The Importance of Identity

One of the key tasks of adolescence is the forming of an identity. If all goes well, the teenager emerges from the period between 12 and 19 with a sense of self. That is, they have some idea of who they are and who they want to be. One of the main struggles that causes headaches for parents during adolescence is known as "identity confusion," that time during adolescence when the young person experiments with different fashion, friends, hairstyles, music, etc. This seemingly constant flip-flopping can drive parents crazy as mom or dad worries that what they see in their teenager is going to be a permanent fixture of the kid's personality. Just when mom or dad accepts a certain representation of the teen's person-hood such as music or a way of dressing, it seems the teenager is trying to push the boundary further and wants to adopt yet another form of self-expression. Perhaps the biggest cause of stress between teens and parents is a sense of "You just don't understand me" that is felt on both sides.

While it can be maddening for a parent to witness the challenges of identity confusion, it is a very necessary process and an important developmental experience for the adolescent. Adulthood brings big challenges such as career building, marriage, raising children, and so on. Successful adults who rise to meet these challenges and do well are individuals who know who they are and what they want. They are solid in their beliefs and form deep, committed relationships. Conversely, an adult who doesn't have a solidly formed identity struggles to meet the demands of adulthood - they tend to be easily crushed by challenges and flounder. Raising teens today is also complicated by the influx of information that is available to them through the internet. Social, political, and racial views and beliefs are put in front of our children at an astounding rate which impacts their beliefs and ideas and thus impacts the identity development process. However frustrating for parents, the experimentation with various identities helps the young person figure out what they want and who they want to be. The teen is literally learning through a series of experiments, that clothes and the outward appearance have nothing to do with what really matters in a person. Thus, by the early to mid-twenties, there is a sense of intrinsic satisfaction and a sense of worth and value that is not related to things or appearance.

Parents often ask me in these moments of exasperation if there is a quicker way through this process. I tell them no, there isn't. Many parents assume that they can pound their beliefs into their teen, as if by threatening a little more or pushing a little harder somehow it will work. Usually, however, it makes things worse and the relationship between the parent and teen is broken, sometimes irreparably. "So what do I do?" asks the mom whose 16-year-old daughter tells her she doesn't believe in God anymore. "How do I handle this?" asks the dad whose 15-year-old son wants to color his hair and get piercings and begins making friends with peers whose beliefs are the exact opposite of his father.

Here are some tips to navigate these rough waters.

1) Don't Panic and Don't be Reactive. Recognize the normalcy of this stage of development and see the benefits of the desire of the teen to want to try a new look or adopt a new set of beliefs. Talking to other parents whose children are now adults can be a great way to gain perspective and hear what they went through. They will often tell you what they think they did right and what they wished they would have done.

2) Set Firm Expectations, Boundaries, and Consequences and Be Consistent. Having a plan prior to a crisis usually means a successful outcome. Your goal as a parent of a teen is to guide them, keep them safe, while giving them space to be their own person. This is at times difficult because these areas can often overlap. Be clear about what you expect, be clear about the rules, and enforce consequences consistently when the teen makes a wrong choice.

3) Build Relationship. You know if you've read anything that I write that this is part of the equation. Build in time together and don't stop connecting. Remember, much of the posturing of a teen is just that - an act to look confident and bold, when in reality the child is scared and worried. By continuing to reach out, you help them through the fear and provide reassurance.

4) Know What You'll Bend On and What You Won't. Most parents get into trouble because they make snap decisions without thinking them through. Remember: You are the parent and you have the right to step back and think about things before making a decision. Do some research, get some advice, and let your teen know you'll get back to them regarding a certain type of hairstyle or if they can attend a party. But give them the respect of listening to them and letting them know that you've heard them. For things you absolutely know are not acceptable to you, make those clear and let your teen know that those are non-negotiable.

5) Don't Be Afraid to Seek Professional Help. Contacting a counselor or talking with your child's teacher or guidance counselor can provide you with perspective and guidance. Family counseling can be extremely valuable in showing your teen that you want to help them as much as you can and want to understand their perspective. Family counseling provides each party involved a neutral place to share thoughts and ideas while working through difficult developmental transitions.  

Don’t be afraid of the identity formation process. It is normal and a healthy part of your teen’s journey to adulthood.