Identity: Figuring Out Who You Are
Colleen Gengler, Extension Educator, emerita — Family Relations
2011. Reviewed March 2017 by Jodi Dworkin, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor — Family Social Science.
The development of identity or one's sense of self occurs throughout a lifetime. However, for teens, for the first time in their life, they begin to wonder about who they are and the reasons for that. Identity also involves thinking about how teens perceives themselves and how others perceive them.
How Teens Figure It Out
Teens will see themselves acting differently according to whom they are with and what the situation is. That can lead to confusion because it adds to their questions of who they really are. For example, teens might ask themselves whether they are:
- Reserved or outgoing?
- Friendly or distant?
- Responsible or carefree?
Teens work out who they are by trying on new identities and experimenting with different appearances or new interests. Fluctuations in choices can startle parents but are normal. This is one way teens "try on" different identities to see what works for them. It could be why "dress up" or theme days for school events are so popular. It gives teens a chance to try something different or unusual in an approved, safe setting.
What Parents Can Do
- Don't get alarmed over changes in appearance. Unusual hair colors will grow out and clothing fads change. Pick your battles and keep these issues in perspective.
- Encourage teens to pursue their interests in activities such as sports, music, or hobbies.
- Help your teen identify their strengths and choose activities that let them shine. A teen who is good at arguing may thrive in debate club. A teen who doodles during school may benefit from an art class where they can be creative.
McNeely, C., & Blanchard, J. (2010). The teen years explained: A guide to healthy adolescent development. Baltimore: Center for Adolescent Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Simpson, A. R. (2001). Raising teens: A synthesis of research and a foundation for action. Boston: Center for Health Communication, Harvard School of Public Health.
Steinberg, L. (2008). Adolescence. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Related ResourcesChanges in Thinking — Find out how your teen’s cognitive processes are changing. Part of the Teen Talk: A Survival Guide for Parents of Teens series.
Becoming Independent — Learn what it means for teens to become more autonomous. Part of the Teen Talk: A Survival Guide for Parents of Teens series.
The Teen Years Explained — Clea McNeely, PhD and Jayne Blanchard — This e-book can help both teens and adults to understand developmental changes and tips for how to apply this knowledge to your everyday life.