Helping your kids navigate the tricky world of personal identity can seem overwhelming. There are so many possibilities, and none of us want to feel like we are forcing our kids to be someone they are not. And yet, we recognize that not all the options out there are healthy. What can you do as a parent to help your child navigate the tricky world of identity formation in this age of authenticity?
Using Preferences to Create Personal Identity
These days, culture describes identity as an individual creation. Various influences tell your son or daughter that they must discover who they are and decide for themselves what it means to be them. While this process of discovery and creation may not be entirely wrong, it most often materializes in superficial ways.
Discovering who you are is code for, “What do you like?” In other words, finding “your thing” becomes the key to discovering the real you. This mindset leads to a superficial identity, in which your child’s current (and often temporary!) preferences become a key part of their personal identity creation. Because of this, many teens, preteens, and young adults make significant judgments about others based on the way they look, dress, or with who they decide to hang out. In many ways, these surface‐level identifiers take the place of identity itself.
The problem with this superficial identity formation is how it creates a moving target. Kids’ preferences change frequently, and when their identity becomes based on these surface‐level distinctions, their identity can feel transient and flimsy. For a parent, watching their child change from soccer to basketball can be exciting — maybe they’re finally finding their thing! However, for the child undergoing this change, it can feel like they’re in danger of losing their sense of identity. As parents, we can help our children understand that personal identity is not established by what they like at the moment. We teach our kids that what they like is important but is not equal to their identity.
Identity Display and Recognition
Another key element often used in personal identity formation is broadcasting their identity and having it recognized by their peers. One of social media’s primary purposes is to accomplish this. Social media provides a platform where kids can say, “This is me!” The goal of this broadcasting is to be recognized as a unique individual by their peers. When their friends and classmates accept your child’s displayed identity, it affirms their sense of who they are.
However, when people push back on the broadcasted identity, your child will feel a dramatic sense of insecurity surrounding their personal identity. As parents, we do not experience this anxiety at the levels our kids do. Yet who among us has not stopped before posting something on Facebook, asking ourselves the question, “I wonder if people will like what I have to say?” Deep down, we are wondering, “Will people still like me when they know what I am thinking?” Your son or daughter is going through that same process constantly, wondering how a given statement might impact the way others feel about them.
When others reject your child’s identity (sometimes referred to as “haters”), it can cause your child to rethink whether they still feel the same way about what they said. It might be worth changing their viewpoint or preferences to be more palatable to more people. Or your child may choose to double down on their position, choosing to remain outside the box of who society says they should be. Either way, if your child’s identity is wrapped up in superficial interests and preferences, their response to haters will only make their identity more fluid. This reactionary approach to identity creation will leave parents’ heads spinning as you try to keep up with who your child is this week.
Launch Into the Teen Years will get you and your teen talking.....
A Different Approach to Personal Identity
The secret to breaking through the flimsy, surface-deep method of personal identity formation is to help your children understand that we have a story as human beings. This story is ours. No one else indeed shares your story — more importantly, this story situates you in something much larger (and more permanent) than yourself. To have a story is to share in something truly transcendent. Stories can never exist in isolation, and neither do people. Stories can change over time, but not at the lightning pace of an adolescent’s interests. And above all, stories are most meaningful when placed alongside other stories that provide background, context, and meaning.
When you meet someone new, you ask them to tell you their story if you want to get to know them. We understand that hearing someone’s story will help us know who that person is on a deeper level. A story reveals the “me” that is much deeper (and more complex) than what they are interested in right now. Teaching our children to articulate their stories will help them understand that who they are is far more significant than what they like.
The Church has always understood that God created people to learn through stories. When Jesus wanted to teach people a quick lesson, he told them a story. His audience was supposed to see themselves in the story and come to understand something more profound about themselves and the world in which they lived. God wanted his people to understand who they were, and so he gave them stories to tell their children and grandchildren. The Bible, at its core, is the story of God’s interaction with His people. The earliest believers often gathered to tell the story of God. And when they did, those stories became a part of their story.
When God’s Story Merges With Ours
You see, when people tell God’s Story, it starts to press in upon their story, merging the two in a significant way. The more God’s Story becomes my own, the more my identity gets wrapped up in His. This merging of the two stories demonstrates what it means to have our identity in Christ. It means that my story is not just my own anymore. The story of Jesus becomes a part of my own story. And as I share that story with others, I become part of the story of my community. The community’s story then becomes a part of mine.
My personal identity is the story of my life. It is the story of me. Things have happened to me that I wish hadn’t. Those things are still a part of the story of God working in (and through) me, and of my identity formation. Helping our sons and daughters see their identity in this way will ease the pressure and anxiety they feel around defining themselves.
They don’t need to create themselves. God created them, loves them, and gave everything to be a part of their story. And that is excellent news.