The importance of culture for your teenager

parents and two kids in the kitchen cooking

Australian society is made up of a vibrant mix of cultures and races from all around the world. While this diversity provides social and economic benefits to our nation as a whole, it’s not always easy for teenagers to figure out where they fit in and who they are.

What is ‘culture’?

‘Culture’ is the knowledge and characteristics that a group of people have built up over time. This includes language, food, religion, music, arts, values and social habits. Culture exists everywhere that groups of people come together – from the workplace to the classroom, from sporting clubs to inside the home.

For many families, culture is tied to their racial or ethnic background. It can form an important part of who they are. If you identify with your country of origin or birth, your culture might influence:

  • how you parent your children

  • what language you speak at home

  • how you treat your peers and those younger or older than you

  • your habits – including small ones, like whether you wear shoes inside the house or how you eat your food, to more significant ones, like how you manage your finances or your attitudes towards work

  • your religious or spiritual beliefs

  • your political views.

The importance of cultural strength

For young people, one of the most important things as they go through their teenage years is finding a sense of belonging. This begins at home, when kids are young and follow everything their parents, carers and family do. It may then shift when they enter their high-school years and start figuring out for themselves who they are.

Research has shown that when teenagers have a sense of pride in and gain strength from their cultural background, this helps them to cope better with racism or exclusion. A young person’s family, and their community and culture, is their first social group. This can offer the really important sense of belonging that they need. They then also know that they can always rely on their family, no matter what happens outside the home.

Cultural pride and a strong sense of self can also help young people to develop confidence and healthy self-esteem. This builds their resilience and mental wellbeing, making them better able to deal with life’s issues.

When the dominant Australian culture at school or work is different from the one at home, teenagers (and adults) may be tempted to shy away from their own culture in order to fit in. This can also happen if they experience comments or actions because of their culture or race that make them feel uncomfortable, unsafe or excluded.

Helping your teen to build pride in their culture will encourage them to keep important parts of your family’s heritage and history. It’s best to aim for influence, rather than control. Find ways to bring your culture into your everyday life in a way that’s fun for your teen – for example, through family activities or community events. Trying to force a teenager to act or be a certain way often backfires; you’ll have more success in showing them how interesting their culture can be. Learn more about role-modelling for your teen here.

It’s also important to help them understand cultures and histories other than their own. They’ll gain a better appreciation for people around them and will be able to balance their own culture with the other cultural influences they get outside of home.

To help them get a broad understanding about culture and race, you could talk about:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures

  • the culture, history and customs of your ethnic place of origin

  • Australia’s colonial past

  • cultures or religions that are typically seen as opposed, e.g. India vs Pakistan, Protestant vs Catholic, Israel vs Palestine

  • some of the many different cultures, other than your own, that make up modern Australia.

Helping your teen deal with racism and discrimination

Unfortunately, there are people who discriminate against those who look different or have a different background from themselves. This means that your teenager could face racism and discrimination multiple times throughout their life. There are also people who unintentionally treat people of different backgrounds differently, simply because they don’t have experience, knowledge or awareness of other cultures.

The good news is that there are things you can do to help your teenager cope with racism and minimise the effects of discrimination. Guiding your teen to understand their own cultural and racial background will also equip them with self-awareness, resilience and empathy.

Here are some things to try in navigating conversations with your teen around culture, race and racism.