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Now Is the Right Time!
Teens ages 15-19 will not only be noting differences in the world, they may be directly seeking more diversity as they venture into life after high school, whether that involves college or the work world. Parents and those in a parenting role can support teens as they make sense of differences among people by talking to them about what they observe and creating a safe, trusting space to raise issues.
You might be coming to this tool because
- your 15-19-year-old just made an uncomfortable comment about a classmate who looks different or reports encountering peers who are using mean or aggressive language;
- you want to teach your teen how to appreciate differences;
- you want to be intentional about helping your teen act respectfully, inclusively, and kindly in a diverse world; or
- you might feel uncomfortable or worried not wanting to say the wrong thing when talking about differences or wondering even if you should.
Differences among people can include family structure, (dis)abilities, how much money your family has, religion, culture, spoken language, gender, race, etc. Fifteen-to-nineteen-year-olds may focus on differences like tone of voice, body language, posture, or lack of confidence. Teens may struggle with others’ learning styles, habits, or language while required to work on academic or extracurricular teams. Teens may tend to judge others for their family beliefs or values, ways of acting, interests, or ways of spending time. Indeed, it is critical for their future roles in their careers and communities to be able to get along with and value others who are different from themselves.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, talking about these kinds of differences can be challenging, but you play an essential role in helping your teen develop empathy, perspective taking, appreciation of diversity, and respect for others.
Research shows that children are thinking about differences between people and how they should respond to them from a very early age. However, teens often get very little information about differences among people through direct and honest conversations with trusted adults like parents, caregivers, and family members.1,2 Yet, it’s through those honest conversations that teens develop ways to learn from differences and show respect for them. And, it’s never too late.
The steps below include specific, practical strategies and conversation starters to help you talk about differences in positive and non-judgmental ways. Having open, honest conversations about topics that are often hard to talk about with your teen helps build and strengthen your relationship.
Why Talking About Differences?
Fifteen-to-nineteen-year-olds are keenly aware of differences among people, particularly their peers. Not allowing your teen to ask questions and talk about these differences can lead to feelings of fear, distrust, and shame. Talking about these differences helps your teen develop empathy, perspective taking, appreciation of diversity, and respect for others and themselves. After all, it’s likely your teen will experience the feeling of being judged unfairly for differences. Talking about differences between people in positive and non-judgmental ways doesn’t divide teens or make them wary or fearful of one another. It bonds them together as a community and allows them to be more respectful and inclusive. It also creates safety as they feel that it’s okay to show how they are different from others.
Today, in the short term, talking about differences can create
- greater opportunities for connection and trust in each other,
- an understanding that trusted adults can help when your teen has questions, and
- a feeling of celebration for all of the wonderful ways that we are all different from each other.
Tomorrow, in the long term, talking about differences with your teen
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- provides a firm foundation for speaking up when we or others are being treated unfairly;
- builds essential skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making;
- deepens family trust and intimacy; and
- helps them understand their own unique characteristics and how to speak up for others.
Five Steps for Talking About Differences
This five-step process helps you and your teen talk about differences together. It also builds critical life skills in your teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your teen are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and a healthy parenting relationship support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
Fifteen-to-nineteen-year olds are naturally curious about social dynamics and getting to know a range of other people. They may actively notice and point out differences among people as they are exploring and learning. They have a social awareness in which they are noticing fairness issues in their own community and in the broader world as well as ways that peers are treated fairly or unfairly by peers or adults. Gaining your teen’s input when talking about these differences can support their curiosity and learning. Asking questions can prompt their thinking and help them understand their own and others’ feelings. In gaining input from your teen, you
- are letting them know that you are open to talking about all kinds of differences, even if those conversation may feel uncomfortable;
- are making sure they know that you see the ways that people are different from each other and that you celebrate and respect those differences;
- are countering any messages your teen might receive from others that talking about differences is not polite, accepted, or even shameful;
- are offering support and connecting to relevant, timely, and challenging issues in their lives; and
- are deepening your ability to communicate with one another.
- Ask questions to explore differences and similarities in their world. You might offer, “As you participate on teams in or after school, are there differences among students that make working together easier and more difficult?” Talk about differences and similarities with others in your family as well (e.g. siblings, grandparents). Make sure you observe differences together without making a good or bad judgment about them. This is a simple way to get started sharing non-judgmental observations.
- When your teen is reading books for school or for pleasure, talk about the characters involved and how they are similar and different. Ask, “What do you notice about the characters?” and “How are they similar or different from you?” and “What feelings do they have that are similar to your own?” If your teen is feeling unsure about how to describe similarities and differences, have them tell you more about the story and then leave plenty of quiet space for them to think of some ideas.
- Ask about friends and classmates and how they get along. You might ask, “Are there any classmates who are criticized because of a difference they might have?” and “What happens to each of your classmates when that happens? How do they feel? What do other classmates do in response? What do you do? How could you be more accepting or inclusive?”
You don’t need to wait for your teen to bring up differences among people to start talking about them. Instead, make talking about your observations related to differences and similarities in non-judgmental ways part of their everyday experiences.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
The fundamental purpose of talking about differences among people is to help your teen develop empathy, perspective taking, appreciation of diversity, and respect for others. Teaching can help your teen grow new skills and behaviors. Learning new skills and behaviors requires modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Paying attention to how you talk about and interact with people who are different from you and understanding your own feelings and behaviors are great places to start. It will help you understand what your teen is learning to do. You might ask yourself:
- “How do I talk about people who are different from me?”
- “How do I want my teen to talk about people who are different from them?”
- “In what situations do I feel uncomfortable or uneasy when interacting with people who are different from me?”
- “How do I respond?”
- “How do I want my teen to respond?”
Teens learn first through modeling. If you feel uncomfortable when interacting with people who are different from you, your teen will likely pick up on those cues and model your behavior. Formulate new ways of interacting that model what you want your teen to mimic when they are with people who are different from them.
Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your teen is experiencing.3
- Fifteen-year-olds are in the final year of the major physical changes that occur in puberty. They may feel a bit insecure and sensitive to criticism. They may be preoccupied with peer interactions and impressions. Though peers are highly influential, teens at this age still learn about social interactions and how you relate to those outside of your family through you. They may attempt to exclude some in order to get into or remain in a popular group. Teens need practice, encouragement, and support in taking steps to actively include others.
- Sixteen-year-olds are at the end of the awkwardness of their new physical being and are beginning to feel and appear more confident in themselves and who they are. They may have new important goals outside of school and, along with them, worries related to learning to drive, getting a driver’s license, getting a new part-time job, or trying out a romantic partnership. All these are critical steps for their exploration of adult life. They also may be measuring themselves and others on the accomplishment of these goals in relation to their peers.
- Seventeen-year-olds have more serious pursuits on their mind and may become highly focused on their academic and life goals as they consider the fact that their graduation is coming up and they’ll need to face life after high school. At times, they may seem to feel invincible and, perhaps, overly confident; while at other times, they might resort to behaviors from earlier years, seeming fragile and scared. They’ll need support in building healthy relationships and collaborating with others or stepping into new roles with others who are different whether in race, culture, abilities, or perspectives.
- Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds are now considered emerging adults gaining the ability to vote. Many will be entering college, some will enter the work world or take on volunteerism with community or military service. All of these experiences will open the door to interacting with a wider range of people from various races, cultures, and backgrounds. They’ll need to develop new relationships and a support system as they are increasingly more independent. This is an important time to offer your emotional support observing differences but not judging so that they have a safe, caring respite in you where they can bring their newfound challenges.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Expose your teen to people and experiences that are different from your own family. Talk about those differences including racial, cultural, belief, and perspective differences and focus on the positive experience of engaging with and learning from people, foods, music, and languages that are new to your teen.
- At home, provide books, games, and other materials that give your teen a chance to see people that are different. Choose television programs, movies, and music that involve people with different skin colors, physical abilities, that represent different cultures, and that celebrate differences.
- Consider checking books out from the library that show people who live in different types of housing, have disabilities, practice different religions, or who have varied family structures. Be sure to talk about differences in an accepting and inclusive way.
- Derogatory terms can creep into your teen’s language from other influences such as friends, peers, or pop culture. Be sure and discuss the offensive words. First, ask, “Do you know what that means?” And then, you might prompt their thinking, “Do you know why a person might be hurt by that word or phrase?” You may discover that your teen is unaware of the meaning or consequences of using that language but merely mimicking peers.
- Encourage your teen’s questions about differences between people. In earlier years, they may have asked “Why?” questions like “Why does her skin look different?” and “Why does that person sound different?” Now, you may need to initiate the conversation or listen carefully for judgment statements to find an entry point. If they utter judgments about their peers’ character or image, no matter the judgment, look for ways to reframe viewing with empathy and compassion. For example, your teen might tell you that a classmate is dirty or wearing unwashed clothes this week. You might ask, “Do you really know what’s going on at home? Maybe they are going through some tough times.”
- Use the local or world news to spur conversations about race and culture. Ask, “Do your classmates talk about race or culture ever?” and see what kind of response you get. This age group has learned that race can be a subject to avoid, so it’s important to bring it up and get the conversation started when there are natural opportunities to reflect with them.
- Stay informed. What is considered acceptable or respectful language may change. For example, the term “midget” is considered highly offensive to describe a little person.4 More acceptable language would be “a person of short stature,” but whenever possible, it would be best to refer to someone by their name.4 It is important to seek out credible sources when learning about what language is appropriate.
- Grow empathy. For example, if your teen is hesitant to get to know a classmate who looks or sounds different than they do, ask questions and then support your teen by offering encouragement. “Do you think the new student is feeling isolated and alone? Have you ever experienced that feeling before? What could you do to help her feel more comfortable or welcome?”
- If you hear your teen say something like, “He talks weird” or “She looks funny,” spend time talking with your teen about how the words we choose matter. Talk about how describing someone as “weird” or “funny” might hurt the person’s feelings. Also explain why someone may talk differently or look differently than they do. Offer alternative words so your teen learns what would be more appropriate.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for your teen to practice vital new skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your teen will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your teen works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themself.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a teen’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence.
- Provide opportunities for your teen to meet and interact with other teens and adults of all ages, races, and cultures. Point out similarities and differences. Talk about how differences help us learn more about ourselves and others.
- Use your family’s media selections to initiate conversations. Allow your teen to explore roles, characters, and situations that are different from what is normally expected. For example, seek out movies with main characters who are of a different race or culture and learn about the experiences that might be similar and different. Common Sense Media offers helpful recommendations.
- Sign up as a family to volunteer in neighborhoods or with groups you typically would not encounter. During the service event, initiate conversations with community members who look and talk differently than you. Afterward, reflect on the experience and what you learned.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
You are teaching your teen that it is okay to talk about differences among people, ask questions about those differences, and interact with people who are different from them. You are allowing them to practice so they can learn and grow. Now, you can offer continued positive support.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed how you were having fun with your new friend who is in a wheelchair. It was great that you picked a game that everyone could play.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your teen is apprehensive of new people or situations, offer confidence in your teen’s ability to face the new. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your teen’s ear, “Remember how you enjoyed learning about different kinds of foods? Different kinds of music could be fun to experience too. You might enjoy listening and trying out new music.”
- Actively reflect on how your teen is feeling when approaching challenges. You can offer reflections like, “You seem worried about talking to someone who communicates with sign language. Remember, you can always write things down if you are struggling to understand.” Offering comfort when facing new situations can help your teen gain a sense of security and face them rather than backing away.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your teen is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your teen is working to grow their skills — even in small ways — it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your teen’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You included a new friend in your group hangout today — love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you try reaching out to that new student, I’ll buy you a smoothie” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You tried to make that new student feel more comfortable by inviting her to sit with you — love hearing that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. “I noticed you were curious about why our neighbors wear those hats. You were really respectful when you asked them.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Notice when your teen tries something new or talks to you about questions they have about differences among people. These conversations might start happening naturally during your mealtime routine or when driving together.
- Build celebrations into your everyday routines. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, and hugging to appreciate one another.
- Celebrate the wonderful diversity that you are realizing in your world.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.