I have recently been approached by several parents and young adults dealing with the sometimes challenging issue of having one strong cultural identity at home, whilst the outside world promotes a different culture.

I am also aware of culture clashes within the home, in mixed race or religious families. Such clashes  can cause stress on relationships.

I therefore hope to offer some helpful thoughts and resources, in a bid to reduce some of that stress, and increase understanding of where such clashes come from.

Although I can’t claim to be an expert, I did grow up in a half French Catholic/ half British home in the UK in the 1970s and 80s, so I did notice occasional cultural differences but nothing that really troubled me. If anything I felt lucky to spend so much of my childhood in France, celebrating French traditions (there’s nothing quite like a French Christmas!), but I did sometimes feel pulled in different directions when considering whether I identified as British or French, for example during big sporting occasions.

This is all just to say that I have personally experienced a very light touch version of cultural clash, but there are many families who are struggling much more, so I am going to try to offer some insights (my own and anonymised from those who have written to me) and suggested principles for keeping our heads above water in what is already a pretty challenging world to raise teens.

I will list below some of the key themes mentioned to me when researching this blog, and will explore some of them in more detail, but to explore all of them in depth could fill a book!

My hope is that by raising these themes here I might prompt some helpful discussions between family members who are under stress, and reassure many people that they are not alone in dealing with such issues, whatever their ‘cultural clash’ (religious, nationality, values).

I will try to signpost to other useful resources where I believe it might be helpful.

Key themes

The Challenges

The teenage drive for self-identity and independence

Different values having different importance- rejection of traditional values to fit in with peers

Different levels of acceptance of religious or faith beliefs and behaviours

‘Acceptable’ behaviours v exploring boundaries- sometimes viewed negatively as embracing popular culture/ norms

Racism- for support on this particularly unpleasant topic read here

Community expectations/ pressure- to do well, or be seen to excel, or fit in.

The Benefits

‘Best of both worlds’ e.g. food, family celebrations, a worldwide network

Fantastic family support/ values


A broader world view from a young age

Traditional heritage and shared stories

Where to start?!

Perhaps the biggest cross-cultural challenges occur as teens start to develop their self-identity as they leave behind the more accepting childhood years. Developing self-identity and independence are fundamental developmental stages of adolescence, that are driven by biology and evolution. Parents who try to suppress this are fighting evolution and almost certainly doomed to fail.

Trying to stop teens being independent is like trying to hold back the tide.

Whilst parental navigation and even controlling behaviours such as deciding for their teen their GCSE/ A level subjects, or where they will go to university and what they will study, may come from a well-meaning place (believing that we know best for our children) it doesn’t always work out well.

An example of creative thinking!

In one scenario, where one brother was prevented from ever hanging out with friends after school (or going on school trips overnight, or to after school clubs) and instead had to attend religious school every school night for 3 hours (which he felt was a ‘complete waste of time’), the younger brother simply created ‘sport Fridays’ telling his parents he was playing sport, when in fact he was seeing his mates.

What should I do?

1.Less force, more flexibility…

Forcing young people to do activities they dislike or see as a waste of time rarely leads to improved parent-child relationships. The opposite is more likely, possibly even leading to rejection of the culture that is important to the parent.

Much better to talk about options, look at the pros and cons and consider compromise on how they should spend their non school time. Maybe they could do an important cultural/ religious activity less often, so that they can also do one that matters to them. e.g. Less frequent bible study, and add in weekly drama club.

Unintended consequences

Interestingly, one young man said that having such risk averse parents throughout his youth had made him feel more like taking risks now, and less like settling down, buying a home or staying in one place (all of which his parents made very clear they wanted him to do as soon as possible). He was unable to push back on his parents’ wishes when he was younger, so now he is ‘being rebellious’ and creating the path he wants for himself, whilst still seeing his family, but on his own terms.

Forcing our values on teens can therefore be counterproductive.

2.Coach - don’t tell

The same principles would apply when trying to mould your teen’s self-identity and self-expression. Being creative with your identity, or different from the crowd, can be frowned upon in some cultures or communities, but is often encouraged in the wider UK society context, as well as being part of the process of discovery for many teens about ‘who they want to be’.

It can be hard for parents who value community opinion, or ‘blending in’ to see their offspring stand out, but again as a parent you will have much more success in shaping their future self in a positive way by being alongside them as they explore, as well as this being a better way to preserve a positive relationship with your teen. Teens seek to become part of a peer group or 'tribe', and it may be that their self-identity allows them to become part of this new group. Balancing this need with remaining a part of a different community may be difficult, but perhaps as parents we can help them to fit in with their peers whilst minimising disruption to family and community expectations.

E.g. a tattoo may be a step too far, but one more earring (as one young woman negotiated), or hair dye in the holidays, may be acceptable. If this is still too much, then discuss together your boundaries and see if you can flex a little while still being comfortable with the plan.

Try not to judge their choices too harshly, as they are often in a difficult position and need our understanding and support. The world can be a confusing and tricky place for teens, so adding in another culture and all the expectations that go with that doesn’t make it any easier.

3. Try to be realistic and reasonable, clear and boundaried.

Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll

Whilst most parents struggle with certain teen behaviours, there can be particular issues if a culture prohibits for example alcohol, or sex before marriage, or even music!

I think it’s fair to say that all parents will also, at some time, come up against the scenario of someone else’s more ‘liberal’ parents (e.g. alcohol/ underage drinking allowed at teen parties/ home) being cited by our own teens.

Obviously that does not mean we should change our own boundaries, but it may be reasonable to consider each situation and discuss it with our teen if possible, at a calm moment.

The science is increasingly clear about the harmful effects of adolescent drinking/ smoking/ vaping so I tend personally to stick to that, to back up my own boundaries, to protect my son’s physical and mental health.

Having clear reasoning can be helpful, so that they can try to make healthy decisions for themselves when we are not there in future. They will likely make poor decisions sometimes, but we shouldn’t let that put us off important but difficult conversations and explaining our rationale.

4.Emphasise the good bits

Every culture has wonderful aspects, and these are the ones to make sure your teen sees and experiences so that they will value them throughout life. Talk to them about; Community spirit, traditional heritage, strong positive values, faith, a feeling of belonging, speaking other languages, fabulous food, celebrations and lifelong connections which are all brilliant features of different cultures. Connect your teen with other teens from the same culture to build these bonds and social networks, and allow them to get the most from your culture but in a way they feel comfortable with. Teens will always be most influenced by other teens (evolution again!) so plug them into a network they can feel part of and value.

Try to preserve the beneficial bits of the different cultures you are part of as much as you can, whilst allowing your teen to develop their independence and ideas too.

In summary

Cross cultural life is a challenge for teens and their parents alike. It may help to reflect on these scenarios, be empathetic and non-judgmental, talk about it with our teens, and look for flexibility and compromise where needed, while maintaining the boundaries we believe are important for a positive and healthy family life, and to maintain everyone’s wellbeing.

All teens will move towards developing their own identity, independence and peer group, so we should try to help them to make good choices, and learn from mistakes, providing a safe place to come back to if/ when things go wrong.

We risk damaging our relationship with our children (in both the short and long term) if we try to force them to live or behave in certain ways, as well as making it more likely that they may use subterfuge (which can involve more risk) to achieve their aims.

I believe it is therefore more productive to be alongside them and coach them, inspire and guide them, and, whilst it won’t always be easy, they may hopefully understand we have their best interests at heart.