Teens are Asking: Who Am I?

The Big Question: Who Am I?

Adolescence is a period of discovery and a time to shape identity.

This phase, through which we all pass in our journey from childhood to adulthood, is filled with questions to be answered and meanings to be found. It is exciting beyond description and unsettling at its core.

It is during the tween years that we begin to explore the fundamental question “Who am I?” It’s during the teen years that we (mistakenly) believe we must task ourselves with completing the answers. There is no more loaded question to ask, nor one more difficult to answer. It is a question of many parts. To name a few…

  • Who am I, separate from my parents? Different from my siblings?
  • Am I someone people enjoy being with? How do I fit in with my friends?
  • How do I maintain my own values while still having others like me?
  • Who am I attracted to?
  • Will anybody ever be attracted to me?
  • How will I choose to earn a living?
  • What am I good at?
  • What are my strengths? How do I compensate for my limitations?
  • How will I contribute to the world?
  • What do I believe?

Get it? Adolescence is a time of tremendous excitement. Wild possibilities. Boundless inquiries. A time of rapid and critical personal and social development. Truly, a time of profound discoveries.

But it is also a time that holds potential for great angst. To get to the point where one is solid in her identity, she must try on different hats. Explore a bit. Maybe too much at times. Make friends and grow apart from others. Fail sometimes. Adore her family and simultaneously push them away.

At the roots of these questions lie both the dreams we want to nurture as parents and the risks we want our children to avoid. On the one hand, we hope to expose them to the varied opportunities that allow for self-discovery. This includes the chance to try on those hats to find ones that fit. On the other hand, we must protect them from irreparable risks. We must guide them away from peers with whom “fitting in” poses a threat.

We must support them testing their limits, while maintaining clear boundaries that keep them safe and moralWe can guide them to discover their own path, but never impose our dreams upon them. If we do, they will never feel secure in their footing. They will never trust that the journey they walk is one of their own choosing. It’s not easy being a parent.

We can guide them to discover their own path, but never impose our dreams upon them. If we do, they will never feel secure in their footing.

The Should-Do’s

So, what are some “shoulds”?  What is your role in supporting your child as he seeks to answer this hardest question – the one most central to the formation of his identity?

Model being reflective. No big decisions should be handled quickly. Thoughtfulness always works.  But thoughtfulness is a luxury many people don’t believe they have, especially young people operating at a quick pace. The more you demonstrate that your best decisions come when you think them through and engage others, the more your child will see that it is okay, even important, to consider options and weigh alternatives before drawing conclusions.

Model being a “slow learner.” The frantic pace with which young people try to get to the “Who am I?” question is not always good for them. Especially if they impose a lot of pressure on themselves thinking they need the answer by the time they apply for their first job or write their college essays.  It is good for them to know that figuring out who we are is part of a lifelong process. We have opportunities for self-improvement — even reinvention — throughout our lives. We all make mistakes. Over time we learn that the measure of our character is how we make amends and grow from our experiences. Anything you do that demonstrates second chances diminishes pressure. When you savor the present, you teach them to look towards the future but live in the now.

Model what a healthy adult looks like. It is hard to imagine oneself as an adult during the teen years. It really helps when you have a role model of somebody who lives a life you could imagine. It is on you to model the values you hope your child will measure himself against. But, if your child has an interest that you do not share, expose him to other adult role models as well.

Model that adulthood can be fun. You don’t want your teen to think that she must be in a rush to live now because the future consists only of self-sacrifice and hard work. It is a strategic act of good parenting when you maintain a rich social life, make time for pleasure, and are committed to your romantic relationship.

Model Spontaneity. Model lifelong learning. It is important that your child not think that his only opportunity to experiment and test boundaries is while he is young.  He needn’t rush this. Spontaneity remains the juice of life. Let him see how you continue to enjoy new adventures, even those you haven’t planned. Next, show him by example that lessons are everywhere as long as we remain open to seeing them.

Create boundaries. Adolescence must include the ability to experience new opportunities. Taking chances is a critical ingredient of figuring out one’s place in the world. It prepares one for the greatest developmental challenge of our lifetime – flying from a comfortable nest in which all our needs are met towards the relative unknown. If we outlaw our teens’ ability to take chances, we stifle development. It won’t work anyway, the drive to experience new things is ingrained in adolescence. Instead, we create safe boundaries beyond which they cannot stray. Then, we let them push against those boundaries and try new things (all within safe territory we have marked off).

Parent the 35-year-old. Define success wisely.  Adolescence is hard enough without your child thinking she has made it, or not, by 18-years-old. Understand that you are raising someone to be successful as a 35, 40, and 50-year-old. This will give you a much broader view of the character strengths you should nourish, while taking pressure off your child today. A broader view of success will help your teen see her own strengths and understand how best she can fit into the world.

Be a sounding board. The question “Who am I?” can only be answered by the person asking the question. When we impose answers the message we convey is “I don’t think you can handle this yourself.” We undermine the very confidence needed to build the competencies our child seeks. Listen. Offer guidance and shape solutions when asked.

Know when to get out of the way. Think of this fundamental question “Who am I?” as a huge jigsaw puzzle. You have helped your child create the edges first by offering them clear boundaries. You have shown them the design they are to complete by being “the picture on the box” as you’ve role modeled being a healthy adult. You have wisely gotten out of the way as he works all the irregular inner pieces on his own.

Know when to jump in. React quickly when she is beyond the edges and strays into territory that challenges safety or morality. When she was small, you let her learn that a spilled bucket took effort to clean up. But you never let her run into the street or place her hand on the stove. So too, during adolescence you will let her make mistakes but none that could cause irreparable harm.

Offer love. This is easily the most important “should”. . . it is even a must. Stand in your child’s shoes for a moment and relate to how he feels. Experience the excitement. Now temper that thrilling feeling with the anxiety and confusion that identity formation often generates. Experience the pushes and pulls of friendships that come and go – that feeling full of judgement. How do you feel? Unsettled? Insecure?

You are the antidote to those foreboding feelings. Your love is the bedrock of their security, now and far into the future. Your steadfast presence is the most guaranteed thing in their life. Even when they pretend (to themselves) that they no longer need it.

“Who am I?” your teen asks.

“You are you.  And I couldn’t imagine wishing you were anyone different,” you answer with your unwavering presence.

If you know somebody who thinks of the teen years only as the carefree years, or conversely only as a time of great risk, share this article so they can see both how wonderful and complex a time this is. More importantly, share this so we can create a world full of adults who grasp the importance of respecting the work adolescents have to do on their own while remaining committed to shaping their lives.

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit www.fosteringresilience.com.

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