“You know, people say, ‘You should be yourself,’ ” my seventh-grader, Neveah, blurted as we drove to school. “I don’t see that working out well. Being myself feels like I’m weird or invisible.”
My coffee hadn’t kicked in yet, but her comment woke me up. I wanted to walk her through her school day, reassuring her as I did on her nervous first days of kindergarten. But that doesn’t work for a middle schooler. So that day, as with others, I leaned on strategies that have helped to build my daughter’s confidence during these difficult growing years.
Become a student of your child
I can’t help Neveah appreciate and enjoy who God created her to be if I don’t spend time getting to know her and what makes her unique. One
way I’ve found to do this is to look back on her trends. Ever since my daughter was 5, she’s gathered nuts, bolts, twigs, wrappers, stray feathers, string — things I view as trash — and made them into artwork. Her creations from those “treasures” are part of her identity — the artist who, like God, takes what others think of as beyond redemption and creates beauty.
I also listen to the backseat talk while I’m driving the carpool. Tweens say more to friends than they say to their parents. When I’ve got a car full of tweens, I’ve got their music playing and my attention on their conversation. I hear what my tween thinks about life, friends and the world. I listen to her talk about school, sports and her body. (And I clue in to the errors in her thinking that I address when friends aren’t around.)
I’ve heard everything from bold independence and assertions of what my daughter feels is right to hurt over a friend’s mean comment to lying about something to get a friend’s approval. Whether positive or negative, backseat talk is invaluable content to pull from in those front seat, identity-questioning moments where I have a chance to mentor her.
Only when we become students of our children can we understand how they are changing. That in turn helps us to affirm them in a way that has value to them.
Once I know my daughter’s personality, unique gifts and character traits, I become a powerful source of empowerment. And that affirmation helps her see more clearly that she is who God made her to be.
A pediatric psychiatrist friend puts it this way: “In the tween years, kids’ worlds are changing. Our kids are moving from us as their center to their peers as their center.” It’s in these years that we move from director of their lives to the role of mission control.
When Neveah shared her comment in the car, I could have told her how she should think about the idea. But the best thing was to ask her what she thought and what led her to think of that issue this particular day. I needed to reflect my trust in her ability to come to a helpful conclusion so she could trust her own ability to problem solve. I could be a positive mirror and ask what she needed from me to help her feel good about who she is with peers.
As our tweens grapple with their changing, growing identities, we need to point out intrinsic, positive attributes in their actions, responses and feelings. That morning in the car, I told Neveah how neat it was that she took time to think about what she hears instead of just going with whatever people say. I praised her analytical strengths, honesty and vulnerability to share what felt hard about being herself. And while I was at it, I connected her artistic flair with the intentional way she’d chosen her outfit (even though it was different from what I would have done).
Adults, and pre-teens, feel better about their identity when people remind them of who they are at their best. As we point out their strengths, it helps them connect with and embrace the individuality of who they are.
Teach them what God says
I know when I’ve hit a crucial teaching moment for my tween’s identity development. In the car, as Neveah shared examples she didn’t like about herself, I responded with, “I wonder how God thinks about that.” When she gave me the eye roll, I volunteered Psalm 139:13-14: “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Another eye roll. But I saw her glance over curiously, so I expounded. “You know, He made us all both fearfully and wonderfully. Maybe what you’re trying to figure out is the fearfully — awe-inspiring, not totally understood — part of you.”
This time, no eye roll. I didn’t get any reaction at all. But later that night as I rubbed her feet (great end-of-day hang-out time), she said, “I’ve been thinking about that verse you said. I’ve heard it before, but the fearfully part never made sense. I think I was feeling bad about how much of the fearfully part I feel like I have. But maybe if God planned it, it could be OK.”
Do those identity-wrestling moments with my tween always turn out that well that quickly? I wish! But even when they don’t, I trust that God will help her think about her struggles in light of how He sees her. And I remain her home base and sounding board instead of her boss, available to help her sort through, discover and love her own unique identity.
Laurie Wallin is a speaker and the author of Get Your Joy Back.