Identity Development: Finding Connection And Confidence

Posted on October 17th, 2017

Adolescence is a time of transition, not just physically, but also in relationships with others. Building trust within positive relationships at school and in other social activities contributes to a positive adolescent identity during these formative years1. During this adolescent stage of development, teens are both trying to find a way to belong and to develop a sense of confidence. Understanding these critical parts of development gives parents a way to help promote positive identity development in their teens.

Belonging. The search for belonging is a primary function of adolescent development. It’s a time of exploring social bonds and networks through peer and adult relationships, including those with parents, school professionals, and family friends. During this time of new relationships and connection-building, there also seems to be a shift from face-to-face connection toward connecting through technology (social media, online gaming, etc.) which plays a large role both in one’s identity and in how one makes sense of their world. Belonging occurs in the context of shared peer interests, social activities (school clubs, athletics, dance, theater groups, etc.) and shared experiences.

A common metaphor associated with the need to belong to a peer group is a wolf pack. A wolf pack travels and experiences life together – providing for one another, hunting, and protecting each other. In nature, if one wolf stays behind or becomes separated, the remaining wolf pack will leave the wolf to die. The lone wolf must fend for themselves, often succumbing to the perils of their natural surroundings, perhaps falling prey to other wildlife or harsh weather conditions. While the human experience is far less dangerous, teenagers who experience outward, obvious rejection from their peers may still see this rejection as the ultimate act of betrayal, exacerbating mental health symptoms such as anxiety, fear, and sadness. When you witness this in your teen, support and guide your teen through this rough terrain to find resolution and the will to move through the harsh realities of peer rejection. This exploration through the trial and error of belonging is a natural part of human development.

Confidence.  Social connections during the adolescent years are paramount in positive identity formation. Teens begin to develop confidence and self-esteem in an attempt to navigate through these formative years and beyond. Confidence may be affected negatively or positively during this time of development, especially when related to a teen’s connection, or lack thereof, within an identified peer group. During this time of identity development, peer influences shape and mold new connections and thoughts about oneself, affording your teen with the new task of making choices – some that put their personal safety at risk, as well as some that will test their confidence levels. As parents, your role has been to instill values and morals throughout your teen’s latency years, ideally as modeled by your family system. It is the hope that your teen will live out those values and morals in both new and developing relationships. Some teens may test the learned family values which can cause extreme discomfort for families. Testing learned values provides opportunities for conversations between family members to clarify the teen’s experiences (good and bad). This act of making time to sit with and hear your teen promotes a safe environment by reinforcing trust within the family system through clarification and expectations of the values and morals your family has taught along the way. The confidence of teenagers is highly connected to the function of trust in others, both in and outside of their peer groups, including familial relationships. When trust is broken with peers or adults, it may take months or years to repair.

So how can a parent attend to their teen given what we know about the adolescent stage of development? It is important for parents to remain cognizant of the need for a sense of belonging and confidence related to their teen’s identity formation. Ways to provide guidance through this time of transition are by getting to know your teen and their interests, as well as by being attuned to their developmental needs. Listening to and validating your teen’s feelings during moments of acceptance and rejection from peer groups is essential to the overall development of your teen’s confidence and identity-formation.

Source(s): 1. Drolet, M. & Arcand, I. (2013).  Positive development, sense of belonging, and support of peers among early adolescents: Perspectives of different actors.  International Education Studies; Vol. 6, No. 4

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Teen Therapy Center provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.