Putting the I in identity

Your teen’s identity might as well be represented by a great big question mark right now – they’re still working on it, and it’s important they have the space and time to do so.

They’re finding it. They’re experimenting. They’re forming. They’re trying it on, seeing how it looks in the mirror, adding extra layers, throwing it off and putting it on lay-by for later. Remember all the identities you tried on for size? They will know all the myriad of modern identities and can help you never confuse your VSCO girl with your e boy. Just don’t ever tell them an identity is a phase. Even though it probably is.

They need to move outside their identity in the family. Feedback from peers becomes more important than feedback from you. Kids from a distinct cultural background might feel strength and power in their cultural identity or, if they’ve experienced racism, they might reject it. This can be hurtful for you as a parent, but it’s likely that, with help and support, they will draw on the strength of that cultural identity and come back to it one day. Third-culture kids have to walk a tricky path; they have a unique cultural identity but might not have a framework for otherness and this can be painful.

But, while your teen will be influenced by friends, school and society, don’t forget they’re also influenced by you. Values are important. And we don’t mean the values of a nice tie or “leadership” or that stuff you are sold with the school fees. We mean the integrity and decency that you show and that will rub off on them. Although probably not when you are watching and can crow about it.

Society, we hope, is reducing its rigidity and this generation seems more accepting of different identities and diversity. And yet, for a generation that’s meant not to like labels, they sure like labels. Teens might identify as gay, bi, fluid, queer, asexual, and even straight. A friend’s son reported that “A kid came out as omnisexual today.” When she asked, “What’s that?”, her son furrowed his beautiful brow and said: “I’m not sure. I think he’s sexually attracted to everything.” Of course he is: The kid is 14. At that age, saucepans are sexy. Or is that pansexual?

It’s great that they are increasingly supportive of preferred sexual preference, but it’s also fair to tell them they don’t have to identify as anything until they’re ready. It’s also ok not to know; they can identify as ‘a-not-sure-yetsexual’. Identity offers a calm harbour in a sea of turmoil, a retreat from questioning and confusion – but let them know they are still cooking.

As they move away from you in the mid-teen years they might become very political and strident in their opinions. You might have a little pain in the butt at the dinner table declaring the way you cooked the corn culturally inappropriate. Admire their passion.

Be slightly detached and yet supportive of their identity shifts. Unless they try on being a cruel, violent bully. Don’t support that.

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