Surviving your teen's quest for identity
Do you sometimes wonder who snatched away your loving child and left behind someone who looks like him or her, but is different in nearly every other respect? You must have a teenager in your home.
Why are there such big changes at this time of life?
The tasks of adolescence are difficult ones—a teen’s move from the loving center of the family into the bigger world is not easy for anyone involved. It is challenging for many reasons: usually there is more volatility, more raised voices and more eye rolling than ever. Even the most even tempered child in the grips of adolescent hormonal storms can fly off the handle. Brains are still under construction, yet are being asked to take on more responsibility and manage more stress. And as teens gain autonomy, parents worry more about the influence of their peers. Most parents spend some sleepless nights worrying whether the lessons given throughout a loving childhood will provide a safe haven when their teen needs to make an important decision in the heat of the moment.
Feel you are on a ride you didn’t sign up for? It’s normal:
Even when adolescence is going well, it can feel like a roller coaster you aren’t sure you want to be on. But it is important to know those feelings are normal, and understanding something about the developmental tasks of this age can make a big difference. I often turn to the wisdom of psychologist Erik Erikson to help my clients understand the teen years, and to reassure myself as a parent, too.
What is going on with your teen:
Erikson had a lot to say about development across the entire lifespan. He was especially wise about adolescence. No news to anyone who has been there, the job at this stage is to begin the lengthy transition out of the family and in the process develop a sense of self and clarity about identity. At the end of this long developmental stage newly forged young adults emerge knowing what matters to them and in possession of a budding sense of who they are in relation to the people they love.
How do they get there?
Most often by upsetting the apple cart repeatedly, difficult for teens and an especially trying adventure for parents. Most kids try on a bunch of identities. You might see this in their evolving style of dress and the way they behave differently with different groups of friends. While it can appear baffling to you, keep in mind that all of the experimentation is in the ultimate service of developing a strong sense of self.
As a parent you are likely to be told in many ways by your teen that you cannot possibly understand his or her experience of the world. You might find yourself on the outside of challenges you are sure you could support them through. You will be the focus of their anger. It may help to keep in mind the sturm and drang of adolescence has a purpose—and to think of it as a new (and lengthy) labor and delivery.
How to survive this as a family:
Many of us respond to this new stage by trying to retain control and find the equilibrium we enjoyed with our child in earlier years. But Erikson would caution us all that this natural tendency might backfire. Teens just don’t get through this quest for identity by being given the answers—even really good ones—by their parents. There are people who take this short cut, by picking their parents’ meaning, or the meaning of a particularly strong group of peers, for example. But without the struggle to make sense of the complexity of it all and emerge with their own sense of meaning, the stage will end prematurely. When this happens the teen will miss out on the new strength that comes from completing the stage—a new found sense of fidelity. According to Erikson, fidelity will allow your newly emerged young adult to understand and act on the things that matter most to them, and find a community that shares those values.
Things to keep in mind:
The storm will end: We need to remember the storm will be followed by the calm—and that remaining open to conversations in moments of peace will bring us closer to our goals of having a loving family when the big storm is over. These conversations may involve more tea and fewer words than you are used to. They may take place in the car. Just before sleep can be a good time for some—but not all—families.
They are big, but they’re still kids: We need to keep in mind that despite the adolescent striving toward independence, our teens still need parents who provide ongoing support and guidance, and a clear frame of expectations. Your parenting style may need to change somewhat at this stage of life in order to meet the three co-occurring goals of supporting, guiding and assisting your adolescent in their quest for independence.
Don’t polarize with them: While we don’t want to shortchange our teens of essential struggle, we also want to model integration in our own views.
Parents need to recognize that in their quest to understand our complex world and the demands that world will place on them, our teens will often polarize. Their thinking will become black and white. This charming quality is enhanced by brains that are not yet fully developed in their ability to grasp subtleties or able to moderate strong emotions. Our job is to make sure that we keep in mind the whole picture, even when they cannot do so themselves. Our job is to walk alongside them, help them create change in their lives and provide them with important contextual information they don’t yet have. I find that starting conversations with, “you probably have already considered this, but…” or “I wonder how X thinks about this problem…” In this way we can model reason, help our teens practice moderating their brains and in doing so assist them as they create new and healthy neural pathways.
Keep a loving eye out for safety concerns: I encourage all parents to listen to their intuition and remain lovingly observant of their teens. If you have concerns your teen is engaging in risky behavior or see changes in his or her life that suggest challenges go deeper than the normal stress of development, please seek a consultation with your pediatrician and a mental health professional. Some things you might watch out for include a significant drop in grades, withdrawal from friends, taking up with peers whose judgment worries you, concerns about drug or alcohol use, participation in risky sexual behavior, or violent (including self-injurious) behavior.
Consultation can be helpful:
Call me if you would like to consult about your teen. 503-490-5793