Family Resilience in Shenzhen-Hong Kong Cross-Boundary Families


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date18 Oct 2022


A large number of school-aged children travel between Mainland China and Hong Kong every day to attend school, who are known as cross-boundary students (跨境學童). Daily cross-boundary schooling is likely to be a constant challenge for cross-boundary students and their families, putting them at great risk of mental health problems. Although families with cross-boundary students are frequently regarded as a marginalised and vulnerable population, their potential as resilience-enabling systems, for the most part, has been overlooked. Guided by the multisystemic approach to resilience, this dissertation used mixed methods involving qualitative and quantitative data to fill knowledge gaps regarding family well-being and resilience for families with cross-boundary students, specifically targeting child–parent dyads.

First, the multisystemic approach to resilience implies that mapping risk exposure and the availability of resources is the initial and pivotal step in capturing a comprehensive picture of the risk and resilience factors that could offer windows of intervention in the family system. Study 1 used an inductive approach to identify a) the challenges that families with cross-boundary students experience in their daily life, especially during and following the 2019–2020 Hong Kong Protest; (b) the key resources and processes that strengthened family resilience to protect family well-being and functioning; and (c) the interactions of these recourses within and across family systems. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 15 parents of cross-boundary students (Mage = 36.53, SD = 5.32). The results showed that families with cross-boundary students encountered three sources of challenges that spanned multiple levels: contextual challenges, chronic family challenges and structural challenges. Despite challenges, six types of resources interacted across multiple levels within and outside of the family and bolstered the family resilience for families with cross-boundary students: collectivist-minded view of resilience, hope and perseverance, acceptance and strive, emotional regulation of self and others, family harmony, and economic and instrumental supports. These resources helped families with cross-boundary students to maintain family functioning, alleviate situational stress, and facilitate family transformation.

Second, given the multiplicity and complexity of multisystemic resilience, it is necessary to identify and prioritise potentially malleable factors that have a crucial role in fostering family resilience. Considering the inverted family structure, the active role of children, the potential cultural gap, and the malleability of family relationships in mental health services, the investigation of the impact of child–parent relationships (i.e., closeness and conflict) on their depressive symptoms was given a higher priority. Guided by the interdependence theory and the Operations Triad Model, Study 2 employed dyadic response surface analysis to take into account linear and curvilinear associations between child–mother relationships and their depressive symptoms. The cross-sectional results based on 187 child–mother dyads revealed that when children and mothers reported relatively high levels of closeness and relatively low levels of conflict, they reported fewer depressive symptoms. The extreme closeness between children and their mothers posed particular risks to mothers, increasing maternal depressive symptoms. When children and mothers reported varying levels of closeness and conflict, they displayed greater depressive symptoms. One exception was that no significant association was observed between incongruence in closeness and children’s depressive symptoms.

Informed by research findings of Study 1 and Study 2, researchers and community stakeholders collaborated to develop a parallel child–parent group intervention targeting emotional regulation to enhance well-being and foster family resilience of families with cross-boundary students. A total of 38 pairs of cross-boundary students and parents received four intervention sessions. The quantitative evaluation has been administered in three waves of tests (i.e., pre-, post-, and one-month follow-up tests). Based on preliminary results yielded by t-tests, the parallel child–parent group approach showed time effects on child- and parent-reported individual well-being, personal resilience, child–parent closeness, and family harmony. In general, parents exhibited greater effect sizes than their children. Both child and parent participants who reported higher levels of depressive symptoms in the pre-intervention test showed more improvements after the intervention.

The integrated findings from these three studies deepen the theoretical understanding of multisystemic resilience by underscoring context- and culture-specific resources in a unique sample of families with cross-boundary students in the context of social unrest. This dissertation also filled the research gaps concerning family resilience in families with cross-boundary students, an under-researched social group, with both qualitative and quantitative evidence. Moreover, this dissertation has practical implications for social services. For example, it is critical to assess the population’s real demands and then provide appropriate responses and demand-driven services which help these families activate and leverage their own strengths and resources to combat emerging and changing challenges. Family-based interventions targeting both children and parents rather than one member can be especially suitable for this population.