Being a teenager is so hard. Really, being human is hard, period. Whether you are a teen or involved in a teen’s life, you can attest to the fact that teen years are some of the most difficult to navigate. Being the parent, teacher, mentor, or even friend of a teenager has unique challenges. There are hormonal changes, lots of extracurricular options, academic paths to choose, colleges to consider—the list goes on and on.
Imagine adding in the dynamics of multiple cultures! For some of us, it may not be difficult. We have lived in it our whole lives. There’s a tension between our heritage culture and the surrounding culture. For others, it might actually require imagining, but it may not for long!
The number of multicultural families in the U.S. are rapidly growing. If you’re not currently a part of a multicultural family, chances are, you know several and have noticed some of their unique cultural values.
My Life as a Third-Culture Child
My parents came from Guatemala to the United States before they met each other. I was born in the United States, which means that I am a Guatemalan American. For the first part of my childhood, I lived in New York. When I was four, we moved back to Guatemala. When I was twelve, we moved back to the United States (this time to North Carolina).
Aside from the typical challenges of moving to a new place, I experienced huge cultural shifts in each place we lived. In New York, I was a Latina Yankee. When we moved to Guatemala, I was a “Gringa.” When we transitioned to North Carolina to stay, I was a Guatemalan American. So, at age 12, I was a Guatemalan American Christian in the South. I was just about to enter my teens, and there was a lot going on!
I can testify from personal experience that multiple life changes can create confusion in a growing child. These changes aren’t inherently wrong. The issue is less about the changes themselves than how the changes are dealt with. The more critical aspect in the midst of change is the quality of the support system a child has.
Five Ways to Support Third-Culture Teenagers
So, how do we support children who are experiencing cultural change, especially in their teen years? While the main support hopefully comes from parents, it is also helpful for teachers, youth leaders, family friends, and anyone else around them to know how to be there for them.
The first and most important step is to ask questions.
Don’t make assumptions. How are they doing with balancing their heritage culture with their peer culture? Is there any way you can support them? Are there any changes you can make to help ease the transition? As parents, how can you teach them about your culture while allowing them to choose which aspects of it they will keep for themselves?
The second step is to allow choices.
Here I’m going to talk mostly to parents: Parents often find it difficult to watch their children give up aspects of their heritage culture, especially when the child simultaneously embraces aspects of the peer culture. It’s scary to think that your child will forget your heritage culture’s values or ideals.
But don’t act out of fear! In reality, forcing third-culture teenagers to accept something the heritage culture values could push them away altogether. When that happens, they may reject values that are worth celebrating. So, what you can do instead is to teach and exemplify the values that you care about.
While you model, encourage your child to choose if they will implement those values in their own lives. Your child may come to a place of understanding the importance of the heritage culture’s values and continue using them.
As an aside, it is important to remember that, just like humans grow and change, the same is true for culture. Even a heritage culture is ever-changing. A return to your home nation after several years would reveal that it has moved on in many ways while you were gone.
The third step is to maintain healthy boundaries.
Your children are developing their own identities inside of dual cultures. You must distinguish between your own identity and that of your child. When parents are unable to separate their expectations from resentment over a child’s chosen course, the relationship endures incredible strain, sometimes to a breaking point.
Your child’s identity is not yours. You must acknowledge that so that they can succeed in becoming the unique and wonderful individual you raised them to be. But, if your identity cannot be separated from theirs, they will feel pressured to be someone they cannot be. It will put them in a position to fail.
The fourth step is to respect each other.
Many cultures uphold the duty to honor and respect elders. Sometimes, the breakdown in relationships happens when we don’t understand what mutual honor and respect mean. Children are always expected to honor and respect parents.
In a healthy relationship, however, both parties are due honor and respect. Teens are in a unique time of transition to adulthood that will benefit from learning to give and receive respect.
How can this be done mutually?
Seek to validate and understand your child’s current situation. Admit when you see the challenges they face. Help them know that you understand that it’s hard for them. Validate the fact that they want to belong somewhere and that living in two very different cultures complicates that. Tell them that you understand they are faced every day with the decision to “choose” a culture. Let them know that it’s okay they don’t know which “side” is the best option.
My final encouragement is to make your home a safe place for emotions.
A few weeks ago, Lifeologie held a conversation on dual-culture homes. In that discussion, Dieula Previlon, LPC and Life Coach, reminded us that there are going to be times in your home when you and your child will both reach an emotional explosion point. If your child knows it’s okay to express emotions to you, then the explosion can lead to greater opportunity for mutual understanding in your relationship.
Healthy children in dual-culture homes can wisely choose which aspects of both of their cultures will help them grow. Third-culture teenagers who receive the freedom to decide who they are, in light of heritage culture and peer culture, are the ones who will feel supported and stand firm during change.
Parents, teachers, and friends, it is vital that you are present in the lives of third-culture teenagers as they navigate these muddy yet beautiful waters. The voice, respect, and listening ear of a person who has face-to-face time for them will be more influential than you can imagine.
Join LPC and Life Coach Dieula Previlon and other speakers for the Family Now Conference at Chase Oaks Church! From setting healthy boundaries to talking to your kids about sex, we will have a breakout session to help you with what you need most! Register today for the early bird rate!