We all have a story about getting picked last for the kickball team in P.E. class back in elementary school. The experiences of rejection stay with us for a long time, imprinting memories on us that can undermine a lot throughout our lives.
The need to fit in, be accepted, and feel like you belong for who you truly are is a profoundly human experience.
Our kids feel it more than we do, and if we as parents and educators can keep that in mind, we will be better equipped to guide them to a thriving life.
Identity Formation in Adolescence
Erik Erikson is known as the father of adult development. He was a psychologist who coined the phrase, ‘identity crisis’, and helped us understand the developmental stages we all go through on the way to adulthood.
He said the primary challenge for adolescents is to create a healthy personal identity as well as healthy peer relationships — two dynamics often at odds with each other.
Fitting in is a process that we try to manage for our kids when they are little. We want them to wear the right, in-fashion, clothing at preschool and eat the best diet. We want them to avoid embarrassment or harassment on the playground. But when they reach the middle school years, they take over the management of fitting in on their own terms. As their brains wake up to self-consciousness, they also shift the focus of their security away from their caregivers towards their peers. They are quite literally looking at their peers as a stand-in mirror — to help them get an impression of themselves, who they are, and how they’re measured.
One dangerous part of this process is a kid might make unhealthy choices to use harmful substances in their quest to be accepted by their peers.
Here’s the problem: the desire to fit in is actually not the goal.
What teens want is to feel like they belong. The difference is when we fit in we learn to sacrifice or hide some important parts of ourselves to be able to blend in and be accepted rather than rejected.
True belonging, however, comes when we are accepted because of our uniqueness and differences. It’s not until we truly own our quirky selves, our preferences, our interests, and our quirks — and disclose them to others — that we can experience what we really hope for deep down.
Of course, adolescence is so much about exploration and discovery. We don’t yet know ourselves, so we need to try on different personas to see if they resonate or not. We need to try different values and adopt different views to see if they work for us. We are searching for a life that is both intrinsically consistent with who we are and aspirational for who we want to become.
That’s all happening inside of a teenager, and they’re not even aware of it. The danger is, they might make some poor choices during these crucial years that will have an impact on the rest of their lives.
The best research shows 90% of lifelong addiction struggles start during the teen years.
Identity formation is a critical stage for them, and they need the best adult intervention and guidance we can give them.
Read ahead to our next article on what adults can do for adolescents to assist them in their identity development.