Navigating cultural differences in teen relationships

Living in a multicultural society may mean that your teen is dating, or thinking about dating, someone from a different cultural background. 

Being with someone from a different culture can be a really rewarding experience for your teen, just like any relationship. But it can also come with its own set of challenges – whether that’s due to cultural differences, family expectations or community attitudes.

Your teen’s relationship might take some getting used to (no matter who they’re dating). But it’s likely they’ll need your support and guidance to help them manage the emotional ups and downs of their dating experiences, and to navigate any challenges that come their way.

A young couple laughing together

What are the benefits of dating someone from a different cultural background?

If your teen is dating someone from a different culture,  along with discovering what interests them romantically and what they have in common with the other person, they might also get to experience some unique benefits. For example, it might help them to:

  • expand their worldview and embrace new perspectives

  • become more empathetic, accepting and inclusive

  • learn a new language, customs and social norms

  • celebrate new holidays, cultural events and traditions

  • try new foods 

  • share their own culture and traditions

  • build a more diverse social network

  • improve their communication and listening skills

  • build their mental resilience and coping skills.

What are some common cultural differences?

While every culture and family has its own customs, attitudes and approaches when it comes to dating and relationships, here are some common cultural differences your teen might encounter:

  • the accepted age for dating

  • how involved the other person’s parents, extended family and community are in the dating process

  • dating customs and rituals (e.g. traditions, events, ceremonies and gestures)

  • the significance placed on dating (e.g. in some cultures, casual dating is acceptable; while in others, dating is only for serious relationships) 

  • the time frame for inviting the person they’re dating to their home

  • different expectations around studying and future professions

  • communication styles (e.g. different cultures vary in their levels of openness and directness, and may have different non-verbal cues such as body language and eye contact)

  • different attitudes towards sleepovers and sex

  • different approaches and expectations regarding gender roles

  • religious faith and values and how this impacts dating

  • different attitudes towards same-sex relationships.

How to balance family expectations

One of the main challenges for young people (and for their parents and carers) when it comes to dating someone from a different culture can be navigating the differences and expectations as a family.

Teens may feel pressured to follow the expectations of their family, or otherwise face their disapproval when what they want deviates from what their family wants. These expectations may come from their own family, or from the family of the person they are dating.

Understandably, parents and carers usually want what they think is best for their teen. But this may differ from what the teen feels is the right thing for them.

Layla, who experienced cultural differences and dating as a teen, says:

‘Many children understand that their parents unfortunately will never understand them. However, you don’t have to understand in order to accept your child. By showing acceptance, and making an effort to understand, parents are able to lift the weight of expectations immensely.’

We talked to a range of parents and carers about how they’ve supported their teens in these situations. Here are their suggestions:

  • Engage in active listening and take the time to understand things from your teen’s point of view (without judgement). Sometimes just giving someone the space to share what’s on their mind and not immediately jumping in to offer solutions can help them to feel heard and validated.

  • Be flexible and open with your own communication. This can encourage your teen to be honest about how they’re feeling in their conversations with you. This type of communication can help the two of you to feel connected and allow you to resolve challenges together.

  • View your teen’s partner with the same acceptance, understanding and respect that you would give to your own partner. Modelling respectful relationships can go a long way in influencing your teen.

  • Trust your teen’s decision-making. As teenagers develop, learning to make their own decisions is a part of gaining independence.

Helena, who has a teenage daughter, says:

Open and honest communication is very important when our expectations and my teen’s expectations are different. Basic trust and respect for each other, and meeting halfway in our agreements make them feel that we are trying on our side to understand and support them.

Helena adds: ‘For example, most conservative families would not allow their teen daughter to date until much older. My teen talked to us about her intention to date at 16 years old, and we agreed that it was okay but with some conditions. We came to an agreement on what those conditions are.’

Helping your teen navigate different cultural values and beliefs

Aside from the expectations from within their own family, teens may also experience a clash when it comes to the values and beliefs of their partner’s culture – from religious practices and communication styles, to social norms and the role of extended family.

Sage, whose partner is from a different cultural background, shares her experience:

‘I come from a very relaxed culture and it was a bit of a shock coming into a culture where you are expected to sit, eat and talk with the entire family every time you come over. There’s no such thing as casually coming over and only spending time with your partner … It sometimes feels as though I’m dating the entire family.’

Within any culture, individuals and families might hold a diversity of values and beliefs, but if you feel like your teen is struggling to manage and embrace these, or to balance their identity between the cultures, there are things you can do to support them.

Help them to see the value in difference

Remind your teen that cultural difference isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s simply that something is different from what they’re used to. Over time, they’ll have an opportunity to learn more about – and to embrace – their partner’s culture. 

You can help them with this by leading by example and being open when talking to their partner and their partner’s family, as well as emphasising the value of learning from one another.

Mum Helena says:

What is most important is respect for every culture, even though it might be different from ours. Asking questions to understand another person’s culture and sharing our own culture with them will encourage and increase one’s appreciation of each culture.

Find connection through activities

Another way you and your teen can start to connect with their partner’s culture, especially if there's a language barrier, is through activities that don’t require speaking, such as dancing or cooking. You could also get involved in each other’s cultural events and celebrations to build a sense of connection and shared experiences.

You can take this approach if your teen is starting to feel like they’re losing their own cultural identity, too. If they’re feeling disconnected from their own culture, encourage them to find ways to integrate it more into their daily life through things such as food, films, TV shows, social media accounts or community events.

Check out this article to explore more ways to connect with your teen and explore their cultural identity.

Encourage them to chat with friends

If your teen is really struggling with cultural clashes with their partner or their partner’s family, encourage them to seek support from their friends. It may be validating to hear that they’re not the only person going through this type of experience and they may be able to learn from what has helped their friends.

Two young women laughing

Dealing with judgement from others

Even if you’ve accepted your teen’s relationship, they may still feel they’re being judged by their community for going against cultural norms. This might come from extended family, friends, neighbours, people from school, or someone else.

Layla, a young person dealing with a clash between community and romantic relationships, says:

Some parts of my relationships will never be accepted in my culture – that’s just a fact. However, having an open-minded parent has really helped me make peace with that fact and understand that you don’t need everyone to accept you, and that judgement from others is inevitable.

‘Plus,’ she says, ‘there comes a point when you will understand you can’t change everyone around you, but you can choose who you surround yourself with and who you let hold power over you.’

Listen and be present

Being in a culturally diverse relationship may also attract racism or discrimination from the broader society. This might be in the form of insensitive jokes, bullying, stereotyping, other microaggressions or direct abuse. 

Aside from some of the practical steps for dealing with racist incidents, such as walking away from the situation, blocking the other person if it’s happening online, and reporting it to the police or the eSafety Commissioner, one of the main things you can do to help your teen with this situation is to simply be there for them. 

Let them talk through what happened so that they can process their experience. Talking about it can help your teen feel less alone and less overwhelmed, and may relieve some of their stress.

Get extra support

If your teen isn’t willing to open up to you about it, encourage them to talk to someone else they trust, such as a friend, family member, or a respected person in your community, such as an Elder, religious leader or mentor.

If they prefer to talk about it anonymously, they can connect with other young people on ReachOut’s Online Community or ReachOut’s PeerChat service (if they’re over 18), or they could talk to a professional counsellor through services such as Kids Helpline

Mental health information can be found in a range of languages on the Embrace Multicultural Mental Health website, and there are a range of support services specifically for culturally and linguistically diverse young people across each state.

Jimena says of her teen daughter’s experience:

It can help to know that we are all different, even coming from the same culture. She must go through her own experiences, and we [as parents] cannot save them from the pain or hurt. It feels frustrating because there is not much you can do but support them.

Strengthen their cultural pride

Being judged by your community, or dealing with racist incidents, can lead your teen to feel shame or a need to distance themselves from their culture. This isn’t a positive, long-term solution. 

Rather, doing the opposite and assisting your teen to build a greater sense of cultural pride in areas that work for them can help them to develop a stronger identity and feelings of confidence and resilience. They may not agree with every aspect of their culture, but they may be able to reach a balance by finding other parts of it to embrace.

You can also check out this article about building pride in your teen’s Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander culture.

Finding the balance

For many parents and carers, the most important thing is that their teen is happy. While relationships with cultural differences can have some challenges, they can also bring a lot of joy to your teen and to your family as a whole. 

Things might be tough at times, but just by being there for your teen and helping them  to find a balance, you can provide the support they need to make the best of their dating experiences.

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