I have two reasons for writing this article on identity crisis. First, I am the father of four children, three of whom are very different teenagers (14, 17 and 19 years old) and I think I have a vague idea of what it means to deal with teens. Second, in the studies I’ve recently taken up, I was surprised to discover that most personality disorders that mark and affect the quality of life originate precisely in adolescence.
“Who am I?” This is the question uppermost in teenagers’ minds. Discovering the answer to this question marks a major stage in their development. The question, however, arises in their minds at about the same time that they are hit by a bomb stronger than dynamite: puberty. Their bodies are changing at an incredible pace, their minds have to get acquainted with unfamiliar emotions and they quickly become strangers to themselves. Somewhere between 13 and 20 years of age, they are forced to choose once and for all who they want to be.
To have an identity—to know who you are—gives you a sense of control which allows you to walk through life.
Without an adequate answer, they will spend their lives preoccupied with the impression they make on others and will make decisions based on what they believe others want. Those who fail to find an integrated answer encompassing all four aspects of identity—the way I see myself, the way I think others see me, what others see when they look at me, and the way I should be—will most likely become people-pleasers in adulthood. Their purpose will be to get validation from those they want to impress.
How do teenagers find the answer to the question of identity?
Teenagers’ families have a significant impact on the development of their identity. However, in order to be able to move away from childhood and affirm their individuality, teens might feel the need to break away from their parents. The relationship with their siblings also plays a role in shaping teenagers’ identity. If the firstborn, for instance, decides to become an intellectual, the second-born may choose to seek their identity by being a comic. And because these types have already been claimed in the family, the third child may choose to be an athlete. In some cases, when the teenager doesn’t think they have a certain talent, they may change their mind, separating themselves from the others, taking on the role of the black sheep of the family and building an identity by causing trouble.
Prestige is important for some teenagers, because this is how they establish their identity. They seek those behaviours or objects that make them easily noticeable. They buy things, clothes, shoes etc. that will make them visible and identify them as people belonging to a certain group. Intolerance, cruelty even, towards others is especially manifested towards those who remind them of something they do not wish to be.
Teenagers have a strong desire to be like adults. The more mature they look, the more appreciation they receive and the closer they get to feeling like they have reached their identity. Because it’s not easy to express true maturity, they resort to behaviours symbolizing the mature adult, to things adults say they are too young to d—smoking, drinking, becoming involved in premarital sexual relationships.
Rebellion is another way of seeking one’s identity. It rises as a consequence of the tension between the desire to be unique and the need to maintain likeness with peers. It is usually accompanied by an idealism which urges the teenager to reject their family, school, church and societal values. It usually doesn’t last long; usually only until their unrealistic and extremely simplistic ideas about life are recognized as being unpractical.
Another important aspect in the quest for personal identity is seeking validation through other people’s opinions. Teenagers’ self-perception changes depending on what they think others think about them. This is also why it sometimes happens that they identify with famous people, idols to the point where their own identity is all but lost. This is one of the methods teenagers use to experiment with different roles. It allows them to explore and test different aspects of their own personality. But this does not mean they absolutely embrace those values and lifestyles.
Identity crisis: why is adolescence so difficult?
Finding one’s personal identity is a process complicated by at least five experiences which generate significant challenges.
First of all, physical changes. Acne, a weird voice, outgrowing one’s clothes, facial hair, menstruation and breast development are all difficult changes. When hormones set in motion the chain of physiological changes which lead to adult life, the lovely children turn into teenagers with extremely fluctuating moods.
Secondly, sexual changes. Their bodies starts gaining forms characteristic to their gender and new behaviours, thoughts and physiological processes occur. Everyone reacts to cultural stereotypes regarding sexuality. Boys feel betrayed by their bodies, not being able to control certain new, unfamiliar reactions, especially around girls. Girls experience fears, shame and confusion during their sexual maturation process. Menstruation is accompanied by physical discomfort, weight gain, headaches, fluctuating moods, etc.
Thirdly, social changes. They leave the neighbourhood school for a high school where they don’t know most of their colleagues. Their group of friends changes, they are exposed to other expectations from their teachers and opportunities for all kinds of extracurricular activities arise. Relationships in their family change. Conflicts grow in frequency and intensity. Feelings of affection towards their parents decrease.
Fourthly, religious changes. Contrary to popular opinion, teenagers are interested in religion. Adolescence is a time in which young people question their childhood concepts and religious beliefs. They are more sceptical regarding religious forms, they start doubting God’s nature, but are honestly seeking for answers. Even if, at times, their questions and attitudes are mistaken for scepticism or doubt, they are actually asking honest questions. They want their own religion, not that of their parents. They ask questions not to become agnostics or atheists, but because they want religion to be an experience of their own.
Fifthly, moral changes. They realize they need to trade childhood rules for their own moral principles. When interacting with colleagues and people of other religions, living in various socio-economic situations, they discover that people have different definitions of good and evil. Given that they are good observers, they quickly identify all inconsistencies in moral standards. Although they are intellectually able to change or create their own moral code, the task often proves very difficult.
What do teenagers do with their difficulties?
It is very difficult to anticipate how a teenager will try to solve the problems which characterize adolescence. Some personality aspects and some environmental factors influence the way they approach problems.
Some teenagers approach their problems by keeping to themselves. Like Adam and Eve, they hide and camouflage their problems, hoping that in the end they will disappear. Some simply forget what they meant to say in the middle of the conversation and are suddenly confused. Others turn unacceptable impulses into socially acceptable behaviours. Others, to avoid unpleasant feelings, interpret a situation only at a cognitive level. And the most common reaction is repression—pushing thoughts, emotions, impulses or memories far away from what we call our conscious mind. But all these have consequences in the long run.
All teenagers have the possibility and capacity to take responsibility for the difficulties they go through.
Other teenagers don’t know how to cope with the difficulties they are going through, so they express themselves through impulsive actions which aim at reducing the tension in their minds. The fear of not getting a bad grade can be temporarily solved by skipping that class. Some unload their tension by transferring intense feelings to neutral objects (for example, they might hit something). Others adopt a kind of regression (they go back to a previous developmental stage to have less tension in their mind). If they are afraid of their own thoughts and impulses, they can project them onto other people. Or they refuse to accept reality. They avoid it, pretending they do not exist. They might demonstrate this through nonchalant behaviour, wasting time and partying all the time.
All teenagers have the possibility and capacity to take responsibility for the difficulties they go through. This is actually the problem the two above-mentioned categories have. Both categories avoid taking responsibility—conscious freedom to choose actions and attitudes. However, when teenagers manage to successfully solve their own problems, confidence in their ability to face life increases, and the periods of tension and anxiety are reduced both in frequency and in intensity.
Identity crisis: how to help your teenager
The conclusion of studies on helping teens navigate this period is that the parent is their most important ally in this quest. The identity of the parents is crucial for effectively helping teenagers. This aspect does not minimize the importance of the intervention of the Holy Spirit nor of the help a therapist can offer in times of need. The main take-away for parents of teenagers is that our attitudes and behaviours are critical in overcoming this period that is as difficult for them as it is for us.
Almost any specialized book presenting principles for the education of children or principles for therapists, talks about the same qualities which are absolutely necessary to help children improve their lives: acceptance, authenticity and empathy. Without these qualities, regardless of our technical knowledge or our personal wisdom, we are more likely to harm teens than to help them.
Acceptance is an attitude which does not make evaluations or claim change; it simply acknowledges the existence of the teenager’s thoughts, feelings and actions. This spiritual warmth creates a context in which the teenager develops the basis for self-confidence: “I must be worthy if my parents care about me.” This does not mean we have to agree with everything our child does. Remember the way in which Jesus accepts the Samaritan woman at the well. Although her life was not exactly a model of respectability, Jesus respects her and treats her like a valuable person, having a warm and caring attitude towards her. Why is this important? Because teenagers who feel the need to perform in order to receive acceptance from their parents will have a hard time overcoming doubts regarding the authenticity of parental acceptance. And they will chase after it all their lives.
Authenticity involves honesty. Teenagers are experts when it comes to detecting false feelings and dishonest intentions. They have a sort of built in polygraph. Authenticity cannot be faked. It’s something you are, not something you do. And teenagers can tell whether you are honestly interested in them or not.
Empathy means hearing their words, and understanding their thoughts and emotions. It’s not standing on the shore and throwing in a lifejacket. Empathy means jumping into the water, risking your own safety to save them. If we have the courage to stand next to them in the difficulties which characterize this period, we will start building a relationship in which healing can happen.
There are no tricks or quick fixes. The result of all our desires, actions and intentions must express the deep love we have for our children.
Marius Andrei serves as a pastor within the Seventh-day Adventist Church and is a licensed psychotherapist.