by Chris Taylor, MFT, Author “Back to Basics"
Noted psychologist, Erick Erikson, described the period of adolescence in psycho-social terms of ego-identity vs. role confusion. I think all of us can relate to this explanation if we remember what life was like as a teenager. What clothes do I wear? What music do I listen to? How do I stay current with movies and shows so I don’t seem out of place? Adolescence is a stage where we strive for acceptance and approval yet year to establish our individuality. It is a time where roles become confused, gender begins to take a central place in identity, and ethics become superimposed on the moral structure developed in childhood.
We can all, then, agree on what identity formation looks like, but how do we foster it in our teens in the most healthy way possible? Well before we can help the process along we need to ask our kids what they are experiencing. The social forces that act to sway our teenager’s minds have never been so strong. With social media and the 24hour news cycle, teens are bombarded by messages of who they should be. Unfortunately, the over-sexualized nature of our society often tells them that objectification is acceptable and desired. In addition to that the shock value of you tube stars creates a game of one-upmanship, where the aim is to be the most outrageous. As parents we need to bring the conversation to ethics in what is the right thing to do given choice and free will. Developing a sense of empathy for the feelings of others will help teens reference their own role in the fabric of society.
Taking the time to express acceptance to your teen and building value as you see their identify emerge is vital for continuing to build on the foundation of trust laid in childhood. As your teen tries on their identities, it is always better to explore what about their identity they find value in, rather than dismissing it as a fad, or even forbidding it as unacceptable. When parents attempt to understand their teen’s rationale for why they have created an identity, parents can then have more meaningful dialogue based on validation and mutual respect. With that being said, parents must always make clear what the limits are for self-expression. Highly sexualized clothing, drug or gang referencing, and themes of violence should not be permitted in clothing or media consumption. Parents can appeal to logic in their teens by validating their interests while at the same time exploring issues health and safety. “Jenny, I understand that being accepted by your friends and not standing out is important to you, as a parent I am not comfortable with you wearing those short, shorts. Can you help me find a reasonable compromise? My goal as your parent is to give you space to be you and express yourself in a way that makes you feel like you are being true to yourself, but there are times when I am just not comfortable with a specific clothing choice. What do you feel about that?” This statement is a great example of how a parent can nuance their message to validate, yet maintain control.
Who am I, and what will I become? Will my peers accept me? Is being smart and getting good grades worth sacrificing so that I am not called a nerd? Can an athlete be more than just a “dumb jock.” Are cheerleaders always the pretty girls with all the friends? Is it cool to smoke weed, what if I want to say no? All of these questions are swirling around your teen’s mind on a daily basis. Don’t be afraid to ask them about how they are answering them. Do not assume one way or the other, but encourage honest dialogue. Perhaps most importantly, you where a teenager once, don’t act as if this is a new concept, and normalize the experience by sharing the pressures you faced and the choices you made, even if they where not the best. Your teens will appreciate your honesty and open up more based on an increase in trust, after all, parenting a teen may be a new identity for you too.