Culture Clashes: Strategies for Talking to Your Parents

student tip Jun 09, 2021

If your parents or grandparents were born outside the United States, chances are you feel some added pressure to go to college or pursue a certain career path.

That’s because most people who leave their countries to live in the U.S. do so because the same opportunities aren’t available in their home country. With about 50% of the world’s top universities in the United States, getting a higher education here is a big priority. As a first or second-generation teen, you may feel the added social and personal pressure to get top grades and secure a well-paying career post college. And you often feel caught between two worlds—your family doesn’t want you to lose your cultural identity, but you’ve grown up as an American teen and want to fit in here.  

If culture clashes within your family are weighing you down, here are some strategies to think about:

Ask yourself: What do want?

As a first or second-generation teen, you’ve probably been hearing for as long as you can remember how important it is to “go to college and get a well-paying job.” With this “advice” ingrained into you, maybe you’ve grown resentful about this pressure…or maybe you haven’t even considered stepping back to consider what you want for your future.

It’s hard for any teen to project ahead and envision what their life will look like in 10, 20, 30 years—you’re just trying to get through this week’s pile of schoolwork and round of activities! But as you begin this transition from high school into the next phase, take some time to acknowledge and get comfortable with the fact that this is your life to live, not your parents’. And then do some of that self-reflection we’re always talking about…because it really works! And it’s an important step in understanding what you care about, what you’re interested in, and what you’re good at. That information can serve as a guide to make decisions in every area of your life.

Understand your parents' perspective.

Before getting into another heated debate with Mom and Dad about what you really want to do, take a moment to walk a mile in their shoes. Your parents and/or their parents before them likely sacrificed and worked REALLY hard to create a new life for your family here…all so their kids could have the things and experiences they lacked back home. Maybe your mom gave up a hard-fought career as a doctor in her home country and had to take a job as a medical technician in the United States. Perhaps your dad works nights at an extra job to cover the monthly rent or mortgage. Or maybe you’re part of a family where the expectations have trickled down from earlier generations who first moved here. Whatever the case, it’s good to remember your parents were once your age, with their own dreams and aspirations. Picture yourself in their shoes to develop an authentic sense of empathy.

Open up the dialogue. 

So, what if you don’t want to follow down the exact path your parents want you to? Knowing how much your parents sacrificed actually can make it feel harder to say this! But when you start a conversation by expressing your compassion and understanding of their sacrifices, it’s easier for them to want to listen. After all, deep down, what they really want is for you to be happy. Here are a few talking points to consider using for your discussion with parents about your post-high school future:   

  • Your goal is to be proactive, not reactive, in your career development process. You’ve done some reflection on what excites you and what you’re good at, and with their support, you feel confident you’ll find the right fit.
  • A college degree is not always the key to success, and it may not be the route for you.
  • Being financially independent is important to you, but you want to find a career that combines what you’re good at with what you love to do—the money follows when you do what you love!
  • Sometimes you feel you have no choice in your future direction, especially when you hear them say things like “college is the key to success,” or “everyone in our family is a doctor” or “you need to get a real degree, like in engineering.”
  • You often feel you have to go to college or pursue a certain career path just to make the family proud. This underlying pressure doesn’t motivate you because it feels like an external pressure—someone else’s decision that was made long ago on your behalf—rather than your own decision.
  • Because your success seems to reflect their success, you’re worried about letting your entire family down if you don’t do what they expect of you.
  • You know they have certain “dreams” for you, and you don’t need to solve your future direction right now. But you want to continue discussing your options, and you want to feel heard by them.

We get it. These are HARD talks for any teen to have with a parent, but even more so when such strong opinions have been laid out for your education and career. But often the best outcomes result from the toughest discussions…so if you’re struggling with these decisions, give your parents the benefit of listening to your well-thought-out opinions.

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