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Each month we feature a Common Advice Blog piece. The Common Ground Panel of professionals answer one of your questions on how to support a young person dealing with difficult situations in their lives or a young person experiencing a mental illness.
"I'm a year 13 student and I've been worried about my boyfriend for a while. I think he's having some troubles. He's half Samoan and half Pakeha and I've seen him treated differently from both sides because of it. When I go to church with him I notice that he isn't treated like the rest of his mates, and at school he doesn't really have a friend group he sticks with. I'm South African but I've lived here forever, and I get what it's like to be treated like you're different. I've tried to talk to him about it but he just gets angry and shuts down saying he doesn't want to talk. I don't know what to do. How can I help?"
Generally, males and females have different ways of communicating and expressing themselves. It’s great that you care and want to find ways to help. Your boyfriend does not want to talk with you right now about what’s going on for him, but he may in due course. Try using ‘I’ statements to express your worry and concern rather than telling him he has a problem that needs fixing i.e. I feel_(upset)_ when _(I see your church friends…).
Racial-ethnic identity formation represents a crucial component of adolescent development especially for indigenous and minority adolescents (Cross & Cross, 2008). Being of mixed cultural identity myself, I resonate and empathise with the complexities of pursuing a healthy identity formation. Perhaps you could identify if there are any trusted others around who may have been through a similar journey that your boyfriend could seek support and guidance from. Have you spoken with your boyfriend’s aiga/family or a friend of his about your concerns; and do they share these same concerns? Through his church groups is there a male Pastor or leader/mentor who may be willing to get alongside of him?
If you think that your boyfriend is struggling with low mood there are a number of anonymous and online supports that you could suggest to him to have a look at. For example, SPARX is an e-therapy fantasy game that assists young people struggling with mild to moderate low mood and depression. A recent survey suggests that using online tools such as SPARX, increases the likelihood that a young person will consequently use other support services (Superu, June 2016). Some practitioners have suggested that SPARX is useful for giving youth, especially boys, the language to use, to talk about problems in a face-to-face setting. E-therapies may be as effective as conventional face-to-face treatments – they can be used as standalone treatments but are commonly seen as a gateway into, or bridge between, other services as well (Superu, June 2016). .
Cross, W., & Cross, T. (2008). Theory, research, and models. In S. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.), Handbook of race, racism and the developing child (pp. 154- 181). New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.
Your question may be relevant to many rangatahi in Aotearoa, as in recent decades, New Zealand has become home to multiple nationalities and cultures, including Pacific Island, Asian, Middle Eastern, European and African peoples, each having their own unique set of values and belief systems.
We notice on the Youthline helpline that issues around gender and sexual identity come up, but very little comes up around cultural identity. This may be related to cultural identity being a ‘taboo’ subject across generations and communities. In my own journey of being half Polynesian and half Pakeha, it wasn’t until I had the confidence to start voicing my search for cultural identity, that I actually started finding it. May you be gentle in your approach with him as navigating the unknown can be a tiring time, so having a support like yourself helps buffer the waves.
It sounds like it is a ‘touchy’ or ‘taboo’ subject for him. Create a safe environment for him to talk, if he is wants to.
Some of the tips we have mentioned before are:
While anger can sometimes be a difficult emotion to manage, it can mean that something isn’t right for the person, and maybe showing him that anger is normal could be helpful.
Rather than focusing on him being treated differently, it might be more supportive to simply notice positive interactions that take place in his family, church or other relevant settings. Building on those positive interactions and creating opportunities for them to happen more could help. Noticing the strengths that he brings into friendships and simply praising him for it; or helping him identify someone in his peer group or family that he feels a connection too, and supporting him to build on it.
I have to mention the growing community of artists that use the medium of spoken word to cut through the taboo of ‘being afakasi’. If you get a chance, look up the South Auckland Poets Collective or google ‘Afakasi Speaks’, written by my dear friend, youth development worker and spoken word artist Grace Taylor. You will find your boyfriend is not alone in his journey and there are a community of people opening up this conversation around cultural identity.
I hope this helps in some way. Thank you again for your question.
It’s really hard to watch the ones we love go through tough times. It’s even harder when you feel like there’s not much you can do.
Finding your identity can be very complex for some people but it’s awesome that you want to be there for your boyfriend. A good way to do this is to gently encourage him to open up about what’s going on for him. You could start the conversation by talking about your own experiences of feeling different, and point out that you’ve noticed it seems hard for him too. Ask if he can relate to that. If he does get angry, or shuts down, you could check in with him about what’s making him feel that way, but don’t push him to answer.
Remember that in the end it’s up to him to decide what he feels comfortable and safe dealing with, but just bringing it up could encourage him to start thinking about it. It also lets him know that when he’s ready, you’re there to support him.
You could ask if he’d like to work together to figure out the places he feels like he belongs. Culture is really complex and for some people it’s more about the families you create rather than your heritage. This means it could be a local club or sports team, or any other groups he identifies with (and/or calls bae).
The Lowdown website has some great info on cultural identity. Maybe you could read through it together if he’s open to it #LowdownAndChill. Finally, if he is ready to start exploring those feelings about belonging, encourage him to speak to a counsellor about it. He could start by calling Youthline. They get calls about identity and belonging all the time and are pretty chill about it too. You can also call Youthline for tips on how to start those conversations, and how to be an encouraging and supportive partner without putting pressure on him.
There are a couple of issues here. Your boyfriend is possibly struggling with cultural identity and lack of a friend group? And perhaps more important is how you are going to help/support him in a way that he will accept.
Ways to help your boyfriend talk about the issues –
If the issue is cultural identity, we need to recognise how important understanding and drawing on one's background influences and customs are to building a strong sense of self and finding one's place in the world.
Peer groups are important to every teenager. Teens have a strong need to 'fit in' and belong. Being liked and accepted by peers gives them a sense of belonging and boosts their self-esteem. Without a peer group they can feel isolated and lonely with resulting loss of confidence and self-esteem and feelings of rejection.
It seems he might need to find out more about both his Samoan cultural heritage and his Pakeha culture to understand more about what makes him who he is. The more he knows the more he can decide what he wants to connect with from that culture. Ultimately, having two cultures to draw from can enrich the person he will become. Learning more about who he is and what he values might also help him develop friendships.
There are very helpful sections about cultural identity on both Common Ground and the Lowdown that gives tips for understanding this issue and finding a way forward. Skylight has a variety of handouts about how to communicate with teens. You can call 0800 299 100 to find out more.
Each month we feature a Common Advice Blog piece. The Common Ground Panel of professionals answer one of your questions on how to support a young person dealing with difficult situations in their lives or a young person experiencing a mental illness. Got a question to ask our panel? You can ask us here.