Adolescence is a time of huge change and identity exploration. Teens are no longer children but not yet adults. Their sense of self is unclear. This confusion is a natural part of growing up that parents and mentors must understand.
Adolescent Development Involves Trying on Roles
As child psychologist Dom Schimmel explains on the Relational Psych podcast, teens are “somewhere between child and adult.” Their parents often treat them inconsistently, in some ways too much like kids, and in some ways too mature. Adolescents are actively trying to grow into adult roles, but the lines are blurred.
Teens will “play house” like the characters in Rebel Without a Cause. They pretend to be parents as practice for the future. Schimmel says: “I think there’s a lot of adolescence that's about that. And sometimes the line between ‘am I playing as if, or am I really being this’ is deeply confusing.”
This playfulness lets teens safely explore identities. But the confusion is very real.
Traditional Therapy Has Limits in Helping Teens
Many traditional forms of psychotherapy like psychoanalysis or CBT are not ideal for supporting adolescents to navigate identity issues.
As Schimmel discovered, intellectual insights alone rarely catalyze emotional growth in teens. True change happens through genuine human connection. In his words: “In order to feel things, you have to do it in the context of a relationship.”
However, classical therapy overemphasizes techniques and models over real relationships. Therapists diagnose and interpret teens’ words/behaviors rather than meet them where they are.
Some key issues with traditional therapy for adolescents:
- Expert/patient hierarchy versus partnership
- Focus on analyzing problems intellectually
- Lack of emotional engagement and modeling
- Teaching coping skills without resonance
While CBT and psychoanalysis offer value, teens need more than clinical insights about their stage of development. Growth happens through engaged mentorship and modeling new ways of being.
Adolescents need guides to walk with them on their journey, not just diagnose their struggles from a distance. This requires therapeutic presence and emotional availability teens likely don’t receive elsewhere.
For therapy to help teens find themselves, the relationship must be the foundation, not an afterthought. Teens flourish when they feel truly seen, accepted, and understood by mentors committed to their growth.
Creating a Safe Space for Self-Discovery
Rather than lecture teens, mentors should create an environment where adolescents can freely explore identities without fear of judgment.
Schimmel advocates meeting teens where they are developmentally. Key elements for a safe space include:
- Curiosity over judgment
- Empathy over discipline
- Playfulness over control
- Freedom to fail and learn
With this supportive approach, teens can try on new roles and identities to find what fits. There is room for awkwardness and mistakes as part of learning.
Parenting adolescents also requires finding the right balance. On one hand, parents must allow increasing freedom as teens individuate. But teens still need appropriate structure and guidance. Walking this tightrope is understandably challenging.
When parenting teens, it's important to:
- Let go of control while still being involved
- Recognize the need for autonomy
- Provide a safety net when needed
- Remember the end goal of raising capable adults
It's natural to want to protect adolescents. But allowing them to separate and make some mistakes is part of the growing process. With empathy, parents can communicate and set reasonable limits to foster independence.
By meeting teens where they are and providing a secure base, caring adults can facilitate the identity explorations that are essential to adolescence. Supporting teens as they find their own way in the world is an act of love, even when the path gets messy.
Social Media and Technology Impact Identity Formation
The adolescence journey is further complicated today by social media and technology. While these tools can connect teens to peers and information, they also present new challenges:
- Crafting online personas that may not reflect true selves
- Using likes/followers as pseudo self-worth measures
- Increased exposure to cyberbullying and inappropriate content
Parents must try to guide teens to use technology responsibly. Banning social media rarely works. Teens need to learn to manage these tools to prepare for adulthood. With empathy, parents can discuss benefits and risks of our tech-driven world.
Preparing Teens for Adulthood Self-Sufficiency
A key task of adolescence is progressing from childhood dependence to adult self-sufficiency. Yet the transition is rarely linear.
Parents must nurture skills like:
- Time management
- Decision making
- Problem solving
But teens still need parental involvement in areas like education and health. Finding the right balance is situational. The goal is raising capable independent adults, while recognizing teens are still on the journey.
The Messy Path to Maturity
Adolescent development is inherently messy and confusing. Teen brains are still forming, leading to impulsiveness and risk-taking. But this growth is necessary, though often painful.
We must have compassion for adolescents struggling to find themselves. Their identity search is unique and not a problem to be solved. Trying on new identities is part of maturing into adulthood.
With loving guidance, not control, teens build the foundation for their future selves through each messy interaction. Our role as guides is to walk beside them, not lead the way.
Common Questions About Adolescent Identity Development
Adolescence can be confusing for teens and parents alike. Here are answers to some common questions about this vital stage of identity development.
Why is my teen acting like a child one minute and an adult the next?
Fluctuating maturity levels are very common in adolescence. Teens are navigating between childhood and adulthood. Their behavior often reflects this inconsistent identity. Have patience and meet them where they are developmentally.
Is it normal for my teen to be depressed and moody much of the time?
Yes, emotional volatility is typical due to hormonal changes and identity struggles. Don’t dismiss their feelings as theatrics. Validate their emotions and provide a safe space to process what they’re going through.
Should I give my teen more freedom or set stricter limits?
It depends. Teens need increasing autonomy to individuate, but also require structure and guidance. Have open conversations about responsibilities and privileges. Listen more than lecture. The goal is raising capable adults.
How much should I intervene with friendships and relationships?
Allow teens to learn from social experiences while also monitoring for safety. Look for opportunities to mentor versus control. Foster open communication and be watchful for signs of trouble.
Is experimentation with drugs and alcohol just a normal part of adolescence?
Some experimentation often occurs, but clear expectations and parental involvement can reduce risk. Explain why substance use is harmful, especially for developing teen brains. Model healthy coping strategies.
Should I limit my teen’s technology and social media use?
Be judicious, not controlling. Outright bans rarely work. Help them use technology responsibly and have ongoing conversations about privacy, relationships and moderation. Monitor from a distance.
What is the most important thing I can do as the parent of a teen?
Empathize with their struggle for identity and resist the urge to control. Offer unconditional love and support as they find their own way. Be a mentor, not just an authority figure. Your relationship is key.
Listen to the Full Podcast
- Halder, S., & Mahato, A. K. (2019). Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Children and Adolescents: Challenges and Gaps in Practice. Indian journal of psychological medicine, 41(3), 279–283. https://doi.org/10.4103/IJPSYM.IJPSYM_470_18
- Elsayed W. (2021). The negative effects of social media on the social identity of adolescents from the perspective of social work. Heliyon, 7(2), e06327. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2021.e06327
- Szwedo, D. E., Hessel, E. T., Loeb, E. L., Hafen, C. A., & Allen, J. P. (2017). Adolescent support seeking as a path to adult functional independence. Developmental psychology, 53(5), 949–961. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000277
- Myacare. (n.d.). Psychoanalysis compared to cognitive behavioral therapy. Myacare. Retrieved November 9, 2023, from https://myacare.com/blog/psychoanalysis-compared-to-cognitive-behavioral-therapy
- Gopnik, A. (2011, March 1). The need for pretend play in child development. Scientific American. Retrieved November 9, 2023, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-need-for-pretend-play-in-child-development/
- Mentors for Youth. (2019, June 12). Why all teenagers need non-parent mentors. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 9, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-moment-youth/201906/why-all-teenagers-need-non-parent-mentors
- Cleveland Clinic. (2019, June 5). Adolescent development. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved November 9, 2023, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/7060-adolescent-development