Developing an identity is one of the most important things any person will do in life. Our identity or self-concept answers the question of ‘Who am I?”. It determines how we see ourselves, how we behave, and how we feel about ourselves. If we see ourselves in a negative light or feel badly about the person we are, it affects our ability to have a good relationship with others and our levels of success across various domains.
Developing an identity happens gradually throughout the childhood years. In early childhood, kids describe themselves in concrete ways (e.g., I have brown hair, I am Jimmy’s friend) and in adolescence their description becomes more abstract (e.g., using personality traits, morality, and ideals to describe who they are).
The role of parents is to excite teens into thinking about themselves in a more mature (and of course positive) way while providing a loving and supportive environment. Encouraging and compassionate surroundings allow teens to feel safe and proud of their attempts at an adult-like life. This support has a positive influence on their identity.
Here are some ideas on how to guide your child to develop a healthy identity:
1. Self-awareness: Guide your teen to think about who they are, what they are good at, what they like or don’t like, preferences, skills, and talents. Talking about bodily changes, what to emotions to expect, and the normalcy of it all is also important. Share stories from your childhood with your teen to demonstrate s/he isn’t the only one experiencing this ‘awkward’ stage.
2. Self-acceptance: With all the changes occurring in your teen’s life, mental and physical health depends on how much your teen is able to accept him or herself (e.g., new physical appearance and new way of thinking). Teaching self-acceptance is best done through modeling. Teens tend to criticize themselves similar to the way the same-gender parent does, likewise, they tend to praise themselves similar to the same-gender parent.
3. Family values: Every family has values. It becomes a problem however, if they are never discussed. The earlier a family discusses values (and adheres to them!!) the better. Sometimes there is a mistaken impression that teens will figure it out on their own. After all, it’s part of building independence and too much guidance might spoil them. Teens are still very much children and vulnerable children at that. It is at this age that they need parents to guide them on what is important in life. Clearly laid out values (not in lecture format though) outlines what type of behaviour is acceptable.
4. Goals: Goals help strengthen identity by adding a feeling of purpose in life. Completed goals give teens direction and a feeling of accomplishment. All 3 of these components are necessary for good self-esteem. Goals don’t have to be big to count; even simple objectives such as keeping room clean from week to week arouse feelings of pride. Encourage your teen to have goals, point out goals that have not been recognized as ‘goals,’ and remember to celebrate all successes. If there are any outstanding goals, teach your teen to view them as lessons learned before they write them off as a failures.
5. Future occupation: In addition to the other challenges teens face, thinking about future career choices adds stress and anxiety. 100 years ago, children’s future would be decided early. Sons would inherit the father’s farm or business and daughters would marry and raise kids. Today’s career choices are much more extensive and many times children are left on their own to figure it out…assuming that as they reach a certain age they will just know! Guidance, inspiration, and experimentation are important throughout the teen years as they help identify and pinpoint skills, strengths, and likes. Research, discuss, and experiment with (hands-on experience) a wide range of occupations.