Fostering Self-Discovery in Adolescence

By the Duke University Talent Identification Program

Every January I look forward to teaching Psychology 137, “Adolescence,” an undergraduate course. I tell my students that one of my objectives for the class is to create an understanding and an appreciation of adolescence, of the incredible development—equaled only in infancy—that takes place during the teen years. They’re always surprised, since adolescents are typically viewed as confused and rebellious.

However, what people identify as rebellion is frequently part of normal identity development. During the processes of exploration and commitment, adolescents grapple with the important questions “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” They begin to answer these questions in three areas—interpersonal relationships, career or vocation, and ideology—and to make choices that reflect who they are as individuals.

What people identify as rebellion is frequently part of normal identity development.

Adolescents explore by joining a variety of peer groups, asking questions, learning about different careers, and taking an assortment of classes. This is the work of adolescence. Young people who go through identity formation in a thoughtful way are more likely to have a strong sense of self as adults. Parents can facilitate this process by encouraging appropriate exploration, modeling and encouraging reflection, and helping their children make good decisions.

It’s not always easy for parents, though. Other people besides parents—peers, teachers, and other adults—increasingly influence their children. Adolescents have to figure out how to manage all this information while sharpening their introspective skills. Add in the biological changes they undergo that have social significance, and it’s no wonder that adolescents are sometimes confused.

Although it’s important for development, exploration sometimes leads adolescents into activities that are unhealthy or unsafe. For example, some adolescents are tempted to engage in substance use while considering membership in a particular social group. Similarly, skipping school, sexual activity, certain online behavior, and physical risk taking can all be viewed in terms of identity exploration but are unacceptable to parents. Concerned parents should look for marked changes in their children’s personalities, school performance, health, diet, or sleep patterns. If you’re worried about your child’s behavior or safety, ask for help right away. Be sure your adolescent has many ways of exploring and learning to make decisions that are healthy and safe.

Below are a few guidelines to help parents manage the identity formation that goes along with their children’s passage through adolescence.

  • Don’t wait until your child is a teenager to begin having conversations. Good relations with your adolescent begin in early childhood. Be flexible and ready to adapt family activities to the changing needs of your adolescent.
  • Don’t assume that you’ll have major problems with your adolescent. Most families don’t, although there will certainly be more discussion and maybe more conflict between parents and children at this age.
  • Settle on a few key rules and guidelines. When it comes to rules for adolescents, less is more. Stay focused on the big issues. Maybe you can’t stand the baggy jeans, but instead of criticizing your children for their attire, try to remark on how they’re keeping up their grades.
  • Know where your children are and whom they’re with. Have some sense of what they’re doing.
  • Know your children’s teachers, friends, and friends’ parents. Develop a network of support before there’s a problem. These people can give you valuable perspective on the person your adolescent is becoming.
  • There are no easy answers. Adolescents understand that the world is complicated, and they worry. Help translate this worry into action by helping your children become involved in activities that allow them to make a difference, like community service.
  • Let your adolescent make mistakes. This is hard for parents. We want to shield our children from stress, but we need to teach them how to handle mistakes and to learn from them.
  • Model exploration, commitment, and reflection. Now that your child is an adolescent, your own story has particular significance for him or her. How did you become the person you are today? Be thoughtful when you share your story and affirm your child’s opportunities at the same time.

Believe that the hard work you’ve done will pay off in the end. Although it may appear that you’re no longer an important influence in your child’s life, that’s not so. When it comes to the big, important decisions, most adolescents eventually come back to their core family values.

The adolescent’s job is self-discovery. Yours is to help your child through this period in life, not to have all the answers.

Vicki B. Stocking, PhD

Vicki B. Stocking teaches in the psychology department and the program in education at Duke University. Her research interests include academic self-concept and adolescent development.