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Sowing Seeds for a Life of Research

Image credited to Vivian Abagiu

Migration—within and between countries—can have profound effects on children and their families. It was economic migration in rural China and the impact on children separated from their parents that first piqued Yang Hou's research interest. Now a UT Austin human development and family sciences graduate student, she is studying the effect of social context on families from the two largest immigrant populations in the US—Asians and Latinos.

Yang's intense focus on research recently reaped her the prestigious Early Graduate Student Research Award from the American Psychological Association.

"Yang is poised to become one of the most prominent and important scholars of her generation studying children, adolescents, couples, and families as it relates to ethnic minorities," says her supervisor Su Yeong Kim of the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences.

We sat down with our graduate student to discuss how her research is making a difference.

What sparked your early interest in the study of families?

My personal experience. I grew up in rural areas of southwest China where people grow rice and other crops. People have very low incomes in rural areas, and, over the last three decades, many migrated to cities to find jobs. Parents often leave their children with grandparents or relatives—or sometimes just by themselves. I was very concerned about the impact on children when they are not taken care of by their parents.

How did you begin to conduct research?

When I was in college, I wanted to understand the influence of domestic migration on children, particularly children who were left-behind in rural homes by their parents who went to work in faraway cities. My mentor at Southwest University in China, Professor Zhan Xu, helped me have the tools for research, and I organized a research team to study the mental health of left-behind children. We found that these children tend to be lonelier and have more emotional problems. I developed this research further for my Master's thesis at the Chinese University in Hong Kong to see how parents, friends, and teachers influence rural adolescents' psychological outcomes.

What drives your current research?

Developmental theories have recognized that people do not live as individuals. From the parents to the children, everyone in a family is dependent on one another. However, in the literature of migration and individual adjustment, it is still unclear how family members' experiences influence the family processes and each other, because often researchers included only the children or the parents in their study. Thus, my studies want to shed light on this issue.

For the paper published in Child Development, I looked at how a parent's experience of being discriminated against indirectly influences their children. This was a study in Chinese-American families. We found that parents who perceive themselves to be the victims of discrimination are more likely to report depressive symptoms and hostility towards their spouses—and this can be linked, in many circumstances, to hostility toward children and depressive symptoms and delinquency in children. We were able to see this by considering the family as an interdependent, dynamic system.

When including multiple family members in a study, a common challenge is that different family members can have very different perceptions about parenting and family relationships. It is critical to understand why they have different reports regarding the same aspects of their family and what the implications are in any disagreements on children's development. I am working to shed light on this with my research now.