One of the tough parts of parenting a teen is making space for them to grow into their own person and opinions while guiding according to your values. This becomes even more complicated when you’re an immigrant parent trying to help your teen preserve some of your home culture while assimilating to their new environment.
There are a few parts of culture that are usually important for families to pass down:
Heritage: important values that lie specifically with cultural or ethnic heritage. Can also include ancestry and history.
Traditions: foods, etiquette, celebrations, and behaviors that are commonplace in your culture.
Worldview: beliefs about how the world is and works that are shaped by common experiences like schooling, how families engage in play, and how your society views different roles that people hold (e.g, parent v child)
Most of these cultural elements are passed down through verbal and experiential learning - your teen learns them by being a part of them. So of course it’s challenging when they’re being exposed to two sets of cultural elements, some of which may be direct opposites.
For the developing adolescent brain, which often thinks in black and white, it can be challenging to hold contradicting beliefs and thoughts at once. Paired with the growing importance of finding their place among peers, it can often feel easier for teens to resolve the cognitive dissonance of having multiple identities by simply choosing the one more acceptable or popular with their peers.
When this happens, you may observe your teen suddenly reject cultural traditions from your home culture, even when they previously enjoyed it. Instead, they’re now “obsessed” with pop culture, social media, and lifestyles that seem unrealistic if not offensive to your cultural upbringing. Despair not, this is likely just a normal part of a bi-cultural teen’s journey to figure out how to reconcile the two cultures they straddle.
So what can you do during their teen years to continue fostering their connection with your home culture?
Don’t force it - most people avoid what doesn’t feel good, and teens are no exception. If your teen feels pressured, burdened, or forced into learning and participating in cultural experiences, they are even more likely to reject it. In the teen years, they’re naturally wired to fight for their independence, so forcing them to do anything may just motivate them even more to do exactly the opposite.
Share about yourself - instead of generalizing at large about the culture, focus on your own stories! It may be hard for you and your teenager to understand each others’ desires and interests; frankly, given the rapid advancements in technology that have changed the very way we communicate, most parents and children will be confronted with this same tension, regardless of their family backgrounds. Therefore, being able to speak clearly and truthfully to a young adult about what your values are—what they mean, where they came from, and how important they are to you can help them appreciate your heritage and world view. Have a hard time sharing about yourself? You’re not alone - here are some conversation starters to help you get started.
Avoid judgement - avoid evaluating cultures and saying something is definitely good or bad about another culture. If you put down parts of the culture they’ve grown to embrace, they may feel a need to defend that part of their identity. Similarly, they will learn to “judge” cultures, and may turn that around on your home culture to judge parts of it as “bad”. Healthy debate and respectful discussions, instead, can be much more productive.
Have empathy - Children of immigrant families can find this time doubly confusing if they do not have strong ties established to either their family’s home country or to their current one. Asian Americans teens have often shared that they feel like “perpetual foreigners” amongst immigrant and non-immigrant demographics alike. The fact that you feel strongly about helping them get to know your home culture means that you feel a strong tie to home. This is something they don’t have, and showing your empathy can go a long way! Get curious about their experience of being Asian-American. Try finding similarities and differences between your experiences, and explore reasons why it might differ? Are there underlying values that they hold that are different than yours? Is it a matter of the education you’ve each received? Is it a generational difference that’s not necessarily culture specific?
Keep trying to understand each other - while it may feel difficult and upsetting to engage with your teen when it seems like they’re actively disrespecting your culture, don’t turn away from them. For many first-generation families raising an assimilated teen, communication becomes strained at some point and can lead to an eventual inability to ever try to understand each other. These challenges that often bind the immigrant experience may even turn into intergenerational trauma (patterns of behavior and thought due to an adverse experience) that prevents your family’s future generation from having meaningful communication or cultural connection. So even if they don’t want to talk about it any more, try other ways to engage with both cultures. Ask them to show you something that they appreciate from the new culture that you might not know about or watch a show together in your home language. Try doing something traditional for your home culture together that maybe even you have to learn to do (e.g, making a traditional craft). You can even explore ways to “fuse” the two cultures together: what might a dinner menu fusing both cultures look like?
Be mindful of connection gaps - There are two gaps to be mindful of:
Language: You may struggle to communicate simply because of language barriers. You’re less familiar with the language they’re being taught in at school, and they’re less fluent in your home language. Avoid making fun of their language abilities, and keep encouraging them to share topics they like with you in your home language, even if it means you have to help them fill in some vocabulary words here and there. Another way language can become a barrier is when language carries weighty connotations. As your teen grows into an independent adult, be mindful whether your common phrases may go against their aspirations for themselves. For example, many common ways to scold a child in Mandarin imply they should be obedient, that bad decisions are related to mental illness, or come off as demands that feel inappropriate to the culture they’ve assimilated to. While unintentional, using these phrases may highlight the philosophical gap between you and be counter-productive for connection. If you’re not sure what phrases to cut out, try asking your teen!
Bonding: With different worldviews come different ideas for what quality bonding looks like. For you, adults may have tried to show their care for you by asking you “How did you do on your test?”, or “Where is your report card?”. However, for your teen, they may crave other forms of connection that allow them to share their feelings or opinions. Try out questions like, “Oh, how did that make you feel?”, “What was the most interesting part of your day?” and “What do you think is the most overrated job?” and see how it goes!
Helping your teen learn to hold multiple cultural identities can be tough. On one hand, you want them to thrive in their new environment, but on the other, you don’t want them to forget their roots. The good news is, instilling wonderful memories about your home culture through conversations, activities, and sharing your own stories makes it much easier for your teen to continue engaging with your culture once their brain and social development allows them to hold a more complex view of the world.
Check back into this blog series this month to get more ideas for bonding with your teen across cultures. Looking for support now? Chat with a Cherish Coach today.
Written together with CHATogether, a research and support group led by Dr. Eunice Yuen, MD PhD of the Yale Child Study Center. CHATogether has been tackling challenges related to the Asian-American experience and its distinct hurdles in navigating family conflict, dissent, and resolution. Using videos and filmed ‘skits’ of various topics, CHATogether demonstrates, step by step, how a breakdown of communication can occur, how it hurts each individual, and how we can remedy our words to communicate more effectively and lovingly. To learn more, visit their website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram .