“Identity formation is a core issue of adolescence.” You have probably heard that statement more than a dozen times. Yes, yes, yes, of course. Teens need to find themselves. Everyone knows that.
Do we really? Do we truly understand this knowledge and how it can completely transform the way we treat our teens? To me, it is one of the most powerful truths that can ever guide our parenting.
One of the landmarks of young adolescence is the ability to think abstractly. As this occurs, a teenager begins to realize that different people may see things in different ways. 1 She begins to realize that others may not perceive her as she perceives herself. This realization can trigger curiosity, and perhaps anxiety, about how she appears to others. She begins to collect messages from her environment and internalize some of them. If those messages are negative and discouraging, she can lose confidence in herself and doubt her worth.
The messages can be contradictory. Most teenagers are part of more than one group, and the standards and norms of each group may be very different. 2 A teenager seeking acceptance in multiple groups can face difficult choices. A provocative tattoo may please some friends, offend others and horrify parents and relatives. An A+ paper may please teachers but alienate buddies. Kids face constant pressure to make identity statements in their dress, their speech, their activities and their social choices. When they make sudden changes in style, habits and priorities, it reflects their uncertainty. They’re not really sure who they are or who they want to become.
It’s so confusing: Who am I supposed to be? Am I measuring up? What do my friends think, what do my competitors think, what do my friends’ parents think? To be noticed, admired, praised, welcomed, respected – who will I have to become? Who succeeds in this culture? Which role models should I follow? What if I fail? What if no one likes me at all? Should I get out there and compete, or should I hide?
A teenager’s world is like a house of mirrors. They see distorted reflections from all sides: Too fat (certain ads). Too wimpy (certain friends). Too lazy (certain teachers). Irresponsible and dangerous (urban culture). Distortions are not all negative; even positive distortions can be limiting. A girl who is revered for her looks may ignore her other abilities. A “brainiac” boy may never get over a college rejection.
In this new house of mirrors, your teen may seem to dismiss your approval or disapproval, but don’t be fooled. He absorbs it through your words, the tone of your voice, the roll of your eyes, the grin on your face. Since infancy, he has looked to you for love and support. That search may be less obvious now, but it goes on and on. Some adults never heal from the harsh judgments – or even the unspoken disappointment – of their parents.
Your messages are especially powerful amid the hundreds of other messages that your teen is interpreting. Your challenge is to keep your teen from seeing him- or herself in a box, accepting a limiting self-image.
How can we affirm our kids’ potential? Coaching and practice can help you to affect your teen’s identity in a positive way. However, an important first step is simply to be aware of their struggles and your impact. You may have heard some or all of this advice before, but it bears repeating. It is not enough to read it and nod your head! The challenge is to put it into practice.
Below are nine of my favorite guidelines for fostering an open self-image. There are many other that I could suggest, but this is a good start. While the examples are taken from my practice, several of the best guidelines were suggested by Adele Faber, a celebrated leader in this field. 3
- Don’t label your teen with negative or even positive Describe the behavior, not the person. Be specific: “You left my keys in the car. You need to stop doing that.” Don’t generalize: “You always leave my keys in the car! You’re so irresponsible!” “You came home on time. I really appreciate that.” When giving praise, be specific. Describe exactly what teen has done well. Don’t evaluate character or make generalizations, such as “You’re a good kid, after all.” “Good kid” is just another box, and it your son up for failure. If he comes home late next week, is he a “bad kid” then? Needless to say, don’t give false praise just to make your child feel better. She’ll see right through it. Always be sincere.
- If your teen labels him- or herself negatively, unpack the label. Help your child to pinpoint the exact reason for his poor self-concept: “You say you’re a ‘loser.’ What do you base that on?” If appropriate, give counter-examples: “Your best friend did the same thing, but you seem to admire him.” Don’t simply deny the statement or use a platitude. “No, you’re not. You’re a winner!” rings hollow because it has no real meaning. To your teen, it may sound automatic and insincere.
- Don’t dismiss your teen’s anxieties. Sit down and talk about them seriously: “You seem really upset about that rejection letter. What does that mean to you?” Not “Don’t worry, you’ll get into other schools.”
- When your teen draws negative inferences about herself, offer counter examples: “So you think Katie is ashamed to be seen with you? Remember when Zoe seemed to be shunning you? Then it turned out that she was pregnant and didn’t want to tell anyone. People have personal reasons for acting strangely. Maybe Katie feels insecure. That’s not on you.”
- Steer the conversation toward constructive steps: “You think your hair is too stringy? What do you think would help?” Avoid giving your opinion unless you think it will really matter: “Your hair looks fine” or “It would look better shorter” will only help if she looks to you for styling expertise (which is very unlikely.)
- Notice abilities that your child may take for granted. Do this spontaneously, not just when your teen is upset: “I love this drawing of yours. Look at the detail! I’d love to frame it.”
- When you have to address a problem, treat it as a temporary hurdle to overcome: “If you’re getting a ‘D’ in algebra, let’s see where you’re getting stuck.”
- Normalize mistakes and be optimistic: “We all make mistakes. Next time you’ll know what to do.”
- Reassure your teen that he will probably make better decisions in the future. In fact, neuroscientist Frances E. Jensen (who raised two teenagers) advises parents to learn about brain development and share that knowledge with their kids. 5 One key fact: A human develops “common sense” and “good judgment” as his or her prefrontal cortex matures. That process takes over twenty years! This delay partly explains why that teenagers act like teenagers and why they tend to make errors in judgment. Help your teen understand that he is not ready to make good decisions in the heat of the moment. Advise them her not to make hasty decisions about important matter, and to take plenty of time to weigh the consequences. It may relieve your child to know that he is not flawed.
Following the guidelines above will help your teen see that he is not stuck in a role, not defined by his past behavior, and not limited by the opinions of others – not even yours. Your daughter or son can be freed of much self-doubt and anxiety. Let kids see themselves as evolving people in a world of possibilities.
The tips above are only a few of the ways that you can free and encourage your teen. Even if they are familiar to you, they can easily fade in the stress of daily life. The best way to implement them is through daily practice.
I offer a course module on “Your Teenager’s Self-Image and You.” That module contains many exercises and tools for you to apply. You will set very specific milestones and goals for communicating with your teen. You will notice your child’s responses, and we will discuss how to tailor your approach to improve communication. At first it might seem a bit tedious and unnatural. However, in a few weeks’ time, you should find yourself sending liberating, encouraging messages as a matter of course. It will become more and more like second nature.
If you believe that your teen already suffers from a painful view of him- or herself, the module “Releasing Your Teen from A Negative Self-Image” will give you the skills you need to help your teen out of a restrictive “box.” Coaching will begin with an inventory of limiting beliefs reflected in your child’s words and behavior. Using that inventory, we will make a list of messages that can help your child release those beliefs. You will work on developing the empathy and sensitivity to read your child’s feelings and respond in a helpful, credible way. You will learn how to affirm your child’s qualities, potential, hopes and dreams.
Communication patterns have long-term effects. They often pass from one generation to the next. If you can correct negative patterns and create helpful ones, your work will live on. Each time you affirm and encourage your child, you send a blessing into the future.
- Clavier, R. (2009). Teen Brain, Teen Mind: What Parents Need to Know to Survive the Adolescent Years. 2nd Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books Limited.
- Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (2005, 2006). How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publisher
- The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for decision-making and controlling impulses, assessing risk and reward, and many other functions that are needed for “good judgment” and “common sense.” For that reason, the pre-frontal cortex is called the “executive center” of the brain. Compared with an adult brain, signals travel slowly. That’s why young teens are slow to recognize and consider all aspects of a situation. As they mature, signals are transmitted more quickly. Older teenagers will have more ability to size up situations and weigh risks and benefits. However, those abilities will still not be fully evolved. To help your kids use good judgment, advise them to stop and think carefully before making decisions or taking risks. “Thinking twice” allows more time for the signals to transmit. Many kids find this brain science fascinating! I will devote another blog post to this topic and explain the science in more detail. Jensen, F. E., & Nutt, A.E. (2015). The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.