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How to Argue Calmly With Your Teen (for Immigrant Families)

Taking your child's perspective can help you successfully resolve disagreements.

Key points

  • Immigrant youth tend to adopt North American social values more quickly than their parents.
  • In immigrant families, parent-child arguments can stem from teens' quickly shifting values and norms.
  • Taking the teen's cultural perspective can help parents better understand the root of disagreements.
Bence Halmosi / Unsplash
Immigrant parents and teens often differ in how easily they adapt to their new home.
Source: Bence Halmosi / Unsplash

When did you go to your first sleepover? What about your first-ever date?

The majority of parents in North America start letting their kids go to sleepovers and (perhaps reluctantly) relax their curfews around the early tween and high school years. According to many psychologists, this trend makes sense—as we enter the teenage years, we increasingly want to explore the world independently, without parental supervision.

For many families, the discussion around sleepovers, late-night outings, or even dating resolves with some sort of compromise. Parents set the rules, teens negotiate further to their advantage, and both come out of the conversation begrudgingly with part of their demands unmet.

Different for Immigrant Families

Among immigrant families, discussions around these same topics can be more complex. Many societies around the world uphold values that a white North American might deem traditionalist, conservative, or more interdependent. As families from these societies migrate to the U.S. or Canada, parents often continue to hold on more strongly to their heritage cultural values compared to their children.

Meanwhile, kids who have immigrated mingle with North American children for several hours a day at and after school. During these interactions, immigrant children learn and come to identify with the social norms of their new home country. This process is especially true among youth moving to cities with low immigration rates, where North American values remain undiluted by diverse cultural perspectives.

When kids from immigrant families get invited to their first sleepover or (God forbid) get asked out on a date, many parents are usually aghast, responding with a “Never!” or “Over my dead body!” Their teenage kids, disappointed, might feel angry that their parents don’t understand them and sad that they will not be able to fit in with their friend groups.

What Can Immigrant Families Do?

As a developmental psychologist, I offer one piece of advice to parents in this position: Consider your child’s cultural perspective.

Although all newcomers experience similar obstacles as they adjust to a new country, children from immigrant backgrounds often deal with an extra layer of challenges with belonging in places with low immigration rates.

For example:

  1. They need to become fluent in the local language as well as the "cool" and current slang.
  2. They are hyper-aware that they will never fit in because they look or sound different.
  3. Sometimes they even feel like they’re the adult of the family, translating English medical, legal, and government documents for their parents—very unlike their North American peers.
Jakob Rosen / Unsplahs
The teenage years are all about fitting in and gaining acceptance from peers.
Source: Jakob Rosen / Unsplahs

In these and many other ways, kids from immigrant backgrounds are desperate to fit in as teenagers (we’ve all been there), and whether they do depends on their social circle. Giving them occasional freedom to participate in socially normative teen activities among North American peers, like going to sleepovers or going to a group late-night movie, may provide a sense of relief and hope for acceptance by their peers.

It can be tough, no doubt, to go against your gut feeling from your own cultural beliefs. But some participation in this new normal can do wonders for immigrant youths’ well-being and sense of belonging to their new community.

It's Not All on the Parents

Of course, the responsibility for more harmonious discussions doesn’t fall solely on the parents.

I would offer the same advice to teens—to consider the cultural perspective of their parents—but they don’t typically search online for this kind of guidance. (They’re probably on social media instead.) If any of you are here, consider why your parents might be so protective of you. They are in a brand-new culture with often strange rules and customs that sometimes go completely against how they lived for the past few decades.

The Effect of Diverse Neighbourhoods and Cities

These suggestions may not entirely apply to immigrant families living in big, diverse cities. Metropolitan cities are highly culturally diverse, and youth in these locations typically have multicultural and same-culture friend groups. Since social norms in these cases are not heavily dependent on White North American culture, conflicts between parents and teens may be less due to cultural belief differences.

However, even as of 2020, the U.S. population consists of only 13.7% immigrants and Canada a somewhat higher 23.0%. This means that many immigrant families are still settling in White-dominant cities, and families here may need support in navigating the challenges of their kids’ teenagerhood.

The Takeaway

Regardless of where you are, for immigrant families out there, take one another’s perspective as best as you can. Openly talk about why that sleepover might be so important for fitting in if you are a teen or why being hyper-protective makes sense to you if you are a parent. This skill will be key for immigrant families’ adjustment and harmony, especially as kids progress through their teen years.

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