They may fear that others will judge them or that the broader community may come to hear of their problems.


What works

  • Ensuring that families understand the concept of confidentiality and services  commitment to ensuring this.
  • Normalising the idea of seeking help, including the idea that it is not only families from migrant and refugee backgrounds who may face challenges parenting adolescents.
  • Help families to understand the role of family services in helping families to feel like they have more control in their parenting
  • Demonstrate that your service will respect their culture, and work with them as partners to help them achieve their goals.
  • Explain the child protection system, and reduce unfounded fears whilst explaining Australian laws and expectations.



Costs remain a barrier for many families. Sometimes even costs of public transport to attend sessions can be a barrier.


What works

  • In some instances delivering family support where families already attend can reduce costs, or offering to pick up families in a bus to take them to a program. Providing food can act as an incentive for families who are managing on very small budgets and who may be reluctant to participate in family service programs due to concerns about costs.



Language remains a key barrier for many families who come from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

What works

  • Grouping your families where possible in similar cultural groups for deliver can assist family services to use interpreters more easily. Keeping the ideas simple can also assist. Recognising that many words that we use in our work may have no equivalent in other languages is important. Sometimes you may find there is no equivalent  (i.e. the work parenting as a verb is not common in some languages, or a general use of the word “parent”. Instead they may simply have a word for mother or father. Or there may be no word for confidentiality, or the client may not know the word for confidentiality in their language, if they are not literate in their own language).
  • Try to use graphics to convey key ideas, ie a picture of a parent helping a child with their homework to illustrate an idea like engagement with school.
  • Use interpreters to support your work. If you find a good interpreter, keep their name.

READ MORE: Best practice tips for family services seeking to engage and support migrant and refugee families

READ MORE: Working with interpreters

READ MORE: Bicultural workers




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