Discovering + Uncovering
The idea of identity is something that professionals spend their entire career trying to understand and comprehend. This is because identity encompasses all aspects of one’s life, such as relationships, personality traits, moral opinions, and geography to name a few. On top of that, our identity is ever changing to consider our experiences, relationships, and the way that we perceive the world. Because of this, it is understandable that teens are constantly amid some form of identity crisis.
As a therapist working with teens, I see these identity crises daily. Why are they constantly trying to reinvent themselves? The answer is quite simple, while also immensely complicated. Think back to a time that you bought some new clothing. For me there are 4 ways that this goes. The first is where I purchase the clothing thinking that it fit well and looked good, only to find out once I got home that it is not the right size or does not look as good as it did in the store. Second is they fit well, but upon wearing it in public friends or family make comments that cause me to rethink my choices of clothing. Third I wear it, and everything is good until it falls out of style. Lastly, I find something that fits and is comfortable, that aside from the occasional reboot, stays with me until the end of time.
Similarly, teens are constantly looking for their personal style or identity. They look at some identities, try them out privately or with close friends, and then decide it is not for them. It is left on the preverbal dressing room floor, never to be looked at or mentioned again. They could also try something out only to be shut down by comments from friends or family members–resulting, at times, hiding their real thoughts and beliefs and only allowing certain individuals to be privy. They may even throw that belief or value away entirely. Subsequently there are those who find something that works, yet after some time passes, they see that it no longer fits their lifestyle or the current trends of the world so they move away from it. Lastly you have some identities that just fit– you have believed or felt this way since birth, and nothing is going to change it.
Given how it can seem as though the identities of teens are ever changing, what is a parent or a mentor to do? In my experience one of the best approaches is to support teens through their process of uncovering and discovering, while also opening up the lines of communication and engaging in honest dialogue regarding the subject matter. Adolescence is a developmental time in which teens are working to process who they are separate from their parents and or guardians. Being able to experiment, be curious, and try on what fits and does not fit are the ways through which teenagers work to gain a sense of independence and understanding of purpose. As mentors, parents, and guardians, the hope is to stay as engaged in this process of discovery alongside them and by working to create an open space where their curiosities can be explored/examined together, we can help to minimize feelings such as isolation, frustration, opposition, and more during what can already be a challenging developmental time for teens.
One of the consistent questions I see come up is “How do you support a child’s identity formation when it conflicts with your own personal value and/or beliefs?” The first step is to see the child as a person who is also in conflict and attempting to find some level of comfort. If you can see this you can then recognize that it is not you against the teen, but rather, it is the two of you working to find who this teen is. Help them to explore the reason behind their desire to hold a particular value and/or identity. Sift through what fits well for them, what does not. Not seeing eye to eye on things is normal and to be expected. When parents, guardians, and mentors are able to name the conflicting beliefs between them and their teenagers, while providing reassurance of connection, compassion, and care, we are setting a foundation of trust that allows for all parties to remain engaged throughout the process of development. Supporting their process of discovery and uncovering does not mean you have to agree with each other. It means authentic conversations, spaces to be curious about potential and purpose in life, as well as opportunities to exercise such potential and purpose.
Being able to walk alongside your teen through their process of identity development, you will find that the conversations you have become more uplifting and informative and you are able to relate to different things that you have been through in your life. Reminding yourself that teenagers are not trying to be difficult by choosing different things to believe in every other day or trying things out that you may not agree with can be one of the best ways to shift your own energy and therefore your approach will change. Teenagers are simply trying to find out who they are amid a world in which everyone around them is telling them who they “should” be. Let them know that you support their exploration by talking with them and giving space for them to “try things on” to see what fits, and you will find that they may be more willing to seek out your guidance, opinions, and suggestions throughout their journey of discovery and uncovering.