I’ve worked with many parents of teens who feel their children have been suddenly replaced by strangers they neither know nor understand. But when parents are from another country, and their teens are growing up here in the U.S. , these differences are magnified and can be huge sources of conflict and stress that impact teen behavior and success in school as well as within the family.
Often immigrant parents came to the US from small villages and grew up in traditional cultures where people show great respect for elders, put family first, and live at home until they get married. They may come to the US because they are fleeing war or ethnic persecution, or because they want economic and educational opportunities for their families that they could not possibly have in their native countries.
Immigrant parents have willingly made many sacrifices, but often don’t anticipate the culture clash and conflict with their own teens who, growing up here, have a far greater identification with American culture. Their behavior and values may baffle or appall these parents and defeat their expectations.
If the parents don’t speak English well or at all, this adds more opportunities for misunderstandings, since they can’t communicate well with school officials, teachers, or their teens’ friends from different cultures.
Sometimes the teens have internal conflict as well. They may feel culturally split, trying to be a dutiful, traditional child at home and an all American girl/boy at school. These competing requirements can be very stressful as teens essentially lead a double life, with all the lies that entails.
So what can parents and professionals do to help improve communication and resolve conflicts? Here are a few suggestions:
Parent can set regular times for conversation and interaction. Even if not much talking happens at first, the space is there.
Teens and parents can learn to listen to each other, recognizing that understanding across cultural differences requires a lot of willingness and openness.
They can ask questions about each others’ experience and beliefs with curiosity instead of judgement.
Parents can show their love and appreciation, not just disappointment or disapproval.
I have sometimes seen wonderful, heartful, improvement between immigrant parents and teens who’ve simply attended a basic three hour communication workshop, but long term changes require persistence, repeated practice, and patience for step by step progress.