Talking to your teen about their culture and race

father and son sitting on couch looking at laptop

Belonging is such an important part of adolescence, but for some racially and culturally diverse teens, ‘fitting in’ and figuring out who they are can take some time. Thankfully, you can help your child to explore their identity in a way that respects their cultural past and gives them hope for a bright future.

Cultural identity is unique and empowering

Research shows that young people who actively explore their racial and cultural identity have higher self-esteem and are more likely to do better academically, emotionally and socially over the long term.

But even in a diverse country like Australia, young people can sometimes be bullied, feel out of place, and be tempted to reject their culture and race. Your teen might be exposed to Western customs and ways of living that feel foreign to you but are exciting to them. It’s not a rejection of their family, but a way for them to fit in and feel connected to the people around them at school. This is the place where they are learning, growing, making friends and establishing a future.

In your own ethnic homeland, young people may also be pushing boundaries in ways that their parents might find challenging. It’s a common part of the process of growing up, but open communication with your teen about the value of cultural exploration and expression can be rewarding. It might seem that your teen doesn’t value their background now, but with time, they’ll come to appreciate that their racial heritage and cultural traditions are an asset.

How to talk to your teens about their heritage

It’s incredibly important to have an ongoing conversation with your child about how valuable their cultural identity is. Teens make choices based on their need for belonging, particularly at school. You might want to point out that:

  • it’s normal to want to fit in, but pretending to be someone they aren’t could be hard in the long term

  • being upfront about who they are can feel really rewarding

  • it’s normal to not always feel confident about expressing or displaying their cultural background, especially if they are being bullied

  • the most important thing is that they feel safe and well — learn how to help your teen deal with racism here

  • balancing their different cultures is an ongoing process, and they don’t need all the answers right now

  • they’re not alone in these experiences — they might even have friends going through similar things.

Be inspired by the world around you

Use examples that your teenager can relate to, to help them understand things a bit better. You could talk about:

  • a recent news item

  • something you’ve seen on social media

  • an event that celebrates a cultural group, such as a local festival or a dedicated day like Harmony Day/Week

  • TV shows with diverse main characters, such as Never Have I Ever.

Find fun ways to learn and grow together

Encouraging teens to explore their cultural identity can help them create a more positive sense of self. It can also improve their connections with others and give them a greater understanding of the world around them. Culture is so much more than just language or family gatherings, so find some common ground and help your teen find the joy in who they are.

Be open and honest

If you don’t feel a strong connection with your own cultural heritage, remember, that’s okay too. There are many parents who grew up hiding parts of their culture as a way of fitting in with mainstream Australia. Be honest with your child about your own experiences with cultural identity. Sharing your experience opens up the space for your teen to also be honest.

Find books, TV shows and movies that celebrate culture

There’s a growing number of Young Adult novels that demonstrate what it’s like to come from two different communities, which you can find with help from a librarian, or by looking into hashtags like #ownvoices and #weneeddiversebooks. Foreign film festivals are a great way to reconnect with cultural experiences, and streaming services now offer shows that feature culturally diverse characters.

Incorporate some culture into your everyday

Find recipes online from your nation of origin, put on a song that reminds you of the ‘old country’, look at old family photos, or do a traditional craft activity. These activities can help you to connect to your culture, and may even help you to remember things you learnt from your family while growing up.

Learn together

Look online for resources about your cultural community and traditions. You and your teen can learn how your culture is celebrated and how you could adapt some of these traditions for your own lives. You could even learn your native language together!

Sign up to newsletters, follow Instagram accounts or join Facebook groups

There are many organisations that celebrate events, customs and traditions of the diverse communities that make up modern-day Australia. It’s a great way for you both to learn about your history, to connect with others on a similar journey, and to understand that this is a process that neither of you is alone in exploring.

Ultimately, teens need to know that there is no shame in being who they are. Knowing that they have your support will encourage them to explore and understand their cultural identity – in time, they’ll figure it all out.