The Pressure of Being a Teenager

Teenagers know what pressure is!

Just try it, it will be fun.  Are you really going to wear that? Hey, did you hear that Joe’s parents are out of town Saturday. OMG! We have to do that again! Do it, or I’ll tell everyone what a poser you are!  You can’t say things like that if you are going to hang out with us.

Does any of this sound familiar? We were all teenagers at one time and have heard some variation of the statements above.  When you really look, you may see that you still succumb to peer pressure at times.  Ever show up to a formal party in casual dress? Ever say something and everyone silently stares at you like you are from Mars?  Ever have someone ask you to do something that you really didn’t want to do?

The difference between you and your teenager is that you have developed some skills and strategies for navigating pressure.  Your teen is learning and needs your help. Most teens will say that they feel pressure at varying degrees every day. Teens feel pressure to fit in with their peers, please their parents, do well in school, be active, have good manners, be popular, etc.  Tumultuous as it is, it is part of growing up and something we all experience.

Pressure from parents and peers can be completely different beasts. While parents generally love their children unconditionally and truly want what’s best for them, peer groups are often unpredictable, fickle, and take on a personality of their own. At home, teens can feel pressure to perform, have manners, do chores, and generally be “good”.  With friends, teens can feel pressure to be cool and fit in. What is normal behavior in one peer group may be unacceptable in another. Sometimes, these pressures conflict as your teen tries to navigate his/her way through the teen years.

Most people talk about peer pressure as the primary way in which teens influence one another.  This is because the general definition of peer pressure is the influence that a group of peers exert on an individual within the group.  Individual behaviors are an attempt to conform to what is expected of the group as a whole. In other words, teens do what they have to do to fit in.  However, a closer look at the research reveals that there are at least 5 different ways that peers can have a positive or detrimental influence on one another.

5 Types of Peer Influence:

1.  Peer Pressure: Directly and overtly persuading others to engage in a particular behavior.

For Example:  “You can’t be seen with that guy anymore if you are going to hang out with us!”

2.  Modeling: Exhibiting or demonstrating a particular attitude or behavior for others to imitate.

For Example: “All my friends are drinking at this party. Maybe I should try some…”

3.  Opportunity: Being somewhere that provides opportunities for prosocial or antisocial behavior.

For Example: “Looks like we are all alone until your parents get home at 9:00.”

4. Reinforcement: Supporting behaviors that fit within the norms of the group.

For Example: “You look great today. I love your outfit!”

5. Aggression: Using intimidation, force, or bullying to control group norms, and enhance or maintain individual or group status.

For Example: “Give me your lunch or I’ll dunk your head in the toilet!”

As parents, we want to help our teen navigate these kinds of pressures and minimize negative influences.  So, what can you do? 

  • Expand your understanding of peer pressure: Look for ways in which peer influence could be present in your teen’s life. Teens can be exposed to different kinds of influence depending on their interests, activities, hobbies, geographic location, etc.
  • Help your teen understand the range of influences: A teen may or may not be conscious of influence.  However, knowing what it can look like can make it more noticeable when it happens.
  • Teach your teen to be prepared: Help your teen develop strategies that minimize or remove peer influence. For example, carrying a cup around at a party can reduce or remove invitations to drink.  
  • Create escape codes: Practice code words or phrases that your teen can use with you when he/she is in a bind. Make sure your teen knows that you, or another trusted adult, can provide a ride whenever one is needed.   
  • Teach your teen to trust his/her instincts: We’ve all had that pain in our gut when “something is wrong”.  Communicate that this pain is a protective mechanism that should be trusted.
  • Be the final scapegoat:  If all else fails, tell your teen to blame you. “My parents won’t let me” or “We have family plans” work great!
  • Teach your teen to think about IMPACT:  Teens are quite capable of considering the “consequences” of their actions. However, teens usually see consequences as negative, personal, and close to home. For example, a teen may be more worried about being rejected than getting caught. Talking about the “impact” of their decisions creates an open conversation that carries less judgement and more awareness of how their behavior can effect themselves and others.
  • Focus on your relationship: Lines of communication are created when you pay attention and show interest in your teen’s world.  Not only will your teen tell you more about what is going on in their life, they will be more open to your advice. Be aware that advice seeking is not always overt.  Sometimes the best guidance comes from modeling, and sharing personal experiences and stories when opportunities presents themselves.  Remember, your teen is watching and listening to you more than you may think!

Happy Parenting,

Shelly

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A Spin on Risk-Taking Behavior as an Expression of Positive Youth Development

More often then not we associate risk-taking behavior in teens as negative or harmful. However, we know that the teen brain is literally wired to take risks. Therein lies the dilemma. We are left with the belief, or fear, that our teens are going to take risks that could have serious consequences.

I would like to offer a different perspective. If we know that our teens are naturally going to engage in experiences that give them an adrenaline rush, why not provide them with opportunities to have that rush in an environment that promotes positive youth development? When you really think about it, don’t we all develop new skills and competencies when we put our selves out there and take a risk? Now, I am not suggesting that you encourage your teen to be dangerous or unsafe. Rather, I am suggesting that you literally set up opportunities for them to take positive risks.

Start by really thinking about what kind of activities best fit your teen. Below are some examples of positive risks that relate to different characteristics in teens:

  • Social risks: For some teens, it is risky to speak out in a group. If you have a quiet or reserved teen, it may be enough to encourage them to take a leadership role in something like student counsel or  a local youth group.
  • Physical risks: Some teens find satisfaction in taking risks on the field. This may be through school or community sponsored sport teams. Not only can sports be good for team building and leadership development, they expose young people to adult role models.
  • Other physical risks: Not all teens like team sports. Some may prefer to take up skateboarding, mountain biking, skiing, rock climbing, white water rafting, or surfing.  Of course, they need to have the right equipment and safety training. These activities develop initiative and personal discipline.
  • Political risks: Some teens are passionate about making a difference in their community. They may like writing their local congressman/woman, voicing their opinion on debate team, or participating in community activist or youth governance groups.
  • Creative Risks: Teens can express their creative juices in a variety of contexts. Some may take an interest in the drama team or the school choir.  Others may like playing guitar, reading poetry,  or reciting  spoken word at the local coffee shop. Either way, this kind of expression can take some serious guts!  Not only do these activities  give young people an opportunity to develop a specific skill, they teach them to be competent in public speaking.
  • Competitive Risks: Give your teen a chance to compete if they are inclined.  They can learn a lot, regardless of whether they  win  or lose.   If your teen does lose, treat it as opportunity to teach that we all lose at some point. Losing a competition does not make him/her a failure. It simply means there was a lack of performance.

We have to do everything we can to keep our teens physically and emotionally safe.  But, we also have to give our  teens a chance to take risks, learn about themselves, and develop skills and competencies that help them accomplish what they want in the world. Experts say that when teens have opportunities to take positive risks, they are more inclined to avoid the negative ones.   Think about our great leaders. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Abraham Lincoln did not have the impact they had on the world by sitting back and being careful all the time. I would like to leave you with some of my favorite quotes from Abraham Lincoln. As you read them, take a moment to consider how you can share these with your teen, or even be the example of how they are expressed in the world.

1. “People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
2. “The best way to predict your future is to create it”
3. “Those who look for the bad in people will surely find it.”
4. “Commitment is what transforms a promise into reality.”
5. “I am not concerned that you have fallen — I am concerned that you arise.”
6. “The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.”
7. “Live a good life. In the end it is not the years in a life, but the life in the years.”
8. “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.”
9. “Character is like a tree and reputation its shadow. The shadow is what we think it is and the tree is the real thing.”
10. “It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Happy Parenting!

Shelly

Something Has Got To Change! Creating Habits for School Success

It is natural to put a lot of energy into the transition back to school. Don’t forget that it is just as important to develop good habits throughout the entire year. Consider that many of the things that you do on a day-to-day basis are not well thought out decisions, but habits. This is as true for your teen as it is for you, and can have a big impact on how well your teen does in school.

As the newness of the school year wears off, families begin settling into new routines. How are things going so far? Try completing the following sentence, “Now that the school year is underway….”

  1. Everything is going great!
  2. My teen is already behind!
  3. I feel like all I do is nag!
  4. My teen seems stressed out!

New routines or habits are established in the first few weeks, and can impact on how or what your teen does in school.  Don’t forget that it is just as easy to develop good habits, as it is to develop bad ones. Without some consideration, we can even absent-mindedly fall back into old habits. If you notice that certain things are not working, it is time to reprogram that habit!

How are habits formed? Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to the basal ganglia, the part of our brain that plays a major role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, however, are made in the prefrontal cortex.  This portion of the brain helps us think through situations with logic.  Once a behavior becomes a habit, it is automatic and the prefrontal cortex goes into a sleep mode of sorts.

When does a behavior become a habit? In the book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Charles Duhigg attributes habit formation to what he calls the habit loop.  Even though this book was written for businesses to boost effectiveness, the concepts in the book are easily applied to individuals and families wanting to create habits that increase workability and success.

The habit loop is made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward. Cues trigger the behaviors that we engage in for some kind of reward by kicking our brain into automatic mode. These cues can be internal, such as thoughts or feelings, or external such as time of day or spending time with a particular person. Routines are the behaviors themself. Routines can be physical (having a snack when you get home), cognitive (remembering to do homework), or emotional (feeling anxious). Rewards are the things we like that help are brain remember the habit loop in the future. Our behaviors become automatic when we crave the reward.   Like routines, rewards are also physical (I’m no longer hungry), cognitive (I gained new information), or emotional (I feel more relaxed).

What are your habits? It can be helpful to look at your own habits before you evaluate your teen’s habits.  What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Do you walk half awake to the kitchen and make coffee…staring at the machine until the coffee comes out? Do you crawl out of bed and get straight into the shower?  Regardless of your answer, it’s not likely this is something you decided to do; it’s a habit.  Now, whether you make coffee or take a shower first probably doesn’t make a real big difference in how your day goes.  However, other things like whether you go for a run when you get home from work, or eat dinner in front of the television can have a bigger impact on how you live your life and your overall health and well being.

What kind of habits can impact your teen’s school performance? While these will differ from family to family, here are some of the big ones are:

  • Staying healthy: Getting good rest, eating healthy, exercising
  • Getting organized: Writing assignments, projects, and tests in a calendar
  • Creating structure around homework: Having a time and place to study
  • Being prepared: Having all necessary materials available
  • Having support systems in place: Asking parents and teachers for help
  • Creating balance: Managing activities, homework, chores, and leisure time
  • Limiting distracting activities: Watching television, gaming, texting or being on Facebook
  • Staying positive: Maintaining a positive attitude about school and learning in general

What are your teen’s habits? You may notice that your teen has missing assignments, texts while doing homework, is late for school, doesn’t get enough rest, or appears completely stressed out. If something isn’t working, consider helping your teen change his/her habits. According to Duhigg, habit change involves keeping the cue and the reward the same, while changing the routine.  To do this, help your teen:

  • Believe that change is possible and within his/her control. This can be challenging when many things are black and white to teens. You may have to help your teen generate options.
  • Identify cues and be on the lookout for them. For example: “I text a friend when I get stressed or frustrated with my homework. Then, I can’t concentrate on homework.” 
  • Notice the rewards. For example: “My stress goes down when I talk to my friends instead of doing homework.”
  • Substitute a behavior that provides a similar reward. For example: “My stress goes down when I take a five minute break and then go back to work.”

Sounds easy enough, right? But, we all know that change can be hard! How do you help your teen recognize that something isn’t working to the point that they need to change?  Listen for and help your teen see ambivalence. Explain that being unsure, having mixed feelings, and feeling one way and thinking another are all signs of being ambivalent, and usually means that something needs to change.  Also, make sure your teen knows that we all feel ambivalent when we are faced with change.  Using our previous example, a teen may express her ambivalence around texting while doing homework like this: “I want to get my homework done quicker, but I also want to be there for my friends when they need me.”

Next, listen for and ask questions that get them talking about change. Asking questions like the ones below can help draw out the meaning your teen gives a particular change.

  • Desire: Why would you want to make this change?
  • Ability: How would you do it if you decided?
  • Reason: What are the three best reasons?
  • Need: How important is it? and why?
  • Commitment: What do you think you’ll do?

Using our example, a teen may say things like, “I want to finish my homework quicker so that I have more free time!” or “I could tell my friends to text me after 6:00.” Or, you could ask questions like, “How important is it to you to get your homework done quicker?” or “Why do you text your friends while you are doing homework.” Asking these kind of questions can also give you more information about the rewards for certain behaviors.

Having a  conversation about what is not working, and giving your teen a voice in the decision can be empowering. When your teen is empowered, he/she is more likely to cooperate and create workability for you and your teen.  Remember, the more you’re your teen wants to change the more likely it is to stick!

Happy Parenting!

Your Teen Is Changing! What Can You Do About It?

Michelangelo said that when he set out to sculpt a statue from a formless block of marble, he sought only to remove the excess marble from the statue that already existed inside the block. This is what Aristotle called accidental change.  Aristotle believed that when change occured, something new came to be, something old passed away, and something stayed the same throughout.

While we constantly watch our children change, the teen years are some of the most pronounced. Your teen will go through pubertal changes, as well as changes in brain structure, cognitive capabilities, and sexual interest.  They will also experience changes in the roles they assume in their family, community, and school.  Outside of their own development, teens must adjust to the changing world around them. For example, teens have experienced the rapid growth in technology, changing views in politics, and emerging styles in music and clothing.

Whether we are talking about normal development or changes in the world around us, some will be easier than others. People often respond to change with phrases like, “Come what may”, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”, and “What we resist persists.”  When people really don’t want to deal with change, they often look for proof to justify that it isn’t really happening or necessary.

One thing to consider is how Aristotle’s description of change fits your teen. Try taking a day or two to live in wonder of who your teen really is right now.  Have a good look at what has emerged, passed away, or  been the same for as long as you can remember. This can happen in a variety of areas such as personality traits, tastes in food, interests, styles, and levels independence. Why do this? Because, change happens so quickly we can miss it if we don’t pay attention.

Another thing to consider is how you deal with your teen changing. Do you avoid it or embrace it? Do you prepare for it or deal with it as it comes?  Do you accept it or wish things would just stay the same.  It is important to consider how you deal with change because your response can actually have an impact on your teen’s experience of him/herself.  For example, let’s say your teen’s interest switches from playing football to guitar. Embracing this change may open up opportunities for your teen to feel excited, proud, and adventurous. However, responding with criticism may generate feelings of hesitation, sadness, and guilt.

Finally, consider that you can have an impact on how your child changes by what you expose them to, and how you embrace what they choose to explore.  Teens often take your openness and interest in them as a pure expression of love. One time, I heard a teen tell his mom, “It means so much to me that you are open to me trying on different nutritional diets. It means even more that you will do them with me. It says that you care about what matters to me and I love you for it.”

While change looks different for every teen, it is inevitable.  Regardless of how you feel about it, change helps to shape the adult your teen becomes.  Challenge yourself to be a positive contribution and enjoy it along the way.

Happy Parenting!

Shelly

Stand By Teens When They Make Mistakes

Recently, I shared some bad news with a  good friend of mine and she sent me this video. The video served two purposes: (1) She wanted me to know that she would stand by me through the hard times and (2) she wanted to communicate how important it was for me to stand by others.  Her sharing was a real gift to me. Instantly, I thought of how important it is to “stand by” our teens.  It is much easier to stand by them when they do something great. However, it is in the times that they struggle, or make a mistake that they need it the most.  Check out this video, and then lets look at how we can stand by our teens and coach them through their mistakes.

Stand By Me | Playing For Change | Song Around The World from Concord Music Group on Vimeo.

Most adults have experienced heart break, hurt a friend’s feelings, or told a white lie.  Some have gotten a speeding ticket, failed an exam, or lost a job.  The reality is that we are human, and we have all made mistakes.  Along with those mistakes, we have had to live with the consequences of our actions.  Think back to the mistakes you’ve made.  How did you feel? My guess is that  you knew you made a mistake and felt pretty bad about it.  In reality, we are often our own worst critics.

Sometimes parents forget that our teens are much like adults. They know when they have made a mistake and sometimes get defensive when someone points it out.   Teens can feel a range of emotions including sadness, embarrassment,  and disappointment in themselves.  They are often scared to tell mom and dad, afraid of the punishment, and worried about what people will think of them.

So, how can you coach your teens through mistakes? Let’s start with what your teen does not need. Avoid rescuing your teens from making mistakes. Rescuing does a few things. First, it  tells teens that they should not make mistakes.  This can lead teens to have performance anxiety or feel unrealistic pressures to be perfect.  When adults jump in, it also  communicates that they are not capable of taking care of the situation themselves.  This takes away opportunities for them to build self-confidence and learn from their mistakes. The other thing parents can avoid is lecturing teens.  Lecturing does not help teens, especially when they already recognize and feel bad about their mistake.  Often times, lecturing leads teens to shut down and stop listening.

Your teen does need to hear that you will stand by them.  Being supportive is not the same as excusing their behavior.  Along with the appropriate consequence, it is important to have a conversation with your teen about what happened, what they made it mean, and what they are going to do about it.  When you take the time to listen, you get an opportunity to hear what is really going on in their head. When they feel heard, they are more likely to be open to your thoughts or suggestions. Outside of being a good listening, your job is to ask good questions.  Here are some questions that can help you coach your teen through his/her mistakes:

  • What’s up?
  • Let’s talk about it? I’m all ears.
  • Why do you think this happened?
  • How can you make this better for you?
  • What do you wish you had done differently?
  • What is really important to you? Why?
  • What are you going to do about it?
  • Who might you want to talk to about this?
  • Please say more so that I can really understand.
  • How do you want to move forward?

You may be surprised how much head nods and words like uh-huh, yeah, I see, etc., will prompt your teen to keep talking. As they share, reflect back to them:

  • Can I tell you what I am hearing?
  • Did I understand this right?
  • I heard you say….. is that what you meant?

You may have some important things to share after you have listened to what you teen has to say.  Keep in mind that the idea is to help them deal with their mistakes without telling them what to do.  The teen years are a time to practice good decision-making and problem solving.  These questions may open the door for you to share your thoughts without sounding like you are taking over or giving too much advice.

  • How can I help?
  • Can I share a different way of looking at this?
  • Can I give you a suggestion?
  • I have some ideas. Would you like to hear them?
  • I have seen this before. Can I share some things that have helped others?

Sometimes, teens make mistakes that need a lot more adult intervention.  Try this if you want to provide more guidance but you still want the conversation to be inviting to your  teen.

I would like to talk about something really important, and I am not really sure how to talk to you about it? Will you help me work it out?

Finally, it is important to encourage your teen to apologize when he/she makes a mistake. Apologies are as much for the person apologizing as they are for the one receiving it.  When teens apologize, they are able to come clean for their mistake and ask for forgiveness.  It is in that moment that they can accept the mistake as  an event, instead of something that defines them. Not apologizing can leave teens making assumptions about what someone thinks, feels or believes about them. If a teen take these thoughts, feelings, and beliefs on as being real, they can become a part of how the teen defines him/herself.  It may be helpful for you to share a story or two about apologies that you have made.  This will help them see that they are not alone in making mistakes.

Happy Parenting!

Shelly

Goodness of Fit: Giving Up Being Right Doesn’t Make You Wrong

Sam bursts through the door after school, throws his book bag on the ground, and heads toward his room.  Mom is in the kitchen making a cup of tea when she hears Sam get home.  She hollers, “Hey kid….how was school? What is your plan for tonight?” Sam says, “I don’t know” while heading up the stairs.  Clearly Sam was upset about something.  Mom wonders…what should I do? Do I try to talk to him, wait for him to come to me, or just let it go for now.  As she stirs the honey in her tea,  her thoughts drift to how her day had gone. She had actually had a pretty rough day herself.  In fact, things at work had been going down hill for about a month. She feels emotionally exhausted, but knows that she needs to reach out to her son.

Mom begins to walk upstairs. How many different ways could this conversation go and why? Both are coming to the conversation with their own personality, thoughts, feelings, and experiences.   For years, psychologists have tried to understand what contributes to effective parenting and strong parent-child relationships.  And for years, researchers have said that this is cultivated by things like knowing what’s going on in your teens life: with whom are they spending time, what are they doing, where are they going, when will they be home, and how they’re doing.  Another component is finding the right balance of being responsiveness to them and having a structured and predictable environment.   This sounds easy enough, right?  The Goodness of Fit Model suggests that the  teen’s temperament, the parent’s temperament, and the demands and expectations of the environment are important contributors to how easy it really is. 

The Goodness of Fit Model Model suggests that a teen’s development is not based on a specific personality trait, but rather on the the way in which  their temperament, other people’s temperament, and their environment interact.  A person’s temperament is their natural style of interacting with people, places and things, whereas the environment is inclusive of all the different contexts in which people interact with one another.  These contexts include things like family, school, work, and peer groups.  A good fit is established by finding, or creating, a match in these areas: 1) the parent and the child’s temperament, (2) the parent and his/her environment, and (3) the teen and his/her environment. When this happens, parent-teen relationships are healthier and teens are happier with themselves and the world around them.  Teens have a higher self-esteem when they feel like they can successfully navigate their relationships and activities.  As you would expect, a poor match can have the opposite impact.

You have more options for how you respond to situations when you enter into them with an understanding of both you and your teen’s perspective. Giving up being right doesn’t mean you have to be wrong.  It may be that you and your teen simply approach things differently. When you are present to who your teen is and why they react the way they do,  you can avoid some of the recurring battles in your household.   Doing this goes a long way in  building trust between you and your teen, while making parenting more enjoyable!

The Goodness of Fit Model looks at two component: The behavior fit and the emotional fit.  The behavioral fit refers to the fit between the person and the environment, while the emotional fit refers to the fit between individuals.  Using the  example above, let’s look at behavioral fit.  Maybe Sam likes to keep to himself, but he shares a bedroom with his teenage brother. This can leave Sam frustrated when he wants space and his room is occupied by his brother.  When you think about emotional fit, consider whether your teen has a compatible or incompatible temperament in relation to some the people in his/her life….including yourself!  Looking at our example again, maybe the mom is really introverted and is internally processing her bad day at work, while Sam wants to talk about what he is feeling.  It is normal for it to be more challenging for you to understand a teen who has a very different temperament than you. You may even find yourself having less patience to deal with certain things because of your teen’s temperament.

Whether your temperament clashes or is compatible with your teen, you can have a big impact on the interactions you have with one another, and your level of satisfaction!  Start by recognizing the similarities and differences, and consider when you can  make adjustments in your parenting to better meet the needs of your teen.  You can also help your teen learn how to interact with people who  approach situations in different ways than themselves. Below are some additional strategies for understanding and managing “fit”:

  • Have discussions that acknowledge, but do not judge the other person’s way of interacting in the world. This will increase trust and understanding in your relationship.
  • Approach your teen with empathy and work through differences in a way that acknowledges both reactions. Giving up being right, doesn’t mean you have to be wrong.
  • Teach teens to recognize the “other” person’s perspective. This is also important because it is during this time that teens tend to be heavily focused on themselves.
  • Help your teen recognize and engage in environments that fit their personal temperament.
  • Anticipate what your teen may need in order to handle a person or an environment that is not a good fit. For example, prepare a shy teen for overcrowded events. Teens do better when they know what to expect.
  • Have realistic expectations of teens. Try to avoid putting them in situations that are counter to their temperament. This can make them feel bad about themselves and can ultimately decrease their self-esteem.
  • Acknowledge teens who have a challenging temperament. By doing this, you can recognize that teen behavior is not always a result of “bad” parenting. You alone are not fully responsible for the way your teen is or is not.
  • Engage your teen in activities that match their temperament. It can be helpful to put active teens in sports, emotionally expressive teens in music, funny teens in drama, and academic teens in math or chess club.
  • Find chores that match their temperament.  Consider having active teens mow the lawn, less active kids fold the laundry, and  emotionally expressive teens walk the dogs.

When teens learn to put themselves in situations that “fit” their temperament, they are able to feel successful in their interactions with others and the world around them!

Happy Parenting,

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