Their bodies kick into overdrive. They find themselves disoriented, scared and alone. They become moody, secretive and sarcastic. You don’t recognize your own child. What happened to the child you used to know? The answer: adolescence.
In the teenage years, young people begin their quests for identity. To help you understand your child’s adolescence, Les Parrott, Ph.D., a professor of psychology, offers the five most common ways in which teens demonstrate their struggles with identity:
Through status symbols. Adolescents try to establish themselves through prestige — wearing the right clothes, having the right possessions, from stereos to sunglasses. These symbols help form teen identities by expressing affiliation with specific groups.
Through forbidden behaviors. Teens often feel that appearing mature will bring recognition and acceptance. They begin engaging in practices they associate with adulthood — tabooed pleasures — such as smoking, drinking, drugs and sexual activity.
Through rebellion. Rebellion demonstrates separation. Teens can show that they differentiate themselves from parents and authority figures, while maintaining the acceptance of their peers.
Through idols. Celebrities may become “models” for teens who are looking for a way of experimenting with different roles. They may identify with a known figure, trying to become like that person, and in effect, losing hold of their own identities. This identification with a well known personality gives teens a sense of belonging.
Through cliquish exclusion. Teens often can be intolerant in their exclusion of their peers. Since they are constantly trying to define and redefine themselves in relation to others, they do not want to be associated with anyone having unacceptable or unattractive characteristics. They try to strengthen their own identities by excluding those who are not like themselves.
Offering Help to Your Teen
Establishing an identity is not an easy process. There are difficult and confusing choices at every step of the way. You can help adolescents discover the most stable aspects of their identities by becoming aware of what they are going through, the ways in which they attempt to mold their identities and by being patient. Try these exercises with your adolescent as a way to open up discussion about identity building and values.
Draw a set of three concentric circles. Then have your teen list or describe the personal characteristics that are most important and resistant to change in the innermost circle, the aspects least important and least stable in the outermost circle, and the aspects of intermediate importance in the middle circle. Use this chart to talk about values and the threat that peer pressure poses to unpopular beliefs.
Using some old magazines, have your adolescent create two collages: one entitled “Who I am,” and the other, “Who l would like to be.” After the collages are completed, discuss why the specific images were chosen in each collage. Ask how the collages compare to each other and how the images portrayed in each collage show satisfaction or confusion about identity.
At the top of a sheet of paper, write the words, “Who am I?” Then have your teen write down 20 responses to this question as quickly as possible, without self-censoring. Discuss the answers as well as the process of choosing each answer.