A Migrant Mother's Experience of Raising an Adolescent in Australia
I'm an international student from China. Four years ago, our family—my husband, my 10-year-old son, and my 2-year-old daughter—arrived in Sydney, starting our new life in a vastly different society. The greatest challenge for me over the past four years has been raising an adolescent in a cross-cultural context.
The first challenge is the entirely different education system from that of China.
I had no idea what my son, Tom, was learning. There were no textbooks from school. His homework was predominantly reading a few pages of a book, making PowerPoints of social issues such as environmental protection, or preparing a poem to present. Based on my personal school experience in China, I could not understand why there were no final tests at the end of the school semester; why the teachers always talked about Tom's strengths rather than his shortages in parent-teacher interviews; why they spent a whole day on sports; why the teachers did not encourage extra tutoring after school. All the elements led me to a sense of being out-of-control. My anxiety increased, which was only exacerbated by his growth and independence, especially when Tom went to high school.
The second challenge is the conflict between my son and I over cultural identity and acculturation.
In China, we were strongly influenced by Confucianism and collectivism, which encourages hard work and modesty. However, in Australia, self-determination is a core principle, enshrined into even the legal system. At school, my son enjoys freedom and trust from his teachers. He is encouraged to be creative, democratic, equal, and expressive; he listens to English pop songs on Spotify every day, like a bird flying from its cage into the blue sky. However, while Tom is at home, my husband and I want him to follow our cultural traditions and values, including obedience to his parents, modesty, high value for education, and communicating in Mandarin. As a result of the conflict between our cultural requirements and his new country’s cultural paradigms, our relationship has become increasingly strained. Tom often complains that his local friend has an equal relationship with his parents, that his rights are respected, and when our discussions get heated, that he wants to go and live in his friend's home. My husband and I felt challenged and out of our depth. We were also confused about how to balance retaining our own culture and integrating with the new one in the best interest of our children.
The third challenge was communication with a teenager.
By the time Tom was in Year 7, English had become his primary language, and more importantly, his mindset was that of an Australian teenager. Compared to Tom, my husband and I were significantly behind in the cultural adaptation, as our social circle was all Chinese friends; we cooked Chinese food at home and watched Chinese TV programs. Our understanding of Australian culture was limited to media reports, what we picked up through English lessons, and some church interactions with locals. By the time Tom reached Year 8, we had the sense that he looked down on us and was ungrateful for our hard work. Our communication at home disappeared. The cracks in our relationship grew wider and wider. We questioned ourselves daily whether we made the right decision to move to Australia.
Strategies for Coping with Difficulties
Confronting our difficulties in communicating with our son, we felt sad, disappointed, and helpless. There must be something we missed—other migrant parents could help us figure it out. By stepping out of our home into the community and talking to others, we reflected on what had happened in the past and gained some constructive inspiration.
We first needed to acknowledge that children are experiencing the same cross-cultural challenges as us adults and that a positive parental response will facilitate smooth acculturation and improved mental health for children.
When we realised that our relationship with our son was at an impasse and that we could no longer solve the problem alone, I asked my GP to refer a Mandarin-speaking psychologist to me. Over the course of several counselling sessions with the psychologist, I realised that my son was experiencing the same, if not more, struggles and confusion than we were. According to Sam and Berry (2010), a psychological, behavioural, and cultural shift occurs when people from two cultures interact. When we forced Tom to learn and speak Chinese, he would resist because he did not like our commands, which affected the parent-child relationship and denied his Chinese culture altogether. Wu (2018) discovered that of the four acculturation patterns—integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalisation—the integration-oriented style resulted in the highest mental health for adolescents. That is, the ability to retain their identity with their original culture while accepting a new one. This discovery made my husband and I reflect on our previous approach—unfamiliar with the Western culture we faced, we had become fearful our children would abandon our cherished Chinese culture. Inspired by the psychologist, we shifted to an integration-oriented strategy that encouraged Tom to be interested in both Chinese and Australian culture, such as watching quality Chinese and English movies together, listening to classic Chinese and English songs and writing letters to his grandparents in two languages, rather than rigidly asking him to read and write Chinese. Tom's positive response proved that it was the right way.
Participating in parenting courses has given me the knowledge necessary to understand adolescents' physical and mental developmental characteristics and employ positive parenting communication skills with adolescents.
For example, I found the free parenting group course in my son's school Newsletter and learned a lot of new knowledge from the group facilitator. For example, the prefrontal cortex—responsible for rational thinking—does not fully mature until 25-30 years of age (University of Rochester Medical Centre, 2022). Teenagers also have greater trouble falling asleep, because their brains produce the sleep hormone melatonin later in the evening than children's and adults' brains (Mary and Gavin, 2020). This knowledge has given me an understanding of my son's impulsive behaviour and intense emotional reactions (as well as his late bedtimes) and naturally we have less conflict as a result.
Participating in the community has contributed significantly to my understanding of Australian culture.
Seeking opportunities to connect with other parents, I gathered the courage to become a volunteer in the canteen at Tom’s school. I shared my experiences and confusion with the other volunteer parents. Fortunately, they gave me much needed empathy and understanding. With renewed hope, I sought to improve my relationship with my son. I also found many similar rules across cultural backgrounds and families, such as respecting parents, taking on chores, and limiting screen time. This realisation also improved my confidence dealing with Tom. I also learned some strategies for improving communication with teenagers. For example, inspired by another mum, I made time once a month with my son at his favourite restaurant—without my husband and my daughter—to listen to him wholeheartedly and empathically. We also have high-quality communication on the drive to school. When I curiously and non-judgementally listen to the music he likes, my son shares more about his school activities and friends.
Positive and effective communication with the school benefits the child, the school, and the parents.
When I first came to Australia, I had minimal active contact with the school due to my lack of confidence. Two years ago, inspired again by other parents, I began to actively communicate with the school. For example, when my son did not want to go to school for a while but would not tell me what happened at school, I went to the school's website to find the email addresses of the relevant teachers, year advisor, school counsellor, and deputy principal. In my email, I tried to express my questions clearly and sincerely asked for the school's support. To my surprise, the day after I sent the email, I received an email reply from the school counsellor and was invited to an interview at the school. To prepare for the interview, I carefully organised what I wanted to say and printed it all out. The meeting went well, my son felt supported, and the school appreciated the proactive communication from his parents. Since then, I have worked more collaboratively with the school, and the teachers have effectively understood and supported my son.
Overall, immigration and cross-culturalism can be a big challenge for adolescents and parents alike. To help adolescents adapt smoothly and improve their mental health, parents should acknowledge the difficulties of moving at an early age, make specific efforts to improve relationships with their teenagers, and enhance their mental health through strategies such as learning parenting skills, participating in the community, and communicating effectively with the school.
Mary, L. & Gavin, MD. (2020). Common sleep problems. https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/sleep.html
Sam, D. L., & Berry, J. W. (2010). Acculturation: When Individuals and Groups of Different Cultural Backgrounds Meet. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(4), 472–481. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691610373075
University of Rochester Medical Centre. (2022). Understanding the teen brain. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=3051
Wu. (2018). Acculturation, resilience, and the mental health of migrant youth: a cross-country comparative study. Public Health, 162, 63–70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.puhe.2018.05.006