Unaccompanied minors’ well-being is usually negatively affected at three different time points: traumatic experiences in the home country, exposure to assault or other adverse events during the migratory journey, as well as prolonged stay in reception centres, multiple relocations, absence of social support and cultural isolation in the host country (Sandahl et al., 2013). Apart from experiences of trauma, specific risk factors for migrant and refugee children include the presence of physical or mental health issues, having an unaccompanied minor’s status, feelings of uncertainty, maintaining no contact with their family and living in understaffed large reception centres with no personal space (Nidos in Europe, 2019).

However, risk factors and subsequent vulnerability do not imply that unaccompanied minors will experience mental health problems since protective factors and coping strategies that promote resilience can safeguard their well-being. Protective factors may be individual, family or community sources that help unaccompanied minors adapt to their new environment (Carlson et al., 2012). Easy temperament, effective coping skills and practising their faith or religion all represent individual protective factors. At the same time, ties to the extended family and attachment to at least one parent constitute family protective factors. As for community protective factors, these include the person’s connectedness to prosocial organisations in the broader community.

Additional protective factors for unaccompanied migrant children’s well-being include a hardworking mindset and aspirations to succeed, as long as the minor’s biological family does not pressure them. Striving for success is commonly used as a coping mechanism by unaccompanied minors, while participation in education and adequate schooling can indeed make children feel both more confident and safer as they provide daily activities that are structured and predictable (Eide & Hjern, 2013). Directly related to this is the host language proficiency, which is an extra protective factor for unaccompanied minors. Good command of the language is positively associated with education, employment and socioeconomic status, which all contribute to fewer mental health problems (Straiton et al., 2019).

Moreover, research shows that the ability to cope relies heavily on both affiliations from the past and on the opportunity to rely on people in the present. Those who adapt to the host country’s culture while maintaining their ethnic identity tend to experience the most benefits in terms of well-being. Thus, keeping in touch with the ethnic community is essential, but so is socialisation and engaging in activities that promote friendships with others and that help keep one’s mind off past negative experiences. In general, social support, higher social capital and trust in other people are protective factors. This is where the importance of foster care comes to play since foster parents usually form close and lasting relationships with unaccompanied minors, helping them reach their full potential (Nordic Welfare Centre, 2020). What is more, the context of foster care gives access to other protective factors, including support from friends, social support, social embedding and positive school experiences (Fazel et al., 2012; Kovacev, 2004).

Another essential consideration is that resilience is not an innate and stable trait that one is either born with or not. On the contrary, resilience is a trait that one can grow; it is dynamic and may change over time. In this perspective, foster carers can help unaccompanied minors develop resilience. The first thing to make them more resilient is to help them create connections with others and build their network (family, friends, peers) to have a pool of support. What is directly linked to this is helping the minor develop or improve the communication and interpersonal skills required for building relationships and engaging in dialogue with others (Fondazione L’albero Della Vita Onlus, 2021).

Foster carers can strengthen minors’ resilience by focusing on listening to what they have to say. Active listening should aim at understanding the child and respecting what they wish to reveal about themselves with no judgement. In addition, another way to foster resilience in unaccompanied minors is to value them as individuals, their opinions, strengths, achievements and effort and instil a grain of hope and possibility in the relationship with them. Yet, remaining honest and realistic about possible uncertainties and difficulties that may await the minor in the long run is also necessary. At the same time, teaching self-control and emotion regulation skills is invaluable in fostering minors’ resilience since they will often have to manage strong emotions and crises in their lives. Goal-setting is another critical skill that empowers children by teaching them to break down their goals into small parts, focus on subtasks and complete them, try out different approaches and new strategies to achieve the desired outcome and so on (Fondazione L’albero Della Vita Onlus, 2021).

Last but not least, a significant source of resilience for unaccompanied minors, especially in adolescence, is to act independently since autonomy is achieved either before leaving their home country or developed during their migratory journey. Thus, foster parents need to understand that although they view the unaccompanied child as a minor, they may not be actually regarded as minors in their home countries. Hence, this challenging issue should be discussed between foster parents and minors constructively and maybe also with the help of professionals to find some common ground between them (Fondazione L’albero Della Vita Onlus, 2021).

To sum up, unaccompanied minors’ well-being is often compromised by traumatic experiences and the accumulation of multiple risk factors. Nonetheless, the creation or strengthening of protective factors and the enhancement of minors’ resilience can act as a buffer against mental health problems. By providing a secure base for minors, foster care can help the latter reach their full potential and develop competencies that will help them successfully navigate the challenges of emerging adulthood in the host country. Just as importantly, foster care may simultaneously allow foster parents to build their own resilience through their empathic engagement with the minor’s life story.


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Straiton, M. L., Aambø, A. K., & Johansen, R. (2019). Perceived discrimination, health and mental health among immigrants in Norway: Τhe role of moderating factors. BMC Public Health, 19, 325. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6649-9

Author, Iliana Konstantopoulou, Psychologist MSc