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Identity and Adolescents: How Adults Can Help
By Cheryl Jones, ACSW, Adolescent and Family Counselor

This is an article that was printed in The Fourth and Fifth Rs: Respect and Responsibility, Volume 10, Issue 2, Winter 2004.  (Center for the 4th and 5th Rs, School of Education, Cortland, NY  13045  www.cortland.edu/c4n5rs

The elder of two daughters, Sarah barely talked to her family anymore.  She was doing poorly in school, and her previously good friends were replaced with kids who were drinking and using drugs.  When she would not return home, her parents often found her at an apartment with older kids, cutting class, and smoking marijuana.  Sarah no longer did any homework and was struggling to pass the 10th grade.  Regardless of house rules, she came and went as she pleased.  Try as they might, this previously close family could not seem to reach its drifting member.

Dan’s older brother had been in and out of rehab for most of his adolescence.  Dan, however, had always been close to his parents and a compliant child, for which they were thankful.  He went to church with his parents, tried hard in school, and made them feel like they had done things right with this child  Then, with no warning signs, came the call from the high school that Dan was caught selling marijuana.  Further investigation revealed that Dan was also failing most of his classes.  His devastated parents could not believe this was their Dan.

Molly was the “easy child.”  It was her dramatic little sister that kept the family going with demands, tantrums, and outrageous behavior.  Molly played soccer on the team her father coached, was a member of the pompon team, and earned mostly A’s.  Then at age 15, like the beginning of a bad dream, her parents discovered that she was drinking, using drugs, having sex, skipping class, and now failing.  What happened to the happy, involved daughter who was such a joy to be around?

Not uncommonly in my practice, I see previously model children who arrive at the magic age of 15 and seem to depart from their compliant, predictable patterns to become angry, defiant strangers participating in risky, often self-destructive behaviors. Developmentally, it is at about this age that teenagers experience a more intense drive for autonomy.  It becomes critical not be an extension of their parents but a separate individual.  “You can’t control my life!” becomes their battle cry.  But then the question arises, “Who will?”  If the sense of self, or personal identity, is not adequately developed within the adolescent by this time, the attempt to forge an identity separate from their parents can result in extreme, disruptive, and out-of-control behaviors.

The Problem of “Anti-Identity”

Some adolescents’ only goal concerning their sense of self is to not become either of their parents.  These young people, in search of who to be, adopt an “anti-identity.”  This amounts to anticipating what a parent wants and simply doing or saying the opposite.  Often this leads to problems that warrant adult intervention.

In Molly’s family, her father was clearly the head of the household.  He made all of the major decisions involving their two daughters.  In family sessions, Molly would rage at him, “I played soccer and did good in school for you.  You never cared about what I wanted!  It was always about what you wanted me to do—and Mom, you never took my side.  You always let him win.  I’m not doing what you want anymore.  I’m living my life for me!”

As it often happens, Molly chose the most obvious, dramatic, and easily available ways to show her father he was not in charge.  Through casual sexual activity, frequent and varied substance abuse, and a disregard for all family norms and rules, she claimed her life as her own, at a tremendous cost to all.

Raising Children to Have a Sense of Self

The importance of the development of identity in children and adolescents has received inadequate attention in the information glut about child-rearing bombarding parents and educators.  Young people who know what they think, feel, and want to have happier, safe, and more productive lives.  So the challenge becomes, how do we raise children to have a sense of self on which to build their lives?

If young people have been steadily guided from childhood in the process of self-discovery, by age 15 they will be ready to begin refining their selection of tastes, values, and directions.  But if they have been simply walking in lock-step with their parents, doing what they are told, they are in no way prepared to begin taking charge of their lives.  These young persons are at great risk to need to rebel in order to show their parents, “I am not you!”  And they will win.  This is a battle that no parent ever wants to engage in, because all it produces is casualties.

Offering Choices

The process of decision-making helps determine who each of us becomes.  Beginning when a child first understands the spoken word, we can offer the opportunity to make choices.  This gives children the message that they are separate persons, their opinions matter, and their voices are heard.  If children grow up with the idea that they can make decisions to create a life that works for them, the critical process of identity-building is underway.  But when parents continually intervene, run interference for them, and deny them the opportunity to determine personal preferences when appropriate, those children cannot grow into teenagers who are comfortable becoming separate human beings.

Some children seem to begin life already knowing who they are and what they think.  For them a sense of self seems to be a given.  For other children the process of uncovering a personal identity requires more directed effort.  Sarah’s mother reports that Sarah, unlike her little sister, always had a difficult time knowing what she wanted.  Her tendency had always been to go along with the plans of others instead of interjecting her own.

Regardless of the child’s personality predisposition, parents can help by offering areas of safe choice.  Even if the child’s decision turns out to be a mistake, it becomes a learning opportunity to evaluate and make a better choice the next time.  In time, looking inward and making personal choices becomes a gratifying, automatic means of directing a life enhanced by individuality.

Questions Instead of Commands

The building of identity is also strengthened by parent-child communication that takes the form of questions instead of commands.  Asking something as simple as, “Do you want to wear a jacket today?” allows children to make a choice, evaluate if they are comfortable with the result of that choice, and possibly modify it the next time if it did not work out well.  It is a subtle way of letting them know that, ultimately, they will be in charge of determining what improves their quality of life.  “Do your homework,” demands compliance.  “What’s the plan for your homework?” enables a child to create and own a plan with some investment in its success.

Significant adults in a young person’s world play a critical role in the development of identity.  Those adults need to be the guiding voice of wisdom and experience that helps to make sense of the world.  They highlight what is important, reward what is right, and explain how things fit together in the big picture.  However, a common pitfall for adults occurs when they experience resistance to or defiance of their values, rules, or expectations.  They often react by bearing down harder, insisting more strongly, and turning the occasion into a win-lose situation.  It is on this battleground that the development of identity can be lost.  Of course, there are issues involving safety such as illegal, destructive, hurtful behaviors that offer no option for accommodation.  But the vast majority of issues allow room for a young person’s input and ownership.  Identity is strengthened when young people are allowed to hold differing viewpoints that are stil respected by those in charge.

Responding to “I Don’t Know”

Young people sometimes adopt the habit of answering, “I don’t know,” to almost everything that is asked of them.  Their “I don’t know” response can often be decoded as meaning either, “I cannot easily figure out what I think or feel,” or, “If I truthfully answer this question and it is not what you want to hear I’ll get a lecture, so I won’t tell you.”  If a safe environment is consistently provided and the “I don’t knows” still persist, this can indicate the need for assistance with self-discovery.

“I don’t know” should not be accepted as a customary response.  People, including teens, always have some idea of what they are thinking or feeling, or can offer a guess if the answer is not totally clear.  If an adolescent really struggles with clarity of personal thought, then a self-discovery process needs to be initiated.  “I don’t know” cannot build a life.  Gently guiding the young person in developing an answer can help (e.g., “Suppose you did know….What might you say?”).

When adolescents are unclear about their personal identity, they experience an empty, confusing, uncomfortable feeling.  In an effort to mask or escape this feeling, they may engage in substance abuse and other dramatic behaviors.  Empty kids sometimes gravitate toward displaying an outrageous identity to the outside world, often in terms of tattoos, clothing, or hair that will cause others to look again.  These things are a way of saying, “See me! I exist and I am different from you.”  To be sure, adolescence is and should be a time of trying on many different ideas, styles, and images to find the ones that truly fit.  But dramatic outward manifestations of self can be an indicator of trouble within.

Helping Adolescents Define Their Lives

The development of identity requires that every young person invests in something to help define his or her life.  Whether it is a talent, sport, or outside interest, every young person needs something that says, “This is mine.  I go out of my way to work at this.”  As the investment grows, so too does the young person’s sense of self and competence.  Dropping one interest and picking up another as one matures is also not uncommon.   The benefit lies in claiming portions of life that express, “I fit here.”  If young persons exhibit no outside investment, then they need assistance in a process of discovering what in this world fits with who they are.  The discovery process does not end until there is a fit.  Gentle adult guidance helps this process.

The outcomes for adolescents struggling with identity issues are as varied as the individuals themselves.  Sarah was never able to make the decision to engage in therapy in a meaningful way.  At age 18, she continues to occasionally drink and smoke marijuana.  After six months in an intensive treatment facility, she has now moved out of her parent’s home to live with friends.  Sarah has begun classes at the community college and keeps her family at a distance.  She still lacks direction, but her parents remain available, if ever she is willing to accept their help.

Dan agreed to stop drinking and using drugs as long as he lived in his parent’s home.  He was able to reach a negotiated peace with his parents and graduate from high school.  Shortly after graduation he moved down south to find a job and perhaps begin community college classes.  He keeps in regular contact with his family.

After two suicide attempts, Molly engaged in individual and family therapy and made significant progress.  She was able to address her rage and pain and establish appropriate boundaries in her life.  She returns to therapy periodically when she thinks it could be helpful, works full-time, and is in her last semester of college.  Next summer she will marry a young man she has dated for three years.  At 25, Molly uses no illegal substances and drinks only occasionally.  She has a warm and loving relationship with her family and can even laugh at her father’s occasional intrusiveness.  Molly and her family could serve as a model for addressing critical adolescent crises effectively.

The discomfort of an inadequate sense of self takes precedence over all else in the life of an adolescent.  The search for self can disrupt the quest for achievement, family connection, and all previous normalcy.  Before the collateral damage can be assessed, the identity issue must be confronted.  While much of the healing and development can and should happen within the home, it is often helpful do so under the guidance of an adolescent or family therapist.  The process is not one of blame or brokenness but one of respect, boundaries, and discovery.  Often, the most difficult part of the process is gaining the trust of adolescents, whose greatest fear is that they will be forced to become something they are not  Establishing appropriate boundaries, negotiating expectations, and helping teens find and express themselves can lead to a respectful and healing outcome for all.

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