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Identity Development

two teenage girls clasping hands in an activity

Identity development in teens is a critical developmental task. Adolescents with a strong, clear sense of identity are more likely to achieve their goals and they report higher satisfaction with their lives than teens without a clear identity. However, developing a healthy identity is not easy. Teens may experience emotional problems and other challenges that disrupt the identity formation process. And, during their quest for an identity, they may become moody, distant, or rebellious.

3 Important Facts

  • Teens often have an increased need to be accepted. Because of this, they may have trouble forming a clear sense of self if their ethnic, gender, sexual, or cultural identity is different from their peers.
  • Teens tend to think in black and white. This is a result of normal brain development. It can, however, make some teens highly reactive and sensitive.
  • Healthy recreational activities can help teens with identity formation. These activities can positively impact a teen’s sense of self-efficacy, social competence and self-esteem.

Signs to look for

  • Acting in uncharacteristic ways (for example, they may lie or deceive, begin experimenting with adult behaviors such as drinking or sexual activity; might be moody, sarcastic, or distant)
  • Rebellion
  • Preoccupation with fitting in (example: by wearing the right clothes or having the right things; may become cliquish)

As teens are “trying on” different identities to find their own, they may act out in ways that are uncharacteristic. For example, they may lie or deceive, begin experimenting with adult behaviors such as drinking or sexual activity, or they may simply rebel. Or they may seek status among their peers by wearing the right clothes or having the right things. They may also become cliquish, excluding those who are not like them. They might be moody, sarcastic, and distant. All of these behaviors are an indication that a teen is seeking a sense of identity.

Next steps

If you notice emotional problems such as anxiety or depression in your teen, talk with a mental health professional. Psychotherapy or another form of treatment may be necessary to help your teen overcome obstacles to forming a healthy sense of identity. Treatment may also be necessary if your teen has begun engaging in dangerous or destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse.

In the meantime, be patient with your teen as they struggle to form a clear identity. Understanding that trying on different attitudes and behaviors is part of the identity formation process can go a long way in maintaining a good relationship with your teen. Talking with your teen and listening to them can help you better understand what they are going through. Through patience and awareness, you can help your teen discover the most stable aspects of their identity.

Common Q and A

How do I know it's just normal teenage identity development vs. a mental health problem?

It’s normal for teens to sometimes be moody, reactive, distant, or mildly deceitful (such as sneaking out to go to a party). However, if your teen is displaying serious emotional problems, such as anxiety or depression, or if they are chronically lying, stealing, abusing drugs or alcohol, it’s time to get help.

How can I help my teen develop a positive sense of self and a clear identity?

Have open discussions about values and identity formation. Engaging your teen in healthy recreational activities is also a good way to help them develop social skills and build self-esteem. Set clear limits and boundaries but also allow a little freedom to your teen to discover their core values, beliefs and strengths and weaknesses. Maintain love and support throughout the frustrations of teenage life.

What about teens with unique identity struggles, such as being a minority?

Identity development can be especially challenging for teens whose sexual, gender, ethnic, or cultural identities are different from their peers. Treatment may benefit these teens as it can provide a safe, confidential place for them to process difficult thoughts and emotions.