How to Support Your Teen’s Identity Development

One summer evening when Monica and I were reading after dinner, our thirteen-year-old son Brian came in the back door. As he walked by the living room, both of our jaws dropped at the sight of his bright orange hair. When I say bright I mean practically neon.

Luckily we had the presence of mind to say nothing. We looked at each other and forged a silent agreement – this situation called for playing it casual. Brian came into the room expectantly and we chatted for a bit before I said offhandedly, “Oh, Brian, I see you colored your hair. How do you like it?”

“I’m trying it out.” He responded.

“Well, I think it is a nice look.” I said.

Within 24 hours Brian’s hair was back to blond. Turns out the orange was merely a Kool-Aid wash. I believe to this day that if I had made a big deal out of it, his hair would have remained bright orange through high school graduation.

Teenager with pink hair and a nose ring.

Who am I? Who do I want to be? Teen identity development

Adolescence is a time of great transition when our kids are experimenting with identity and trying to carve out a space for themselves as an individual in the world. We’ve written and talked a lot about the changes taking place inside the adolescent brain on the journey from childhood to adulthood but brain science can’t account for everything. There are at least four dramatic changes that take place during adolescence:

  1. Rapid physical changes;
  2. Changes in both the intensity and volatility of emotions;
  3. The shift of influence from parents to peers;
  4. The search for identity: Who am I? Who do I want to be?

Brain science may help us understand some of these shifts, but we can’t always predict young people’s response to these changes. Some sail through with only a hint of struggle. Others will wear their experiences on their sleeves. It can be tricky to know how to respond as a parent.

Ten ideas to support your teen’s identity development:

  1. Expect your teenager to be sensitive about how they look.
  2. Understand the importance of friends to your teen.
  3. Be open to discussing values, even when your teen challenges you or disagrees. This means that they are starting to think for themselves, not that they are rejecting you.
  4. Talk openly about peer pressure and how to resist it. Encourage your teen to make decisions that are right for them, not for their friends.
  5. Don’t make derogatory remarks about your teenager’s appearance or the things they like to do.
  6. Don’t be surprised if your teen becomes embarrassed by you. It isn’t you and this will pass.
  7. Avoid putting down your teen’s friends. If you have concerns about your teen’s peers, get to know them better and create a welcoming house where they can spend time. If you continue to worry, state your concerns calmly.
  8. Try not to base your parenting decisions on what all the other teens are doing. Decide what you think is best for your child.
  9. Talk about race, sexuality, religion and gender in affirming and open ways. Name and celebrate the strengths of your teen’s identity and help them learn ways that their identity can be a source of JOY and healing.
  10. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Save your relationship capital for the important issues.