Why Latinx Parents Should Promote Independence in Their Teens, and How They Can Do It

For Latinx teens, exerting their independence can at times trigger a clash of cultures. The longing to belong in American society can seem at odds with the loyalty and respect to tradition, culture, and family typical to Latinx culture. Yet, belonging to a new culture and upholding Latinx culture need not be at odds or trigger a conflict in the lives of teens and their families. 

Latinx teens benefit significantly from a value known as familismo — or defining themselves through family and respect for their elders. As adults, however, it is important to realize that when the value of familismo is taken to the extreme, it may prevent the development of important character traits that help kids thrive in different environments within American culture. When we instead promote Latinx teens’ independence, support them in forming opinions, and encourage civic engagement, we unlock a number of benefits in the short and long term. Doing so does not take away from culture. And it may not be as hard as many Latinx parents think. 

“When familismo is taken to the extreme, it may mean that if an adult is talking, you don’t talk, or you cannot share what you think because you need to hear the wisdom the elders are going to infuse to you,” says Dr. Maria Veronica Svetaz, an Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine and Medical Director of the Aquí Para Tí or Here for You program. “That can be problematic because, in schools across this country, for example, teens are rewarded for speaking up, participating, and having opinions,” she adds.

Encouraging teens to speak up and do things like voting, engaging in activism, and volunteering can have many benefits in adolescence and beyond, says Svetaz. For Latinx teens, being engaged civically in their communities can promote a sense of empowerment and purpose that helps teens cope with stress, stay in school and develop meaningful relationships in the community, she adds.

“Teens who feel a sense of control over their environment also feel they have the ability to influence or improve it.”

To bridge what may seem like cultures at odds, Svetaz reminds Latinx parents, especially recent immigrants in her practice, that most of them came to this country to give their kids a better future. To do that, kids have to perform well in school. “It’s all about explaining the codes of each culture, and this culture values activism and speaking up,” says Svetaz. “Not allowing kids to speak up can harm them,” she adds.

Svetaz also clarifies that appreciating and understanding the codes of American culture does not mean Latinx teens are leaving their own culture behind. It means instead that they honor and respect their culture and identity while also being aware of American culture. As Latinx teens navigate a new culture, Svetaz also reminds parents they should not lose their position as coaches and role models. “Despite being immersed in a culture that to you may seem foreign, your teen needs your experience, guidance, and roots to remain grounded,” says Svetaz.

In this coaching role, there are many things parents’ can do to support their teens’ independence. Svetaz recommends purposely teaching independence saying, “Teens who feel a sense of control over their environment also feel they have the ability to influence or improve it.” If we think about adolescence as a time of discovery, caring adults play the important role of expert guides. 

When we’re adolescents, we need opportunities to test out new ideas and experiences. For example, Svetaz suggests engaging with teens when they have the urge to debate you on difficult issues. “Ask questions. That way your teens will learn that their opinions matter and that you care about their views,” she says. This also gives parents insight into what matters to their teens and the issues with which they struggle.

Lastly, Svetaz adds that letting teens form their opinions and exert their independence will allow them to lead us and push forward a new vision for the world at a time in which we badly need their idealism. 

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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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