In my practice as a family therapist I have many conversations with adolescents and their families. One thing I am clear about: youth are desperate to figure out who they are and what their place is in the world. Adolescence is a critical time for defining themselves in relationship to others. Questions ruminating around in their heads ask: What am I good at? What makes me valuable? I see others have gifts and talents, but what about me? What makes me stand out?
Kids are desperate to be an expert at something. Youth will begin to live into the primary messages they receive about themselves and become them. If a youth is told she is funny, she will likely to be more comical in her behavior. If a teenager understands himself to be smart, he might feel more confident speaking up in class. A great athlete is going to fill her days with sports activities. A kid who understands himself as artistic will gravitate toward creative activities. This is how they begin identifying themselves. The clearer their definition of self, the more they live into it.
It holds true on the negative side as well. If a teen is told repeatedly that he is an idiot, he has little hope of defining himself in another way. If kids are told they are no good or trouble-makers or worthless, guess what they will become? I have seen this process occur among my clients. A youth once said to me, “My Dad thinks I’m using drugs anyway, I might as well, huh?”
So quite obviously, kids need us, parents and adults mentors, to guide them in this process. Here are some examples of how to do that. Name the gifts and positive personality characteristics you see in them. “It is so beautiful the way you helped out that elderly woman at church. You are very compassionate.” Try to balance all the gifts you see instead of constantly focusing on one thing. “You are a great athlete and a strong leader.” And balance the negative information whenever possible. “Because of your creative nature, you’ll need to be sure to keep track of your things.” Being intentional with this process will more likely lead them into an “expertise” of something helpful for their future.
Daily I say to my kids, “Georgia Doris, Cora Lucille, Child of God, you have been marked with the Cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.” It is my hope that, among other things, this is how they will grow to identify themselves. How are you helping your kids form their identities? What would your kids say they are experts at? Share your ideas with us here.
Kari Lyn is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who works primarily with Adolescents and their families around the issues they are struggling with.