Adolescence is marked by the search for a personal identity, notes developmental theorist Erik Erikson. By the end of the teen years, adolescents who are successful in this search have a deep sense of who they are and how they fit into the world. In order to reach that point, however, teens must explore different identities to find one that works. Teens try to emulate those they respect, from celebrities to beloved teachers and authority figures. They crave the acceptance of those they admire and are often devastated when they are rejected.
Same-age and slightly-older peers are central to the teenager’s world. Cliques are rampant across most middle school and high school campuses, and teens are willing to do almost anything to gain acceptance from their chosen clique. Peer pressure is exceptionally common, as each clique has its own set of unwritten rules for behavior. Many teens fear that if they question the group’s motives or behaviors, they will end up with no friends at all. Help your teen combat negative peer pressure by pointing out that if she is not accepted by one group, she will likely find friendship in another. Help her realize that many other teenagers exist outside of the well-known cliques and are likely to be as eager for friends as she is. Allow your teen to make temporary changes to her appearance and behavior, but set firm boundaries on things that are permanent or harmful.
Although pulling away from the family is a normal part of teen development, teenagers also crave acceptance from their loved ones. Tell your child frequently that you love and accept him exactly how he is. Give him room to make and correct his own mistakes without giving in to the temptation to take over. Congratulate him on his successes and empathize over his failures. When setting boundaries or giving consequences for negative behaviors, do so in a loving way that lets him know you still care for him.
Ultimately, the teenage struggle is one for self-acceptance. Although teens begin their journey by looking to others for approval and inclusion, the identity crisis is not resolved until the adolescent learns to accept and love himself. Help your teen learn to accept herself by pointing out her positive traits. Focus on skills and behaviors rather than superficial traits like looks, but let her know that she is beautiful inside and out. Help her find and develop her passion, and support her as she follows her dreams.
Part of becoming an adult is learning to accept others as they truly are instead of how you want them to be. After your teen resolves the identity crisis, he will move into the next stage of development – intimacy versus isolation. Dating and deepening peer relationships during adolescence lay the groundwork for the young adult to experience true intimacy with another person. Provide a safe, nonjudgmental space for your teenager to talk through challenges in her social life. Although you might grow tired of hearing about teen drama, the more she learns about relating to others now, the easier she will find the next stage of her life.