THE ADOLESCENT SELF
“Who Are They?”
(This is not a trick question!)
“Indeed, no teen can be tall enough, thin enough,
smart enough , athletic enough or popular enough”
(Dr. Scott Wooding)
“Who am I?” “What do people think of me?” “How do I look?”
“What kind of person am I?”
These are questions that our teens are asking as they begin their search for their own unique identity and place in the world. At no other time in the human life cycle is the search for an identity stronger than during adolescence! Dr. Scott Wooding, author of Rage, Rebellion and Rudeness - Parenting Today’s Teenagers, explains how the teenage years are the most insecure time in a person’s life. “In trying to develop their own identities, teens have to cast off the role of being someone’s child.” Since nothing has yet replaced this role, teens’ search for an identity leaves them in a “No Man’s Land”. It will be years before they have replaced the identity of their parents with one that is uniquely their own. They “try out different modes of being - including ways of speaking, dressing, acting and thinking …. Ways of discovering whether an identity fits.” (Dr. M. Kaufman) This is a time when our teens need freedom and opportunity for decision-making and experiences away from us. This presents a scary time for parents! We have to let our teens be independent from us, so they can have the opportunity to develop confidence in themselves and the choices. They need to be able to make their own mistakes (with us in the background), learn from them, and learn about who they are.
Significant changes occurring in the adolescent brain make teens capable of abstract thinking and self-reflection for the first time. These reflections allow teenagers to think about themselves in new ways .… and the journey toward self-identity begins. Teens will often attempt to find peers that reinforce the identity they are choosing during this ‘search for self’.
Within the process of creating an identity, teenagers’ self-consciousness “reaches new heights”. They have a sense that everyone is watching them. They are acutely aware of, and can be quite critical of their changing bodies. “Teens may feel as though they wake up with a different body almost every day.” Sustaining a healthy, positive body image is particularly challenging within the culture of the high school years! Body image is how you feel about your own physical appearance, and plays a significant role in teens’ sense of self. “Am I hot?” “Am I not?” (Sounds like a bad take-off on Dr. Seuss!) However, in reality teens “spend a lot of time in the mirror searching for answers to these questions”. Research shows that overall, boys tend to have a more positive body image than girls. In turn, teens’ body image is convincingly linked to their self-esteem.
Self esteem is how people “value themselves and how worthwhile they feel within themselves”. It influences the choices they make, and even how they choose to live their lives. Research has shown that positive self esteem in teens gives them “the courage to be their own person, believe in their own values and make the right decision when the pressure is on.” It is linked with emotional well-being, good school performance, and meaningful friendships; while low self esteem affects learning, and can be a source of negative behavior choices such as eating disorders, drug use or delinquency in teens.
What Parents Can Do:
• Spend time with your teenager. This shows them that you care for them, and that they are important to you. Teenagers need this time with their parents – it makes them feel good about themselves. (The better teens feel about themselves, the less likely they are to submit to peer pressure.)
• Listen thoughtfully to your teen – to their ideas, their thoughts, their complaints, their dreams. As you do, your teen will feel respected and valued by you.
• Heap praises and positive messages on your teens. Tell your teen you love them. You may think their egos will explode, but all the literature says otherwise. Teens need their parents to show genuine affection and admiration for their accomplishments and good choices.
• “One of the essentials of developing a positive self esteem in anyone is by achieving successes. This is especially true for teenagers.” The literature claims one vital role of parents is to help their teens find something they are passionate about and successful in to pursue. Adolescents can become easily discouraged or quick to give up on the search for this meaningful activity. As parents, we can support our teen by persisting in this search, until they find what has meaning for them. Never give up on your teen!
The research is conclusive – a strong relationship between teens and their parents is one of the most critical components for to teens growing and evolving towards adulthood, while they live within the culture of high school.