The World Health Organization (WHO) defines an adolescent as any person between the ages 10 and 19, while American psychologists typically narrow it to 12 to 18 years of age. But under either classification, it is clearly a difficult and challenging time of life, for the adolescent and their parents, relatives and adults around them. According to Amy Bellows, Ph.D., it is a time when teens bodies kick into overdrive.  They may find themselves disoriented, scared and alone. In addition, often they also become moody, secretive and sarcastic.

Although you may scarcely recognize your own child at times, it is a normal and healthy phase of development.  Adolescence is the time when young people begin the search for their identity. Dr. Les Parrott, Ph.D. and professor of psychology, observes that the five most common ways in which teens demonstrate their struggles with identity are through:

  • Status symbols. By wearing the right clothes, having the right possessions, etc., teens seek to form identities by expressing affiliation with specific groups.
  • Forbidden behaviors. Teens believe by engaging in behaviors such as smoking, drinking, drugs and sexual activity, they will appear mature, which will bring recognition and acceptance.
  • Rebellion. Rebellious teens demonstrate separation and differentiation from parents and authority figures, while maintaining the acceptance of their peers.
  • Idols. Celebrities may become “models” for teens who are looking for a way of experimenting with different roles. This identification with a well-known personality also gives teens a sense of belonging.
  • Cliquish exclusion. Teens can often be intolerant of their peers. Since they are constantly trying to define and redefine themselves in relation to others, they do not want to be associated with anyone having unacceptable or unattractive characteristics. They seek to strengthen their own identities by excluding those who are not like them.

According to Virginia Lee Williams, Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, adolescent identity is developed, in part, based on relationships and feedback received from others. As young people move from early to late adolescence and their brains continue to develop, their identity is also likely to change. They will shift from not giving much thought to it to actively engaging in the process of exploring identity options. As they work to create a meaningful sense of self, they may also be trying to understand themselves in relation to different aspects of identity — gender, religion, race, sexuality, and others.

For some, defining aspects of their identity will come from participation in rich family traditions — religious and cultural affiliations may be particularly shaped by family experiences. As they explore, teens may be excited to share newfound knowledge with their parents. If they share something that you as a parent have already given deep consideration, remember that it is still new for them and they may not be looking to you for answers. In fact, it is a good time to remind yourself that your children are experts on their own lives and their active search for answers to the question, “Who am I?” is helping them gain even more expertise. Your role is to be a sounding board and guide, when needed.

Social media tools provide a wealth of opportunity for teens to create, test, and recreate various versions of themselves. Many teens use social media to stay in contact with the same friends they have at school. Other teens use it (or gaming sites) to tap into their creativity and imagine new, virtual identities. Some may go online to connect with peers who share similar interests in music, fashion, or other hobbies.

It’s critical to remember that you aren’t the intended audience for your teen’s posts. As teens use online spaces to project themselves to virtual audiences, they may do so in a way that seems inconsistent or out-of-character with how you see them. The feedback teens receive through their self-portrayals online is part of the process of identity development. Jumping to conclusions or interpreting their posts out-of-context may push teens to find ways to hide their online personas from you.

According to Cheryl Jones, ACSW, Adolescent and Family Counselor “Not uncommonly in my practice, I see previously model children who arrive at the magic age of 15 and seem to depart from their compliant, predictable patterns to become angry, defiant strangers participating in risky, often self-destructive behaviors. Developmentally, it is at about this age that teenagers experience a more intense drive for autonomy.  It becomes critical not to be an extension of their parents but a separate individual. 

So, the challenge becomes, how do we raise children to have a sense of self upon which to build their lives? Jones recommends the following:


  • Offer Choices


The process of decision-making helps determine who each of us becomes. If children grow up with the idea that they can make decisions to create a life that works for them, the critical process of identity-building is underway.  But when parents continually intervene, run interference for them, and deny them the opportunity to determine personal preferences when appropriate, those children cannot grow into teenagers who are comfortable becoming separate human beings. Parents can help by offering areas of safe choice. 

  • Questions Instead of Commands

The building of identity is also strengthened by parent-child communication that takes the form of questions instead of commands.  Asking something as simple as, “Do you want to wear a jacket today?” allows children to make a choice, evaluate if they are comfortable with the result of that choice, and possibly modify it the next time if it did not work out well.  It is a subtle way of letting them know that, ultimately, they will be in charge of determining what improves their quality of life. However, a common pitfall for adults occurs when they experience resistance to or defiance of their values, rules, or expectations. They often react by bearing down harder, insisting more strongly, and turning the occasion into a win-lose situation.  It is on this battleground that the development of identity can be lost.

  • Responding to “I Don’t Know”

Young people often answer with, “I don’t know,” to almost everything asked of them.  Their “I don’t know” response can often be decoded as meaning either, “I cannot easily figure out what I think or feel,” or, “If I truthfully answer this question and it is not what you want to hear I’ll get a lecture, so I won’t tell you.”  If a safe environment is provided and the “I don’t knows” still persist, this can indicate the need for assistance. “I don’t know” should not be accepted as a customary response.  People, including teens, always have some idea of what they are thinking or feeling, or can offer a guess if the answer is not totally clear.  If they are really struggling, then a self-discovery process needs to be initiated. Gently guiding the young person in developing an answer can help (e.g., “Suppose you did know, what might you say?”).

Adolescents who are unclear about their personal identity experience an empty, confusing, uncomfortable feeling.  In an effort to mask or escape this feeling, they may engage in substance abuse and other dramatic behaviors.  Empty kids sometimes gravitate toward displaying an outrageous identity to the outside world, often in terms of tattoos, clothing, or hair that will cause others to look again.  These things are a way of saying, “See me! I exist and I am different from you.” 

The development of identity requires that a teen invest in something to help define his or her life.  Whether it is a talent, sport, or outside interest, every young person needs something that says, “This is mine.  I go out of my way to work at this.”  As the investment grows, so too does the young person’s sense of self and competence.  Dropping one interest and picking up another as one matures is also not uncommon.  The benefit lies in claiming portions of life that express, “I fit here.”  If a young person exhibits no outside investment, then they need assistance in discovering what in this world fits with who they are.  The discovery process does not end until there is a fit. 

Gentle adult guidance helps this process. Especially when they don’t yet feel good about themselves, it is really important that our teens know we love them just as they are. Our stable presence and unwavering support allow them to withstand challenges and offers them the security to find themselves.

Parents can also help teens by letting them know that figuring out who they are — with all of the ups and downs that it may bring — is normal and healthy. Try to remain open as your teen “tries out” different versions of themselves (within the rules and boundaries you’ve created to keep them safe). While you can’t control the identity your teen settles on, what’s most important is to support the process of gaining a consistent sense of self across different settings. Young people who can say, “This is who I am!” with confidence will have a strong, grounding foundation as they make increasingly complex and impactful decisions going forward.

SoCal Adolescent Wellness in Orange County offers an after school program that incorporates strategies to teach teens how to navigate the challenges of adolescent identify development.  To verify your insurance benefits and schedule a free confidential Assessment with our specially trained adolescent treatment team, call us at 714-465-5583 or contact us at

Written By: Susan Ferren, LMFT