The Search for Identity: Who Am I? What Am I Committed To? What Am I Afraid Of?

Identity development is one of the most fundamental tasks teens face. It is during this time that they are most likely to try on different aspects of their personality as they work to figure out who they are and who they want to become.  Your teen will grow and develop. Some characteristics will stay the same, some will change, and some will change and then go back to the way they were before.  As challenging and emotional as it can be, this is a good time to be sensitive to how difficult it was to be in a constant state of evaluating “Who am I?”

Your identity is a complex set of attributes that contribute to how you describe yourself and what makes you unique. Before you try to understand your teen, think about how you might answer the following questions:

  1. How would you describe yourself?
  2. What are three things that you are committed to?
  3. What are you afraid of and why?

Now, think of the world of a teenager. How would your teen describe him/herself? Putting some thought into this can give you new insight into your teen’s identity. Children typically describe themselves using specific adjectives. Seven year old Johnny may say, “I am kind and funny” and nine year old Suzie may say, “I am talkative and nice.” This changes in the teen years. Fifteen year old Johnny can see that he is kind sometimes, and unkind other times. He can tell you that he is funny when he hangs out with his guy friends and quiet around girls.  Similarly, 17 year old Suzie can tell you that she is talkative around people she knows and quiet in new situations. She can articulate that she is generally nice, but can be mean when she is tired.  How teens describe themselves is an aspect of their identity and one that becomes more and more sophisticated as their brains develops.

What three things were you committed to? What do you think your teen is committed to? This is important to consider because our identity is also built on the things we do.   A  teen that is committed to daily swim practice defines herself as an athlete,  a teen that looks for a job at 16 sees himself as hardworking, and a teen that volunteers at the humane society describes herself as an animal lover.  If you think about what your teen commits to, you can link it to certain characteristics that make  up their his/her personality.  Adults can relate to this. What is the first thing you tell someone that you just met?  Do you say where you work, tell them about your children, or mention your favorite activities? Like teens, these are parts of you that you are committed to and enjoy sharing with other people.

All teens have fears. They may be afraid of looking bad, saying or doing the wrong thing in a social situation, or doing poorly on an exam.  The impact of these fears can be compounded by their inability to distinguish their thoughts from the thoughts of others.  For example: If a teen thinks her hair looks bad then she also thinks that everyone else thinks her hair looks bad. All this thinking about what other people are thinking can be really exhausting!  Fears impact identity development by inhibiting a teen from trying new things and making new commitments that build competencies and esteem.

Here are some things to think about as you help your teenager go through this transition:

  • Pay attention to how teens describe themselves.  Tell stories that are rich with characteristics you have observed. Your teen may choose to add these to how he/her description.
  • Engage teens in conversations about the things they like to do. Help your teen explore new areas.
  • Remember that independence bread confidence. Find safe opportunities for your teen to express his/her independence and develop new competencies.
  • Make a big deal out of their accomplishments. Verbalize the things you see working for your teen in different situations.
  • Recognize that experimentation is normal. A big part of your role is to pay attention and reel your teen in with clear about boundaries, expectations and consequences.

Happy Parenting!

Shelly

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Two Weeks in the “Pig on Skates”: Parenting Thoughts From the Road

As we drive down the Oregon coast on Highway 101 in the 34-foot RV that my family has come to call the “Pig on Skates”, I am reminded by how much we gain from spending time with our teens.  In today’s busy world, it is so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of life.  And, while summer brings warm weather, long days, and fantastic freedom, it also brings new ways for our teens to fill their days.  Many replace school, activities, and time with friends with things like sleeping in, going to work or attending camps, and spending even more time with friends.  As parents, we have to take advantage of the moments when we get the opportunity to grab their attention.

Recently, a parent shared the following concern with me. She said,

I love it when I get time with my teens. But, I find myself feeling like I have to take advantage of every opportunity I get to teach them something.  Isn’t that my job as a parent? When my daughter talks about her boyfriend, I impart on her what I know about relationships. When my son talks about his dream of being an astronaut, I share with him the kind of schooling and experience he will need. I learned early on to take advantage of “teachable moments”, but I am starting to feel like they are getting in the way of my relationship with my teens.

Teachable moments are certainly an important part of parenting. If you think of their developing brains as gardens, each conversation is a seed that is planted in that garden. One difference between the seeds that become part of the soil and those that grow into healthy plants is how they are nourished.  Sometimes teens resist information and other times they receive and nourish it.  Research suggests that teen pay less attention when they feel as though their parent is lecturing them and more attention when they feel as though they are part of the conversation. Teens may verbally resist what you share with comments like, “You really just don’t understand” or “Things are different now than they were when you were a teen. Or, they may check out and let their mind drift to other thoughts.  When this happens, it is time to check how you are talking and give them opportunities to contribute to the conversation.

This is not to say that we should stop talking to our teens about important issues. Even those seeds that lay dormant for a period of time can spring up when the teen is ready to receive the information. However, it is also important to remember that what we have to teach our teen is not always communicated through our words of wisdom and experience. You have probably heard things like, most of your communication is delivered through your body language and your actions speak louder than words.  As your teen matures, he or she will pay more and more attention to the subtleties of who you are and how you respond to different situations.

Don’t forget that one of the other ways that you have influence as a parent is through listening, having fun, and sharing in day-to-day experiences with them.  It is in these moments that you get to share a piece of who you are with your teen. As we get closer and closer to going home, I find am thankful for the time we spend singing to Aerosmith as we drove down the road in our “Pig on Skates” and swimming in rivers, lakes, and oceans along the way. I will remember building fires on the beach, dancing to all kinds of music, being silly and laughing at each others funny faces. Above all, I will cherish the little parts of themselves that they shared and the ways that they opened up to me by just “being together”.

Happy Parenting!

Shelly