Helping your teen cope with racism

Image of a man comforting his teenage son at a table.

We live in a vibrant multicultural society. All of the different cultures and races that make up Australia deserve to be celebrated and embraced. However, people who are not white, raised in a different culture, and/or speak a language other than English, face a range of unfair challenges. These challenges can range from feeling misunderstood by others, to being racially abused.

If your teen has experienced racism, they might be feeling anything from uncomfortable to traumatised. Any form of racism is unacceptable and your teen doesn’t deserve this treatment. Here are some ways that you can help them through it.

Remind your teen it’s not their fault

Your teen’s culture and race is something to be proud of. From a young age, it has helped to shape who they are. If someone is making your teen feel ashamed of their background, remind them that there’s no evidence that one race or culture is better than any other.

In the face of racism, your teen might reject or downplay their race and culture in order to fit in. This might help reduce the racist actions towards them, but it isn’t a permanent solution. Get more info here about talking to your teen about their culture and race, and for ways to help them build cultural pride.

It’s okay to walk away

The most important thing when dealing with a racist incident is to make sure that your teen is safe. Deciding to walk away from someone who’s racially abusing you, or blocking someone online, can be a much healthier response than engaging in a never-ending debate with them. First and foremost, your teen needs to feel safe.

Speak up, but only if it’s safe to do so

In some situations – for example, if your teen’s close friend makes a racist comment – your teen might want to speak up. This decision is completely up to them and depends on how comfortable and safe they feel.

When speaking up, your teen could ask neutral, open-ended questions like: ‘Why did you say that?’ This forces the person who made the comment to think about what they said, and gives your teen the opportunity to offer a new perspective.

If your teenager is more comfortable texting the other person, they could send a message at a later time and explain that what the person said or did hurt them. For example, they could write: ‘What you did made me uncomfortable.’

Report what happened

If you and your teen feel that the situation has no end in sight, or has become serious, you could make a formal and confidential complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission. You could also report the matter to the police. If you want to take this route, collecting evidence will help your case. You could take audio or video recordings on your phone, screenshot any messages or keep a diary of incidents.

If the racism is happening online, this is a form of cyberbullying and there are additional things you can do, such as make a complaint to the eSafety Commissioner.

Be there for your teen

Talking to someone you trust can really help you process your experiences. Be there to support your teen and offer to help them talk through what happened.

If your teenager isn’t ready to talk, or wants to talk to someone else, don’t take it personally. It can be tricky for adolescents to open up to their parents about some things. You could encourage them to connect with another trusted adult or friend, such as a family member, community mentor or a teacher.

You could also point them towards the ReachOut Online Community, where they can chat anonymously with other young people about their experiences or read other people’s stories. The forums are safe and professionally moderated, so they are a great place to go. As well as that, Kids Helpline phone and webchat service lets them speak to a professional counsellor.

Help your teen build cultural pride

Having a strong sense of self and pride in one’s cultural background can actually increase confidence and resilience. This can help your teen cope with racism they might experience, as well as with other issues in the future.

You could help your teenager build cultural pride by engaging in cultural activities in a way that’s appealing to them. For example, they could attend religious, cultural or community events where they get to cook or try their cultural foods, learn about their history, and meet other young people like them.

Experiencing racism can make a young person feel isolated and alone. A sense of belonging is super-important for adolescents, so creating opportunities for them to form relationships within their cultural group can strengthen their sense of pride and set them up for the future.

Schedule in some self-care for the family

Dealing with racism can be draining for the entire family. After your teen is out of immediate harm’s way, they might need to do something to improve their mood and recharge their batteries. It also takes energy to support someone else, so you could do something with them, or take some time for yourself. Make sure you and your teen do some activities you enjoy, such as sport, gaming, meditation, music or art. Get some more ideas on self-care here.