Helping your teen cope with discrimination

Image of an adult man and his younger teenage daughter sitting together. The man has black skin and is resting his hand on his daughter's shoulder. The young girl has brown skin and long black hair. She is looking up at her dad attentively.

It can feel scary sending your children out into a world where their identity may be used to harm them, but you can make all the difference by being there to support them in those moments. Read on to learn more about how to support your teen when they experience discrimination.

This can help if:

  • you’re worried about your teen experiencing discrimination

  • you’re unsure of how to talk to your teen about discrimination

  • you’re seeking support for your teen after a discriminatory incident.

What is discrimination?

Discrimination is when someone is treated poorly or unfairly based on a certain trait, characteristic or identity.

School, after-school events and public transport are common places where teens may experience discrimination. As your teen grows into a young adult they may experience discrimination in other ways, such as being turned down for a job or being denied a rental property due to their identity or characteristics.

The common reasons people may be discriminated against include:

  • race

  • sex or gender

  • sexual identity

  • age

  • disability

  • body size or physical characteristics.

If your teen is being bullied or harassed based on something from the above list, then they are being discriminated against. It’s illegal to discriminate against others within a work or school environment, and your teen has the right to report the perpetrator and to escalate the issue.

How to identify if your teen is experiencing discrimination

Your teen may not know that what they are going through is discrimination, or they may not be comfortable saying anything about it. Perhaps they are being subjected to this treatment by an authority figure, or by a close friend, and they don’t want anyone to know.

Your teen may be experiencing discrimination if they are:

  • losing friends or being excluded from social activities

  • being bullied or made fun of at school

  • struggling to secure a job

  • being threatened by peers, teachers or strangers

  • being denied entry to places or events.

Being discriminated against can have a negative impact on a person’s mental health and wellbeing, and teens who experience discrimination are at a higher risk of showing signs of poor mental wellbeing. It will likely affect them beyond the incident, especially if the discrimination occurs at school.

“Feeling accepted by peers is particularly important to teens – and when they experience discrimination, they may feel like they don’t belong or aren’t welcome. This can make them feel less confident, and make it harder for them to build strong social support. It can increase the risk of them experiencing difficulties with their mental health” – Linda Willams, psychologist and Clinical Lead at ReachOut Australia.

Sudden changes in behaviour, or in their attitudes towards themselves or their community, could indicate that your teen is experiencing discrimination. This could look like:

  • not wanting to take public transport or the school bus

  • wanting to change classrooms

  • refusing to go to school or to join in afterschool activities

  • using harmful language about themselves or others in their community

  • appearing angry or irritated, especially when their identity is brought up in conversation

  • not wanting to express themselves or to embrace their identity as strongly as before

  • appearing tired or emotionally exhausted after school, TAFE, uni or work.

How to talk to your teen about discrimination

Talking with your teen about discrimination allows you both to share your worries or fears and to identify any previous instances of discrimination they may have experienced, which can help build their resilience. Telling your teen about your own experiences may also help them better understand what discrimination looks like and how it has shaped your opinions and emotions about the topic.

Your teen may be resistant to talking about it, particularly following an incident. They may be upset or angry and feel tense throughout the conversation. Validate their feelings and ensure that you have the talk in a place where they feel safe and comfortable.

During the conversation

  • Manage your own feelings about the situation. If you have your own history with discrimination, your emotions might make it hard to discuss the topic calmly. Acknowledge how you feel in the moment and let your teen know how you’re feeling.

  • Be open and honest with your teen about your emotions. If you’re afraid for them or angry on their behalf, let them know. This may encourage them to open up and be honest about how they are feeling.

  • Ask for details if an incident has already occurred. This will help if you choose to report the discrimination.

  • Share your own story of discrimination with your teen. This may help them to feel less alone, and it may spark a wider conversation about your culture, identity, community and support networks.

  • Remind them that responding is a choice. You and your teenager may have very different opinions on how to respond to discrimination. Responding to it or reporting it can sometimes take a lot of mental and emotional energy, so being given the choice and not feeling pressured can be a huge relief for your teen. Talk through which option you think is best and offer your insights and opinions in a calm and supportive way.

After the conversation

  • Do something fun! Look after your own and your teen’s wellbeing by doing something fun or self-caring after the chat.

  • Celebrate what makes your teen special. Our identity and traits are what make us all special and unique. Be sure to celebrate this with your teen by asking them what they love about who they are, talking about your culture or heritage, connecting them with others in their community or simply by sharing why you love them for who they are.

  • Make these conversations a regular part of life. Shying away from the topic may mean your teen normalises discrimination and doesn’t seek support. By talking with them regularly about discrimination, you will help them identify the signs and know when to seek support.

Practical tips to support your teen when they experience discrimination

Talking about the discriminatory incident is an essential first step in supporting your teen. It will give you the chance to listen to their concerns and to offer them emotional support. After talking it out, there are a number of practical steps you can take to ensure your teen is feeling safe and well following an incident.

Prioritise their wellbeing

Jumping straight to responding may overwhelm your teen. Even the most justice-driven teen will need time to care for themselves and check in on their wellbeing. If your teen is eager to skip straight over this step and right into action, remind them that the experience can be scary and that it is okay to take some time to look after themselves first before they move forward.

Encourage them to practise self-care and to keep talking about the incident with you or another trusted family member or adult. You may also like to share some resources with them and suggest that they talk about how they are feeling with someone who can relate, such as a community member or a peer worker.

Reporting the discrimination

Reporting an incident can seem scary for both parent and teen, but it may remedy the situation and leave your teen in a better environment than before.

There are several places where you can report instances of discrimination, including:

Be aware that reporting and responding to discrimination may not have the result you and your teen were hoping for. Manage your teen’s expectations of the reporting process and talk through with them how you will respond if you don’t get the outcome you were after. Seek out additional support during the process so that both you and your teen feel prepared for any outcomes.

Additional support options

Supporting your teen beyond the incident is a great way to ensure they are coping well and remain proud of who they are.

You could try:

  • connecting your teen with others in their community, both in-person and online

  • talking to Elders in your community

  • meeting other parents on the ReachOut Parents Forums and hearing how they have managed these sorts of incidents in their family

  • encouraging your teen to consider seeking professional help if they need it

  • sharing resources with your teen on coping, so that they can see how others manage tough moments

  • providing your teen with a range of [support services information]( services&page=1) such as helplines and webchats

  • learning more about your teen’s community and engaging them in positive conversations about what you’ve learnt.

Did you find what you needed?