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The Cross Cultural Tree: Strengthening the Parent-Child Connection as Your “Tree” Grows

If adolescence is typically a time of storm and stress, imagine the intensified nature of this storm for an acculturating minority teen and his/her family. As it is, adolescence is a period of great transition. It is a time of physical growth and development as well as exploration of one’s identity. As they leave childhood behind, young teenagers begin to think for themselves and establish their independence. They decide, with varying degrees of parental consent, how they like to spend their time, who they like to hang out with, and what activities they like to engage in. They “branch” out, spending more time with friends than with family, and experimenting with different selves. This often provokes teens to defy parental authority and challenge parental rules. As negotiation ensues over a number of age-appropriate behaviors, such as curfew and dating, conflict between parents and teens is at times inevitable.
Cultural adjustments related to the immigration experience may create additional sources of conflict between teens and their parents. Of particular importance is the cultural gap that can emerge between acculturating youth and their parents during adolescence. That is, research shows that youths tend to adjust to new cultures more quickly than their immigrant parents; adopting the values, language, and conventions of their mainstream peers while their parents hold onto their native language and culture. As discrepancies emerge in language preference, cultural traditions, beliefs, values, and attitude, existing conflict between teens and their parents often worsen.
What can parents do in such an amplified storm? Think of your teenager as a tree who is growing tall (literally) and branching out (in exploration). Your “tree” is also developing roots, and roots are quite powerful. They can push against even the strongest of forces. Surely you have seen tree roots push right through sidewalk cement. Your teen is equally as strong-willed and may collide with you at times. Know that these are natural growing pains in your relationship. And while you will not be able to eliminate all conflict with your teenager, there are things you can do to help your relationship emerge strong and healthy after this growth spurt. Here are some helpful tips to get you started…
Build healthy communication.  When there is a problem, describe what your teen did or how it made you feel, instead of criticizing, attacking, or blaming. When your teen appears to be upset, reflect in your own words about what your child is saying or feeling to convey that you are listening. Try to resist the urge to give unsolicited advice.
Strengthen your relationship.  Take an interest in what your teen enjoys. Use this as an opportunity to learn about your teen and to have them share with you something new that is meaningful to them. The goal here is not to talk to one another about the interest, but to experience it together. For example, if your teenager expresses an interest in learning photography, suggest taking a class together.
Ease frustration from cultural discrepancies.  You may notice that at times your teen embraces his/her cultural identity and at other times tries to distance him/herself from it. Try not to interpret this as your teen denying or rejecting the native culture. Rather, view this as a natural part of adolescent identity exploration; a time of trying on different selves in order to see which fits best. Also, keep in mind the dynamic nature of adolescents’ acculturation. Although the cultural discrepancies and resulting conflict may feel overwhelming in the moment, know that this may just be a temporary rough patch that will resolve in time.
Although frequent parent-child conflict is normal during adolescence, escalating or prolonged conflict can sometimes contribute to mental health problems, such as stress, anxiety, depression and anger. For families who are also experiencing conflict from cultural disagreements, risk may be further increased. In fact, parental relationships with other children in the home can be impacted as can sibling relationships. If you are concerned that intergenerational or cultural conflict is having a negative impact on your family’s relationships or overall wellbeing, consult with a professional who can offer additional guidance and support to ease the storm and help your tree grow strong.