This past week we hosted a Youth Culture & Parenting Roundtable for parents of teens in our community. It was a great time for our ministry to connect with parents and also for parents to connect with each other. We’ll definitely do it again.
For our inaugural edition, we tackled “3 Things Your Teenager Isn’t Telling You.” While there was–and is–no way to handle each in exhaustive detail, I thought passing them along in this format would be helpful to those of you who have kids, will have kids, work with kids, or for some unknown reason are reading these words. Feel free to share it in whatever venue you see fit.
Today, we’ll feature the first of three statements you’ve probably never had your son or daughter say to your face:
“I don’t know who I am.”
It’s the age-old identity struggle. As a task of adolescence, answering the question “Who am I?” can be incredibly frustrating. What makes it even more difficult is the teenager’s inability to articulate this to the people who know them best–their parents.
Your kid has probably never said, “I don’t know who I am” to you directly, but you have watched–sometimes in fascination, other times in horror–as they sought to sort it out. Before your eyes, they auditioned multiple personalities. Styles, preferences, and peer groups all change with rapidity. I once had a student in my ministry who was a cute little preppy kid as a sixth grader, an Avril Lavigne indie punk rocker in seventh grade (back when Avril was cool), and an odd combination of pale and dark for eighth grade that can only be categorized as “Hipster Goth.” Every year brought a different version of self, and each was equally authentic and disingenuous.
I call this The Disney Star Effect. Don’t you find it ironic that Miley Cyrus’ breakthrough role was as an identity-confused rock star? Where did Miley Stewart end and Hannah Montana begin? The lines were always blurry. It was part of the hit show’s appeal. (As an aside, it was popular with young adolescents, who are in the thick of this struggle as much as anyone.) Ever since, the “real” Miley Cyrus has struggled to figure out who she “really” is. Are all versions really her, or are none? This is the un-uttered pondering of every adolescent.
Your son or daughter may not struggle to find themselves with the added pressure of the incessant spotlight, but they are essentially fighting the same war. So they take “selfies” and post them to Instagram, check back frequently for “likes,” and otherwise bank their self-worth on achievement, beauty, and/or social status.
Since your teenager never says these things to you aloud, why don’t you do them a solid and take a few things into consideration:
- What you as the parent are modeling is more important that what you say. How do you live your life? Is your worth wrapped up in your job? Do you constantly compare yourself to others? Are you pushing your daughter to be someone they’re not? Are you pressuring your son to achieve something you care more about than he does? Take care of how you live. Your kids are taking their cues from you, whether it seems like they’e paying attention or not.
- Scholars agree that identity formation occurs best in the context of family. This means the adolescent needs to feel comfortable in their own skin within the walls of your home, because it’s probably one of the few places they experience that luxury. Memorize and speak these phrases often: “I love you.” “I like you just the way you are.” “You are awesome!” “You are my child.” Treat them the same. This consistency will pay off big time in the long run, though it might be challenging as they take themselves on a self-centered speed date to see which “me” they like best.
- Never underestimate your ministry of presence. Parenting is, in large part, showing up and staying put (and, in this day and age, doing so screen-free every once in a while). How many times a week do you have a family meal? Over 80% of teenagers report they’d rather have more family meals than they currently enjoy. Isn’t that crazy? I know, I know–you have to holler at them to put their cell phone away at dinner. But they really do want to be there. In fact, they’d like to be there more often.
“Say, Junior, do you know who you are?”
Ask your kid this and you’re probably going to be on the receiving end of a quizzical–if not exasperated–eye roll. It’s just not a question that voluntarily bubbles to the surface. There remains, though, no more important question than this. Just because they’re not admitting it to you doesn’t mean they are not struggling with it–they don’t know who they are.
Figuring it out is a key part of what it means to be a teenager.
Actively supporting their quest is a key part of what it means to be a mom or dad to one.