Oftentimes, teenagers can seem like walking contradictions. They may want to appear special or stand out, AND fit in and conform. Teenagers try on a variety of identities AND want to be seen as unique and individual. They want your help and support, AND they want you to leave them alone and let them make their own decisions. These contradictions can be frustrating and anxiety-inducing for both parents and their teen. But there is serious psychology behind what you are seeing which can teach us about how to facilitate growth.
The Brain’s Influence on Your Teen’s Contradictory Behaviors
These contradictory experiences are due to the brain development that is unique to this period. In fact, brain development influences the actions and behaviors that make an appearance in adolescence. One of the ways the brain is changing is to help teens with the task of moving away from their parents and into the community with their peers. This is incredibly important for their ability to thrive in young adulthood.
What you see as their parents: Conformity and Uniqueness
Teenagers may start to think that everyone is looking at them, and therefore judging them. During adolescence, teens can frequently appear to be ego-centric and self-conscious. The idea that everyone is preoccupied and as concerned about themselves as they are about themselves is known as the Imaginary Audience. Due to worrying about how other people perceive them, teenagers may be overly sensitive about their actions and appearances.
The other side of this contradiction is the idea that they are unique, and that because of this uniqueness, nothing bad can happen to them. A false sense of invulnerability can be acquired at this time, sometimes referred to as the personal fable. “Sure, this might happen to others, but it would never happen to me!”. The personal fable can lead to an increase in risky behaviors and self-aggrandizing. Once again we can blame this on the brain. This increase in risky behaviors can seem all bad. However, it is this willingness to take risks that allow them to try so many new things over a handful of years, such as a new school, first job, first dates, etc.
What Teens Need as They Develop their Sense of Self: Independence and Unwavering Support
During this stage of development, adolescents start to push for independence and start to explore in order to establish a sense of self. As they engage in the search for a sense of self, adolescents will inevitably start to stop idealizing their parents and push for independence and autonomy.
Teenage years can seem tumultuous, and this is in part due to development. The teenage years, or adolescence, can be characterized by a lot of conflicts. Teenagers may have conflict in the area of values, face challenges in regard to hormonal adjustment, and are under heightened stress and strain. Views on their self-concept, self-esteem, sexuality, and morality may come into question. These are important tasks of development at this stage in life.
These can all have an impact on teenagers’ relationships with their peers, family, and society at large. Teens may start to feel confused and sometimes insecure about themselves and how they relate to others, particularly how they fit in with peers and society as a whole.
This is why teenagers may start to experiment and push boundaries.
They are attempting to establish a sense of self through trial and error. This process, though oftentimes confusing for teens and their families, is a crucial part of this development.* Exploration is key for teens to start to form an identity and map out a course of action for the rest of their lives (college, trade school, career exploration).
The best case scenario of this stage is parents leaving room for teens to be able to explore and establish their sense of identity. Identity is subjective and is formed through our beliefs, values, relationships, and experiences. When we talk about identity, we refer to our self-image. How we think about ourselves, and what makes us who we are. Successfully working through this developmental stage, leaves teens with a stable self-image that they will take with them through their lives.
On the other hand, parents who do not allow their children to explore and start to express themselves can be stuck with role confusion. According to developmental theorists, role confusion can lead to instability in every aspect of life. If we have an unstable identity, we might not have a firm understanding of how we fit in or relate to others. This can cause problems with relationships, (romantic, platonic, familial, and professional) and lead to feelings of disappointment, despair, or apathy. These can often be detrimental to mental health and well-being.
All this being said, teens need their parents now more than ever.
They need the firm rock of family values and beliefs from which to explore. This can be hard for parents to understand. It is through the process of understanding, questioning, embracing, and challenging the values you communicate and uphold that teens come to adopt and make their own. As parents, you help create safe boundaries (rules, experiences, etc) so teens can explore and develop their sense of self before they venture into the world of young adulthood.
How to support your teen through these challenging years:
Help them identify their strengths
What is your teen good at? Affirming their strengths can be crucial in combating negative self-views and low self-esteem. Are they a good student in school? A powerful athlete? Kind, generous, enthusiastic, motivated? When we affirm their strengths, they become empowered, and confident and build their self-esteem and self-efficacy. These are all critical components of good mental health and well-being. Low self-esteem can have them irrationally focused on perceived shortcomings and flaws. Identifying your teen’s strengths allows them to confront some of those negative beliefs.
Provide space to try things out
As parents, it’s natural to want to be close to your children. But teenagers need some room to grow and explore. This does not mean giving them free rein, but it means providing them with some wiggle room to stretch their legs and try new things. Part of trying new things out is getting things wrong. Remember that this is part of the process. Be empathetic and nonjudgmental if and when they make mistakes. One way to help them grow from this experience is to reframe mistakes to be part of the process. We can do this by thinking like Bob Ross, “we don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents”.
Encourage them to set goals
It can be hard to get and stay motivated. One way to combat struggles with motivation is to help them set goals. Having goals that are important to them helps teens stay motivated and focused by having something to look forward to accomplishing. What is important to them? Does your teen want to be president of their class? Do they want to go to college? Maybe they want to get a part-time job? Identifying goals is the first step to working towards achieving them. Another suggestion along the way is to encourage them to find role models to look up to. Perhaps there’s an athlete that they love or a humanitarian they admire. Having role models can provide teenagers with a framework and inspiration to achieve their goals. Remember that this is an ongoing process. Taking small steps and providing them with rewards along the way can increase motivation and keep them on track.
Support their interests and passions
What excites them? Supporting their interests without shame and judgment relays the message that you are on your teen’s team. When we feel encouraged and supported, we are more likely to stick with things. Support promotes closeness between you and your teen, and provides an opening for a conversation.
If they are struggling with identity issues, seek mental health treatment
This can be a challenging journey for parents and teens alike. You don’t have to go it alone. If your teen seems to be struggling with identity, help is out there for them and for you.
Your teen’s identity development may be confusing for you. They may be contemplating and navigating issues that you had never experienced or even thought about as a young person. Mental health providers can assist you and your teen on this journey. We are here to empower them to recognize the tools that they already have in their tool kit, as well as build new skills for them to use.
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- Contact us to talk with a teen counselor.
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- Get support for you and your teen.
Other Mental Health Services We Offer in Scotch Plains, NJ
Counseling for teens isn’t the only service that we offer at Brave Minds Psychological Services. We provide individual trauma therapy, food allergy therapy, and couples counseling. As well as, postpartum counseling and birth trauma therapy. Our services for children and adolescents include teen anxiety treatment, social phobia therapy for teens, child sexual abuse therapy, child anxiety treatment, and more. Our services are offered in person at our Scotch Plains, NJ office and through online therapy in New Jersey