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Desi Parents and Their Not-So-Desi Teenagers

How to effectively support your teenager through their struggles.

Key points

  • Parents and teenagers may struggle with contrasting expectations when balancing conformation to two different cultures.
  • Avoiding estrangement from one's teenager requires being emotionally available and not making the teenager the "problem."
  • Imposing goals on a child is unfair and creates grounds for unhappiness and resentment.

Rekha’s world had recently started seeming turbulent. Now in her mid-thirties, she was a mother of two high-schoolers. Her husband, a software engineer, was a dutiful father but lately had been outraged at the unpleasant emotional and behavioral changes their daughters were starting to display. The stress of immigration issues while being on an H1 visa had been tremendous for the past decade, not to mention years of struggling to raise their children without the help of grandparents and extended family in an unknown country, waking up at the crack of dawn to prepare nutritious meals from scratch day after day, work, after-school activities, and unfailing weekend temple visits. Rekha and her husband hoped that through it all, they would set their daughters up for “success and happiness."

Only, how they defined these terms was vastly different from how their 14- and 16-year-old daughters did. The girls were starting to drift away from them, avoiding conversations, having frequent arguments, making “impossible” demands, and pushing boundaries.

“There is so much that has started turning problematic," a tired Rekha brooded as she sat down with her evening cup of chai. "Staying out late with friends, boyfriends, dating, sleepovers—what if they are sneaking out at night, cutting classes? Where did we go wrong? Have we failed as parents?”

Do you see yourself in Rekha’s struggles? If yes, then, you are not alone. A vast majority of first-generation South Asian immigrant parents are in the same boat!

Let’s not panic. Pause. Breathe… breathe again… this time, a deeper breath. And now, read on.

Role reversal

Place yourself in your child’s shoes. This child navigates, multiple times, every day through two different worlds—in Rekha’s example, from a “Little India” in their home to a “Big America” the moment they step out.

What does it take to survive these flips? What does it take to show up every single day in these two different worlds and meet the expectations of being a dutiful desi kid and the “cool” American teenager that needs to fit into their peer group? A lot of emotional adjustments, mental resiliency, and retuning of who they are. Where do the child’s hopes for herself stand amid these unrelenting anticipations?

Now imagine the sense of confusion, anger, and resentment at everyone who makes these “unreasonable” demands on them. Are you one of these sources? If yes, then slow down... now.

What am I missing?

Now that you have slowed down your thought process, give yourself permission to identify that your child does not want to run away from you. Your child seeks your presence—in the most supportive ways possible. “But isn’t that what I have been doing all along?” you might ask.

As one of my clients once said, “I keep telling him that I am thirsty, and he keeps offering me samosas." Does that ring a bell? You may think that you have been supporting your child all along, and have "given in" to their Americanized demands; unlike most of their American counterparts, there are no expectations on your child to pay for anything, not even their college fees. After all, haven’t you tried sitting with them and reasoning things out pyar se (with love), trying to convince them that dating is only going to make them stray from their life goals, or that med school is the ultimate financial investment and not music school?

Truly, is that what your child seeks from you?

Try this instead

  • Your child is not the problem. The problem is the problem. Identify the problem, define it, and team up with your child to solve the problem. Separate the problem from your teenager.
  • Validate their struggle. Examples might be, “Going through this struggle between us must be so difficult for you” or “I am sorry that this is hard on you.”
  • De-escalate. Avoid using the word “but.” Instead, say "and," as in, “And despite this struggle, I also see that you have been trying hard to make the right choices."
  • Identify and respect differences of opinion. “I have a lot of appreciation for your choices, and I also have my concerns which I would like to share with you. Let’s talk about your opinions first and then we can talk about mine.”
  • Find the middle ground. Do not tell them what the middle ground is; ask for it. Chances are, your teenager will be more open to problem-solving with you if you don’t impose a solution. Say, “Let’s talk about what we both are willing to do differently to solve this problem.”
  • Ask yourself, "Whose goal is it?" It will save you a lot of energy to ask yourself first, “Is this my goal or my child’s goal?” If the answer is “my goal," then save your breath. Imposing your goals on your child is not only unfair, but creates grounds for unhappiness and resentment, and costs you your closeness with your child. Give your child’s goal more than a quick thought and instant dismissal. Have repeated discussions and do research with your child over their choices. Help them explore and collect data to make informed choices.

Learning to have a dialogue with your teenager is a huge part of teaching your child how to problem-solve in relationships. If they effectively engage in conflict resolution with you, they can do wonders outside. Give them the space and the treatment of a person moving through the teen phase. It possibly is much more difficult for them as second-generation Americans than it was for you while living in your homeland. For you, there was no “Little India” or “Big America” to navigate. Fitting in with your peer group was to be done with your own desi counterparts who shuffled through the same “India” inside their homes and outside—and Big America existed only in dreams!