Adolescent Identity Development This Emotional Life on PBS

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Adolescence

		

Identity formation

The main goal of identity formation in adolescence is to develop a clear sense of self.

This is done by “trying on” different roles in various settings, such as home, school, and other social settings. In this process young people explore their own values, ethics, spirituality, racial and ethnic identity, sexuality, and gender. While teens are learning what makes them unique, they also have an increased need to “fit in.” Therefore, identity formation can be especially challenging for teens who feel different from others because of their cultural, ethnic, gender, or sexual identity.

Ethnic & cultural identity

Ethnic and cultural identity

Being a person of color, an immigrant, or even moving to a different part of the country means navigating cultures and your sense of who you are in relationship to others.

This process of adjusting to a new culture is called acculturation, and includes adjusting your behavior to meet the expectations of your new environment.

Fitting in

Although teens are likely to want to “fit in” with their new environment by assimilating, this does not mean that they reject their home culture and values. In an acculturation process, teens (and adults) do not necessarily have to choose between two sets of values and identities. Many will become bicultural. Being bicultural means the ability to function in more than one culture; usually the dominant culture and the culture of your heritage. People who are bicultural often describe it as the ability to switch between two worlds.

Minimizing family conflict

Being a parent of a teen trying to find her ethnic identity may not be an easy task, especially if you and your child have different ethnicities or heritages, or your family has relocated to a new culture. Family conflict may increase as a teen struggles to conform to the pressures of the cultures at home and away from home. Families who actively teach their children about culture increase their teens’ happiness with their culture, their commitment to their culture, and their ability to function in more than one cultural setting.

Parents’ own exposure to new cultures and ability to acculturate has been shown to help teens. It is especially helpful if parents can adapt their parenting styles between their culture of heritage and their new culture.

Gender identity

Gender identity

Gender identity refers to the cultural concepts of masculinity and femininity. It is how a person identifies with one gender or another. This is distinct from physical sex and sexuality.

Cultures define a range of roles and socially acceptable behavior for expressing gender. These become the culture’s gender stereotypes. During the process of developing gender identity, teens take on different masculine and feminine traits as they learn to express themselves.

Most would expect boys to take on masculine traits and girls to take on feminine traits, but it is not so simple. We all adopt both masculine and feminine traits to varying degrees. For most of us, we will express our gender identity in ways that blend in with the range of social norms and gender stereotypes.

Some people find that the gender identification that feels true to them doesn’t fit within their culture’s expectations for male and female. They may behave in ways or take on traits that society considers “too” feminine or “too” masculine for their physical sex.

A person usually becomes aware of this conflict between his sense of self and gender stereotypes in the teen years. As a teen makes choices about expressing his gender identity, he may experience rejection, bullying, and fear; he may also suppress his gender identity and experience shame, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

Raising a child who does not show gender-typical behavior can be hard in terms of family expectations and reactions from others. Parents may feel distressed when their child exhibits behavior that they feel is “too” masculine or feminine for their physical sex. 

The best way to help your child as she explores her gender identity is to educate yourself on gender stereotypes and identity formation, and provide a safe, supportive environment for your child to discover her own identity.

Sexual identity

Sexual identity

Sexual identity is developed during adolescence as a teen experiences puberty and sexual attraction. The development of a healthy sexual identity includes curiosity about sex, flirting, experimenting with sexual behavior, and emotional maturity.

During this process some teens question and ultimately confirm their sexual orientation. For those teens who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, questioning, experimenting, and coming out can put them at risk for rejection, isolation, and bullying.

Parental and peer rejection can cause extraordinary stress, which has been linked to:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Homelessness
  • Poor academic performance
  • Drug abuse
  • Risky sexual behavior

On the other hand, being able to develop sexual identity in a safe and accepting environment is linked to positive outcomes, including self-esteem and a healthy sense of self. Parental support plays a crucial role in the development of sexual identity and well-being for all young people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) youth.

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