Sample text for Helping the struggling adolescent : a guide to thirty-six common problems for counselors, pastors, and youth workers / Les Parrott III.
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Adolescence: A Struggle for Identity
During World War II, Erik H. Erikson coined a phrase that stuck -- identity crisis. He used it to describe the disorientation of shell-shocked soldiers who could not remember their names. Through the years, this phrase has become a useful tool to describe the struggle of growing up.
Achieving a sense of identity is the major developmental task of teenagers. Like a stunned soldier in a state of confusion, sooner or later, young people are hit with a bomb that is more powerful than dynamite -- puberty. Somewhere between childhood and maturity their bodies kick into overdrive and fuel changes at an alarming rate. With this acceleration of physical and emotional growth, they become strangers to themselves. Under attack by an arsenal of fiery hormones, the bewildered young person begins to ask, "Who am I?"
While achievement of a meaningful answer to this question is a lifelong pursuit, it is the burning challenge of adolescence. According to Erikson, having an identity -- knowing who you are -- gives adolescents a sense of control that allows them to navigate through the rest of life.
Without identities, awkward adolescents carry a "how'm-I-doing?" attitude that is always focused on their concern about impressions they are making on others. Without self-identities they will be or do whatever they think others want. They will flounder from one way of acting to another, never able to step outside of a preoccupation with their own performance and genuinely ask others, "How are you doing?" Erikson calls this miserable state "identity diffusion."(1)
The successful formation of self-identity follows a typical pattern. Teens identify with people they admire. Whether in real life or through magazines and TV, they emulate the characteristics of people they want to be like. By the end of adolescence, if all goes as it should, these identifications merge into a single identity that incorporates and alters previous identifications to make a unique and coherent whole.
The quest for identity is scary. Somewhere between twelve and twenty years of age, adolescents are forced to choose once and for all what their identity is to be. It is a formidable task. Uncertain which of their mixed emotions are really their true feelings, they are pushed to make up their minds. Their confusion is complicated further when they begin to guess what others, whose opinions they care about, want them to be.
Four Fundamental Views of the Self
The subjective self is the adolescent's private view of who she sees herself to be. Although this self-view has been heavily influenced by parents and has been hammered out in interactions with peers, it is still her own assessment.
The objective self is what others see when they view the adolescent. It is the person others think the teen is.
The social self is the adolescent's perception of herself as she thinks others see her. It is what she thinks she looks like to others.
The ideal self is the adolescent's concept of who she would like to become, her ultimate goal. (2)
For adolescents who never achieve an integrated identity, "all the world's a stage." In their adult years they will play the part of human beings who change roles to please whoever happens to be watching. Their clothes, their language, their thoughts, and their feelings are all a part of the script. Their purpose will be to receive approval from those they hope to impress. Life will become a charade, and players will never enjoy the security of personal identity or experience the strength that comes from a sense of self-worth.
How Adolescents Search for Identity
Young people look for identity in uncounted ways. In this section, seven common paths are examined: family relations, status symbols, "grown-up" behavior, rebellion, others' opinions, idols, and cliquish exclusion.
Through Family Relations
Adolescents' families have significant impact on identity formation. To assert individuality and move out of childhood, teenagers will wean themselves from their protecting parents. But individuality may also be found in reaction to the identities of one's brothers and sisters. If the first child, for example, decides to be a serious intellectual, the second may seek individuality in becoming a jokester. Seeing these places already taken, the third child may choose to be an athlete.
In some cases, when young people feel they possess no distinctive talents, they may rebel by separating themselves from the "white sheep." They may become delinquents or prodigals and gain identity by causing trouble.
Through Status Symbols
Adolescents try to establish themselves as individuals through prestige. They seek out behavior or possessions that are readily observable. They purchase sports cars, hairstyles, lettermen's jackets, skateboards, guitars, stereos, and designer clothes in hope of being identified as people who belong. Their status symbols help teens form self-identity because they themselves have what others in their group have: "the jocks," "the brains," "the Ravers," "the Straight Edgers," "the White Caps," "the Motherheads," "the Ram-Rams," or "the Goths." Owning status symbols, however, is not enough to achieve identity. Adolescents quickly recognize a struggling teen who is attempting to carve out an identity by buying the right symbols. In fact, they enjoy detecting these imposters and reinforcing their own identities by labeling them as "wanna-be's" or "posers."
To be authentic, appropriate behavior must accompany the status symbol. A "party girl," for example, must not only wear the right clothes, have the right hairstyle, and buy the right music, she must do the things a party girl does. Soon the behavior will earn the adolescent a reputation -- something she must live up to if she is to maintain her identity, and something she must live down if she is to change it.
1. E. H. Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis (New York: Norton, 1968).
2. A. Arkoff, Psychology and Personal Growth, 2d ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1980), 28 - 32.
3. J. McDowell and D. Day, Why Wait? What You Need to Know About the Teen Sexuality Crisis (San Bernardino, Calif.: Here's Life Publishers, 1987, 1994).
4. G. M. Smith and C. P. Fogg, "Teenage Drug Use: A Search for Causes and Consequences," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 1 (1974): 426 - 29.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Teenagers -- Counseling of -- United States.
Church work with teenagers -- United States.
Adolescent psychology -- United States.