Supporting teenagers in a new culture

Being a teenager in middle and high school can be hard enough under the simplest and most idyllic of circumstances. There are social codes to live up to, academic pressures to withstand and parents to please. You worry about being liked and what your friends think of you. Add to that a changing body and secret crushes that may or may not be reciprocated. If being a teenager is complicated in a culture you know and understand, then how do you make sense of this period of life in a foreign place in a language not your own? As a parent, what do you do to help your teenager getting settled?

A friend of mine who moved here while her kids were in middle and high school told me that the biggest initial hurdles for them were learning the language, getting placed in the right classes and building friendships. Knowing the language is of course essential, and while it is hard to attend class and do school work when not fluent, my friend found that with a bit of help, language understanding and retention came pretty quickly to her kids. A bigger issue was class placement, especially for her high schooler. Since her son came from a different school system and was not a native speaker, some of the classes he was placed in ended up being less challenging. She worried that her son would be bored and that lower class placement would affect what classes he could take later on.

So what did she do to help her kids? What were some of the strategies that worked for them? Her first piece of advice was to sit down as a family and discuss what each person’s expectations and worries are. What should the goals for the school year be? For example; is it to learn the language or to get straight A’s? Come to an agreement as a family on what the expectations are.

Secondly, as a parent you will have to be more active in your communication with the school and a stronger advocate for your child than you may be used to. Don’t be afraid to talk to administrators and teachers if there is something that is not working for your child. If you can afford tutors they can be a tremendous help during the initial period. My friend found that tutors who were close to her kids in age, such as college students, were the best matches for her kids since they could relate to them on a cultural level as well.

Making friends is something a child typically has to do for him or herself. Leaving old friends behind and making new ones is one of the hardest things you can do, especially when you are a teenager and your life is largely defined by your friends. For my friend’s kids this took some time and perseverance. She found that school sports and other activities such as theatre were great ways get to know peers. In US high schools, sports teams typically practice on a daily basis so you end up spending a lot of time with the same group of kids. Most schools also have special interest clubs and that proved to be another way to meet and make friends.

Ultimately there is no one solution fits all, so maybe the best advice of all is the tried and true: have open communication and active involvement with your child. If you know what is going on you have a chance to help.

My friend recently moved back home; she left two of her three kids behind to finish college here. They are now so at ease here that they are even thinking about staying on to work once they earn their degrees.

Expectations of American teenagers
Tackling cultural differences when raising teenage kids
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