Pacific parents need encouragement to acknowledge and listen to teenagers by negotiating which traditions best support their wellbeing, says a Samoan sociologist.
Fiva Faalau, who graduated with a PhD from Massey University’s Albany campus this week, says while her study of 45 Samoan teenagers revealed diverse family structures and parenting styles, some parents need to be more understanding of the needs of young people.
This means balancing the tradition of parental control and protectiveness with teen desire for freedom and trust – changes she says are essential to curb rising suicide, self-harm and alcohol abuse among Pasifika youth.
Her insights are not based just on academic research and theory – her ‘day job’ involves working at the frontline with troubled families and the teenagers who suffer as a result. As director of a residential home for Pasifika children and youth removed from their families, and a Pasifika counselling service working with family violence and sexual abuse issues, she has first hand experience of issues affecting Pasifika teens and their families.
In her thesis – titled Organisation and Dynamics of Family Relations and Implications for the Wellbeing of Samoan Youth in Aotearoa, New Zealand – Dr Faalau investigated the positive and negative effects on teenagers of various family structures and parenting styles.
Based on the teenagers’ descriptions of their families, three family types emerged; “struggling”, “adapting” or “stable”, in regard to how well they are meeting the needs of their teen offspring in 21st century New Zealand amid new cultural and social pressures and expectations.
She found that some families still operate in traditional ways, meaning teens submit to parents’ wishes, are not encouraged to express their views and are expected to take care of their younger siblings and sacrifice study and other activities.
Teenagers interviewed who identified with a family structure she dubbed “struggling” often felt emotionally isolated and not trusted by their parents. Girls felt frustrated because they were not granted the same freedoms as their brothers, because parents felt they needed more protection.
Of the total participants, one third described their families as stable, and providing “higher levels of physical, emotional and spiritual happiness”.
A stable family was associated with having regular routines, well-organised structures, excellent communication between adults and adolescents, spending quality time together, and showing high levels of trust and respect towards each other, Dr Faalau says.
She says wellbeing means something different for Pacific Island peoples than for Europeans, with greater emphasis on links between personal and collective wellbeing for Pasifika people and their families. But universally beneficial factors, such as mutual understanding, mutual respect, mutual trust and mutual support, were significant indicators of wellbeing for Samoan adolescents.
“I’m not suggesting families turn their backs on tradition – rather that they maintain tradition values that serve to nurture and respect teenagers’ wellbeing in a changing and complex world. Ultimately, it is young people’s connections to their families that makes them well,” she says.
She was inspired to do the study after working as a research assistant on the Youth 2000 national survey of secondary school pupils’ health and wellbeing. She felt the framing of the questions did not allow Pasifika participants to give accurate, comprehensive responses, so she decided to fill in the gaps with her own research.
And while juggling a job with working on her PhD was challenging, she says her experiences helping young people from troubled families reinforced the findings of her research. She plans to apply her research to creating therapeutic programmes for families available through community groups, and also hopes it will be useful in informing social policy relating to Pasifika initiatives.
Dr Faalau came to New Zealand from Samoa aged 19 in 1986 from a small village of Vailele in Apia to live with a relative. Despite being a high-achieving pupil at home, she was not encouraged to study further. Employed by day as a dishwasher at National Women’s Hospital staff cafeteria, she enrolled in a range of courses at night, including English language, typing and secretarial courses at the then-Auckland Technical Institute.
“I just wanted to improve,” says Dr Faalau, who continued on to do a Pacific leadership course, as well as passing maths and English School Certificate exams. She did a foundation course at Auckland University so she could enrol to do a Bachelor of Arts in Social Anthropology, then a Master’s degree, before coming to Massey University Albany to do a PhD under the supervision of Professor Cluny Macpherson, a renowned expert on Pacific cultures and history, and Dr Tim McCreanor from the University’s centre for Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation, and Whariki Research unit.