Expert Tips for Parents Raising Cross-Cultural Teens

For teens, discovering where they fit within their community and the larger world offers one of life’s greatest challenges. But for teens who have moved to a new community, to a different country, or who are being raised by parents or caregivers from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds, the ability to determine where they fit in may be even greater.

In her new book, Raising Global Teens: A Practical Handbook for Parenting in the 21st Century, Anisha Abraham, MD, MPH, explores the big topics on the minds of teens and their parents, as well as challenges facing global teens today. She describes cross-cultural kids as those who have moved from community to community, who have parents that are immigrants, or who are exposed to multiple cultures on a daily basis. She explains that global teens are between the approximate ages of 9 and 21 — a time when puberty and brain development are rapidly developing. 

Eden Pontz, Executive Producer at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, spoke with Dr. Abraham about raising a global teen, as well as strategies and solutions for parents as they guide their teens to develop a strong sense of self.  

Anisha Abraham, MD, Pediatrician, Adolescent Medicine Specialist, University of Amsterdam
Anisha Abraham, MD

Eden Pontz: What are some of the challenges global teens may face today? What are some of the upsides?

Anisha Abraham: Cross-cultural kids can have some unique challenges but also some wonderful strengths. Some of the challenges can include ‘homelessness.’ For example, not quite knowing how to answer questions like who is my tribe, where do I actually belong, or who can I identify with. Other challenges may have to do with a sense of loss or grieving, particularly if they are moving from place to place and haven’t been able to fully say goodbye to what they’ve just left. We also know that sometimes they can even have a delayed adolescence because they’re not able to fully let go and be who they are in the community that they’re now part of.  But what I think is amazing is some of the unique strengths they have as well. Those strengths include having a world view, knowing more than one language, and having adaptability and tolerance, which is so important in life right now.  

EP: We are living in a time of uncertainty, of high stress, where it feels like global crises are all around us. What are some ways parents can best support their global teens to cope with stress and manage crises?

AA: With crises, with pandemics, with challenges that might be happening both locally and around the world, it can certainly test young people and their families. It’s important to build in some strategies to be able to handle that. One of the things that I talk about with parents and young people is the importance of creating routines and structure. That can be protective to young people, particularly if you’re in an uncertain time. Creating routines that include having regular sleep time, having some non-digital time where kids can go outdoors, are important. Also, incorporating time when families can be together is very helpful to young people. 

The other thing I’m a big supporter of is ensuring that parents model self-care and are thinking about an “anti-stress toolkit.” It’s like being on a plane and putting on your oxygen mask — you take care of yourself first before you take care of others. Make sure you have activities that you can do whether it’s yoga or exercise or talking to friends and connecting. For me for example, it’s very helpful to go running, go biking, talk with family members whether it’s through phone calls or online or in person. Taking some time to do some mindfulness and deep breathing are also important ways for me to re-center.  

EP: In your book, you talk about the importance of successful communication — an issue important to us at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication! What are some of the key strategies that parents or caregivers should regularly consider to communicate most effectively with young people?

AA:  One of the best tips I’ve ever received is that we need to think about saying 50% of what we typically say. As a parent, I’m guilty of this. My kids say, “Mom you’re going on and on and we get it!” Say about one half of what you truly have to say in terms of conveying a message.

When we’re having a tough time trying to engage young people, think about what might be happening with their peer group as a way to start a connection. So, if you have a young person that doesn’t want to talk about themselves and their mood or what’s happening, one of the things I can recommend is to ask, “Can you tell me what’s happening with your friends? Can you tell me what’s happening with the people around you? Is anyone struggling right now with feeling stressed or feeling depressed?” Is that something that you are feeling?” Many parents are sometimes nervous about asking specific questions about mood or depression but I think it’s so important to realize by being specific you’re more likely to get people to open up and get them the help and support they need. 

Another tip when it comes to communication is to do activities when you’re not directly looking them in the eye, which can be intimidating. So, whether you’re walking or biking or you’re driving them or even if it’s just dark and you’re putting them to sleep or they’re in bed already, try having those conversations in these situations to allow them to feel a little more comfortable about talking. 

EP: How do we support global teens in becoming more independent?

AA: We know that a very important part of adolescence is allowing young people to become independent. And for parents to be able to step back and allow teens to sometimes face challenges and get back up on their feet again and to navigate all of those experiences and make their own decisions. This can be tough particularly in cross-cultural households. Here are additional tips to consider: 

  1. First is the importance of having boundaries. Sometimes young people will resist having boundaries or having rules in place but what we do know from research is that they can actually be very protective in terms of helping to give young people a framework to work with. 
  2. Second is getting input from young people, particularly as they get older, in terms of what that framework looks like and what those boundaries are. Over time we do want their input. Simply giving them rules is not as effective as having a discussion and giving a sense of how they can negotiate those boundaries. 
  3. Third, go over what repercussions exist if they break boundaries or rules. Giving them room to make mistakes and talk about them is also important. Boundaries can be tested in many different ways in cross-cultural households. Have discussions and be aware of how other families may have different norms. But hold on to your own values and have your own rules. 

EP: What are some things parents should impress upon their children in regards to being the best “global citizens” possible within their communities?

AA: One valuable thing that parents can do is to make sure that they take the time to tell their own stories and to make sure that their kids are talking about what their personal stories are. Having connections to their own identity and heritage is so important in terms of developing identities to the fullest. Parents can also make sure that young people are connected to the community they are part of. Whether that means being involved in extracurricular activities, or volunteer service — try to give back to that community, understand that community. Those connections are so important in terms of helping young people to not feel vulnerable or even in some cases to not feel marginalized. Creating roots by talking about heritage and ensuring that young people feel comfortable with their own identity and that they feel connected to the larger community around them are important things that parents can do. 

EP: How does being a global teen benefit the development of character virtues?

AA: Global teens can embody many wonderful character virtues. And those virtues can include things like curiosity, tolerance, compassion, and resilience. What we know from young people that might be moving from place to place or experiencing different cultures is they may be curious because they’re constantly having to search and answer questions and think about who they are in relation to the culture around them. They also tend to have a greater sense of tolerance of other religions, values, cultures because they’re being exposed to multiple ones and incorporating those into their own life. Finally, by virtue of having experienced transition and change and uncertainty global teens inherently are going to have resilience, the ability to get back on their feet again when they face life challenges. However, having “bounce” or resilience is a wonderful strength that we need to continually build in global teens. 

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About Eden Pontz

Eden Pontz is Executive Producer and Director of Digital Content for CPTC. She oversees digital media content development and production for Parentandteen.com. She also writes, copyedits, and produces articles, podcasts, and videos for the site. Her pieces cover a range of topics including teen development, peer pressure, and mentoring. Eden brings years of experience as a former Executive Producer of Newsgathering at CNN, as well as a field producer, writer, and reporter for CNN and other news organizations.

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