Elements of Latinx Culture to Help Teens Thrive in an Upside-Down World

The past year has been challenging for parents everywhere. For many Latinx parents in the United States, the challenges of a global pandemic have disproportionately affected communities of color. They have come on top of the unique, everyday challenges of raising teens in more than one culture. As the world continues spinning, the key to helping Latinx teens thrive may lay in the culture’s sense of family. It may come with the richness that comes from embracing more than one culture. And in parents’ ability to speak frankly about the challenges Latinx teens may face in the real world, and parents’ and communities’ ability to foster resilience. 

Familismo as an important value in teens’ lives 

It is no secret in Latinx culture la familia viene primero — family comes first. What to you may seem like a simple, even intuitive part of your culture has recently been studied by scientists and has even been given a name- familismo.

“Familismo is a way of defining the self in the context of the family,” explains Gabriela Livas Stein, PhD, a psychologist and Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. “[It] is defined as loyalty that one has to family and the expectations of emotional and social support that one gives to one’s family,” she adds.

That respect to the elders in Latinx families? That’s familismo. Considering family members and how our decisions and actions will impact them; that’s familismo too. And what’s exciting about familismo, as Dr. Stein’s research shows, is that it can bring Latinx teens a sense of purpose, meaning and accomplishment. Anyone working with Latinx teens can champion familismo to foster resilience and promote well-being.  Like any complicated construction project, well-being requires a team of people with different specialties. 

Take school, for example. In her work with teachers and school staff, Dr. Stein recommends they ask teens simple questions, such as, “What can we do to help you live up to the expectations your family has of you, and you have of yourself?” This type of question can show the teen and his or her family that bringing their family pride to school is not only accepted but encouraged.

Setting expectations at home for kids who have familismo as a value and are learning to juggle academic demands and responsibilities at home can also be very powerful. But Dr. Stein warns that while moderate expectations can help teens organize themselves and multitask, putting too much weight on one side too fast may overwhelm them and keep them from learning the multitasking and prioritizing skills they would get if we slowly added demands. Resilient outcomes are like a balance — we can continue adjusting by paying attention to what we stack on, including stacking on positives like cultivating supportive relationships.


Embracing American culture as an addition to Latinx culture 

In addition to defining themselves as part of their family, many Latinx youth explore who they are and how they fit within the larger American culture during the teenage years. Though some Latinx parents worry they may lose their child to American culture, thinking for example, their child may become too independent or engage in dangerous behaviors, Dr. Stein says these years and this exploration of cultures is an opportunity to add to Latinx culture and doing so does not take away from it.

“You’re not leaving a culture, you’re adding things to your cultural pot,” says Dr. Stein. Your cultural values are not going away and those values, like familismo, protect your teen. “Look around and think about what are the values in this American culture that you think are good, what are the things you want for your kids in this context, and remember that it can add to your own, not take away,” she adds. Adolescence is a critical period of discovery and opportunity. Our role includes creating environments for our young people to take positive risks like pursuing new experiences and finding new ways of expressing themselves. This helps them discover who they are and what they want for their future.

Speaking frankly about discrimination and difficult interactions

There is, however, a difficult aspect to life in the United States for which Dr. Stein recommends parents prepare their teens.

“[Teens] need to know what to do if someone calls them a racial slur and what to do if a teacher keeps ignoring them in class, or if they feel uncomfortable in their interactions with their peers or kids are teasing them,” says Dr. Stein       

Your parental instinct that this may be hard for your teen is probably right. For that reason, Dr. Stein recommends discussing discrimination as part of conversations about identity, race, pride, resilience, and hope.

As your teen encounters difficult situations, it is important they know they can come to you. When they do, Dr. Stein recommends focusing on open-ended questions such as “What makes you think that? Or what did you see that made you think about that?”  giving teens a space to reflect, be thoughtful about their actions and talk through a set of tools they can use, without telling them exactly what they should have done at that moment because that might stifle future conversations, says Dr. Stein.

Resilience, and allowing teens to be part of the family solution, have never been so important   

Because Latinx teens may face unique challenges and given we are living through a global pandemic and a racial awakening in this country, fostering resilience has become key.

“[Resilience is] that flexibility and that ability to adapt and to think about how as a family we are going to navigate this,” says Dr. Stein. She recommends bringing children and teens into the discussion in a way that is developmentally appropriate.

 “When we bring children into the conversation, we give them a sense of meaning and accomplishment; they get this feeling that we are doing something together as a family unit and that in turn protects them against feeling hopeless and promotes a sense of empowerment when so much can feel out of their control,” Dr. Stein adds.

In addition to fostering resilience within your family, it can also be fostered by communities. Within immigrant communities, the sense of overcoming adversity for a common purpose can be a powerful model for your teen.

The connection to your family and your community, coupled with the embrace of aspects of a new culture and the skills to navigate real-world challenges can help your teen keep thriving through historically difficult times.

About Edith Bracho-Sanchez

Edith Bracho-Sanchez, MD is a pediatrician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital's Broadway Practice, director of pediatric telemedicine for NYP's Ambulatory Care Network, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia.

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