How to support First Nations young people when their identity is in the news

Supporting your teen through public debate illustration

This illustration was created by Sancia Ridgeway, a proud Gumbaynggirr woman living on Gadigal land. She is studying a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communications and is passionate about art, design and social justice. This article has been written and reviewed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

First Nations Australians are no strangers to ongoing public debates about their identities, histories, rights, practices and cultures. Often, these debates can divide people, leading to an increase in discrimination and racism in the news, online, and in the community. Experiencing this can significantly impact the social and emotional wellbeing of First Nations people. For parents and carers, it can be complex to navigate. However, it’s important to understand how these debates and political issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people might impact your child, and what you can do to help empower, guide and support them.

How does public debate impact First Nations young people?

When discussion around your teen’s identity is brought up in public, it’s natural that they may feel a range of emotions. While it’s important to recognise that everyone responds differently, you might notice that your teen is having a tough time if they’re:

  • feeling agitated, angry or emotional

  • feeling confused about how to perceive things

  • isolating and disconnecting from family, community and friends

  • struggling with cultural load, with everyone poking and prodding at their opinions

  • being impacted by casual or overt racism

  • having arguments online or in person

  • feeling ashamed about who they are.

Jacob Hunter, a 21-year-old from the Gumbaynggirr mob, says of the emotional toll that public debates can have:

It can feel like a target is on my back when people ask me heaps of questions about my identity.

When things get overwhelming, he says, ‘I try to remember that I don’t need to feel embarrassed, because it’s who I am, and I can’t change anything about that.’

How can you support First Nations young people through public debate?

Support their social and emotional wellbeing

If you’re planning on talking to your child about the impact of having their identity in the news or at the centre of public debate, it’s important to check in with them first, to see if they’re in the right headspace to open up.

Having honest and healthy conversations can sometimes be hard, especially when it hits close to home or there might be different perspectives being shared. Telling them that you’re there to support them and are always happy to yarn, while also creating an environment of love, openness and encouragement, can make it clear that, above anything else, you care about their social and emotional wellbeing.

Jacob says of the support he gets from his parents:

My parents are receptive to my feelings, which has helped me a lot. Being able to get things out and not worry about what they will say back gave me a lot of confidence to speak my mind.

During times like these, you can also support your teen’s social and emotional wellbeing by encouraging them to connect with sources of strength and community. While this will look different for everyone, it might include things like:

  • spending time on Country, doing activities like fishing or going for walks

  • connecting with culture, spirituality and ancestry by talking to your mob’s elders

  • yarning with extended family, and getting involved in the community and cultural events.

Supporting First Nations youth as a non-Indigenous parent

Supporting your teen’s social and emotional wellbeing can be challenging for anyone, but it might be a different experience for non-Indigenous parents and carers struggling with knowing where to start. While many of the same tips above may apply, here a few extra suggestions:

  • Educate yourself about the history, culture and experiences of First Nations peoples through places like Reconciliation Australia and Share Our Pride. This can help you guide your teen through these experiences and discussions.

  • If they’re connected to their mob, encourage your child to reach out to them. If they don’t know their mob and want to find out, check out services like Link-Up together.

  • Connect with your teen through their interests. For example, if they’re into First Nations music or artists, suggest you check them out together.

  • Find fun activities to do on Country with them, and support them by doing cultural activities together.

  • Seek guidance from local organisations, community centres and support services.

Young First Nations woman Sarah Swannell explains how important ‘active listening’ has been when it comes to the support she gets from her father:

‘My father, who is non-Indigenous, is really supportive of me and my mum – and he is really trying to figure out how we as Indigenous people feel.’

For more tips on supporting your First Nations children, check out this interview with Anaiwan man David Widders on how families and communities can support each other.

Talk to your teen about political issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

First Nations identity is frequently discussed in the news and during public debates. Identity can be a highly sensitive topic to talk about and debate publicly. For this reason, it’s important to create a safe space to have the yarn – and to feel like you’re in a calm and good space yourself. If you’re ready to talk, start with simple open-ended questions or statements, such as:

  • ‘You’ve been a bit quiet lately. Is there anything on your mind that you wanted to have a yarn about?’

  • ‘If you ever want to chat about [topic], just know I’m always here and ready to listen.’

When you’ve started talking with them, there’s a few things to keep in mind:

  • Try not to judge – it may have taken a lot of courage for them to speak up about how they feel.

  • Validate their emotions and how they’re feeling.

  • Let them know they don’t need to respond, even if you might be more outspoken about the topic.

  • Ask what you can do to help them – it could be advice or just reassurance.

  • Ask them if they would like to hear about your experiences – it can be comforting to know that others have been through similar things.

  • Be honest and open with them about how you feel, while giving them the platform they need to share their own feelings and opinions.

  • Take care of yourself – it’s okay to step away from the conversation and come back to it later, especially if the issues you’re talking about are impacting you, too.

Sancia Ridgeway, a 21-year-old from the Gumbaynggirr mob, shared her experiences of talking about her identity as a young First Nations woman:

I think it’s important to know you don’t always need to have an opinion right away – you shouldn’t feel pressured to give an answer.

Reach out to your teen’s school

Public debates can also impact your teen’s school experience. They might be feeling overwhelmed with questions from friends, feeling misunderstood or personally targeted, or facing racism or discrimination.

Support services in schools for First Nations young people

If they’re looking for extra support, you could contact and work with certain staff members, if your teen’s school has people in these positions:

  • Aboriginal Liaison Officer (ALO). Yarning to the ALO can be a good idea, as they can provide culturally sensitive support and guidance to both you and your teen.

  • Anti-Racism Contact Officer (ARCO). If your teen is experiencing racism, discrimination or bias at school, the ARCO can provide official support to ensure your teen’s rights are protected.

  • Trusted teachers. You could schedule a meeting with teachers that your teen is comfortable with to chat about any issues or concerns related to their wellbeing at school or in the classroom. For helping with your teen’s overall wellbeing, you could also reach out to the school’s Head Teacher Wellbeing or Welfare, or Pastoral Care Coordinator.

  • Year coordinators. As year coordinators play a key role in monitoring your teen’s progress and wellbeing throughout the school year, they can offer insights into any issues your teen may be facing and collaborate with other members of staff.

  • School leaders. School leaders, such as principals and deputy principals, can help with significant issues and broader concerns that may be impacting your teen’s experience at school. They are also a useful escalation point if speaking to others isn’t working.

Sarah says of the role parents can play in supporting their teens through school:

‘I think it would be great if more parents asked, after each school day, “Are you okay and do you want to talk about anything going on?”

Getting extra support for your child

Being at the centre of a public debate can be mentally and emotionally draining. A lot of pressure can be put on you, and it can feel like you always need to say or think ‘the right thing’. If you’re after further support for yourself and your teen, you could reach out to:

  • your GP or a mental health professional

  • 13YARN to chat with a First Nations person who’ll understand

  • WellMob for social and emotional wellbeing resources by and for mob

  • local Aboriginal Corporations or Aboriginal Medical Services (AMS)

  • Parentline, a free phone line that provides parents and carers with confidential and non-judgement advice and support.

While it might feel overwhelming, supporting your teen during public debates about their identity is crucial.  Conversations about social and political issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can have a significant impact on your child’s emotions, wellbeing and development. You can play a key role by checking in with them, building their confidence, and helping them to connect with who they are and with their culture.