Finding an identity is an essential part of growing up. It’s something all adolescents and young adults go through as they become more and more aware of themselves and their place in the world. Also, the experience of finding identity can shape how well-adjusted teens become as they move into adulthood.
If the process isn’t fully supported by family or is somehow stunted, it can lead to serious mental health issues. These include depression, anxiety, and difficulties connecting with people in deep and meaningful ways.
The Stages of Developing Identity
As people move from childhood into their teen years and beyond, they go through three phases during which they explore their identity in different ways:
1. The Tween Years
This phase is usually between the ages of 11 and 14 when children start to gain a concept of themselves outside of the family unit. They’re also beginning to work out peer group relations and the lay of the social landscape in their day-to-day lives. You’ll see children starting to show different aspects of their personalities to different people and becoming more sensitive and aware of what people say about them as they enter adolescence.
2. The Teen Years
Between the ages of 14 and 18, a lot happens to adolescents. Their bodies go through radical physical changes, and their brains develop significantly. This is when they become conscious of the need to fit in socially, leading them to try different roles and identities to see what they like best.
3. The Young Adult Years
The final phase is when teens become young adults—between 18 and 24 years old. At this stage, they’ve usually decided on an identity they feel fits them and is who they want to be. However, they may not always feel they can show that identity to everyone in their peer group or family.
Why It’s So Important for Young Adults to Explore Their Identity
This growth and development in personal identity is something that we all go through. For some, it’s a relatively simple process of finding where you belong and enjoying the freedom to love yourself. For others, it can be a tumultuous time wrought with anger, anguish, and even denial.
One of the main reasons the process can be challenging is that some young adults feel they can’t express who they are or believe themselves to be. This can be for several reasons, such as a conservative family or school environment or a perceived fear of rejection by those they love most.
When young adults don’t feel free to explore their identities or openly express themselves, it can lead to harmful or risky behavior. This includes turning to more and more “forbidden” experiences, which can be anything from acting out at school to joining dangerous underground subcultures. These experiences can make teens feel their identities are unacceptable to the world, pushing them into a mental and emotional crisis.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, adolescents who are encouraged to explore and publically display their identities are often far better adjusted in life. They will also tend towards making more positive life choices and see their identity in a healthier light. You’re far less likely to see a young adult with an identity crisis when they have been supported and allowed the freedom to explore.
How Parents and Guardians Can Support the Process
A significant factor in determining identity comes from the world in which teens grow up. Having a supportive family goes a long way in helping young adults find their identity and be comfortable with it, even if a teen is showing signs of a wildly different personality from the rest of the family.
There are many ways parents or guardians can support the process of finding identity:
1. Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Open dialogue is essential during this phase of life. Teens need to know what their parents think, especially what they’re thinking about them. We don’t want teens to feel they can’t express themselves for fear their parents will reject them. Parents should try to avoid giving lectures dictating how their teen or young adult behaves.
2. Go for Positive Reinforcement
Teenagers can be very quick to pick up on what they see as negative comments or criticism. Even saying something in a neutral tone—“wear whatever you want to wear”—can be viewed as negative when they’re not sure about their identity and are trying something new. Find things to compliment and ask questions to show you care about what they’re going through.
3. Avoid Comparing Teens
In the hunt for an identity, it can be very upsetting to be compared to other people. Avoid comparing your child to friends or, even worse, former friends. And if you have more than one child, you should never compare them to one another because they’re individuals.
4. Constantly Evaluate Boundaries You Put in Place
Boundaries for growing and developing teens are essential. However, too restrictive boundaries can prevent teens from expressing themselves and developing their own identities.
Open the lines of communication to work out which boundaries are necessary and which ones you can relax. If teens want to dress in a certain style, dye their hair a bright color, or get a nose piercing, parents may consider relaxing the boundaries to help them explore their individuality. None of these are permanent changes, but they can go a long way toward making teens feel accepted and safe in exploring their identities.
Let Them Be Who They’re Going to Be
Finding your identity as a teenager is a fundamental building block of growing up. It’s important to support your children and show them you’re proud that they are learning to express and accept themselves as they move through these developmental phases. You can’t control who they’re going to be. All you can do is offer support and guidance.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
About the Author: Angelica Hoover combines her interests in self-care and wellness, caring for her nieces and nephews, and journalism as a freelance writer and editor for health and family publications. She likes pour-over coffee, walking in nature, and green living.
Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/women-sitting-on-the-floor-5158460/
The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.
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