“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.
Or do we? 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.
Young adolescents are learning to think abstractly. As this occurs, they discover that different people see things in different ways.1 They notice that some people don’t perceive them as they perceive themselves, which can cause anxiety. As they become more self-conscious, they collect social messages and internalize some of them. If those messages are negative and discouraging, they can lose confidence and doubt their self-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 They may face difficult choices. A provocative tattoo may please some friends, offend others and horrify parents and relatives. An A+ paper may delight teachers but alienate peers and threaten competitors. 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 those areas, it reflects their uncertainty. They’re probably not sure of who they are or who they want to become.
Just imagine the pressure and confusion: Am I enough like [current role model]? Am I measuring up to everyone’s expectations? To be noticed, admired, praised, welcomed, respected, powerful – who will I have to become? Who succeeds in life? What if I fail? What if no one likes me? Should I get out there and compete, or should I hide?
Their world is a house of mirrors with no clear view. They see distorted reflections from all sides: Too fat (certain ads). Too wimpy (certain friends). Too lazy (certain teachers). Dangerous (urban culture). Even positive distortions can be limiting. “Hot” kids may ignore their other qualities. Academically gifted kids may decide that dating or sports are beneath them.
Your teen may seem to dismiss your approval or disapproval, but don’t be fooled. She absorbs it through your words, the tone of your voice, the roll of your eyes, the grin on your face. Amid the hundreds of other messages that bombard your teen, yours are magnified. 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 words – or the silent disappointment – of their parents.
How can we affirm our kids’ potential, rather than boxing them in? Coaching and practice can help enormously. 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, day after day.
Below are nine of my favorite guidelines for fostering an open self-image. There are many others 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 parent education.3
- Don’t label your teen, either negatively or positively. 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!” When giving praise, be specific. Describe exactly what your teen has done well: “You came home on time. I really appreciate that.” Don’t evaluate character or make generalizations, such as “You’re a good kid, after all.” “Good kid” is just another box, and it sets your child 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, question his reasoning: “Your best friend did the same thing, but you still admire him.” Don’t simply deny the statement or contradict it: “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 very 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, help her to be less defensive. Encourage her to step back and take more neutral perspective: “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.”
- 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 fashion advice (which is unlikely).
- Notice abilities that your child may take for granted. Do this spontaneously, not just when your teen is upset. Be specific: “I love this drawing of yours. Look at the detail!” Not “You’re a good artist.”
- 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: “Lots of kids try that, and lots of kids learn a lesson. I’ll bet you won’t try it again.”
- Reassure your teen that his judgment will improve as his brain matures. Neuroscientist Frances E. Jensen (who raised two teenage boys) advises parents to learn about brain development and share that knowledge with their kids.4 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 teenagers act like teenagers and why they tend to make errors in judgment.5 Many teens regard themselves as hopelessly dumb, evil or doomed if they have a history of bad choices. Knowing a little neurology can reassure them.
Following these guidelines will help your teen see that she is not stuck in a role, not defined by her past behavior, and not limited by the opinions of others – not even yours. Your kids can be freed of much self-doubt and anxiety. Let them see themselves as evolving people in a world of possibilities. That is their birthright.
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 Your Impact.” 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 free your teen from a psychological 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.
1) Clavier, R. (2009). Teen Brain, Teen Mind: What Parents Need to Know to Survive the Adolescent Years. 2nd Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books Limited.
3) Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (2005, 2006). How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publisher
4) 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 “making good choices.” 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 are still not fully evolved. Help your teens understand that they are not ready to make good decisions in the heat of the moment. Advise them not to make snap judgments or act on impulse. They need plenty of time to think because their brain signals move sluggishly. “Thinking twice” allows more time for the signals to transmit. Many kids find brain science fascinating! I will devote another blog post to this topic and explain the science in more detail. Source: 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.