Figuring out "Who am I " is not just the work of teens. Those of us in middle age, (which is most of you with teens...admit it, I'm just an older version) have the same work. Gail Sheehy, in her book New Passages, calls the adult version: Middlescence. In midlife, many of us start to look at our life through a new lens, just like teens with their new brain, wondering , is this it, is this all there is? Some change careers voluntarily, others are laid off and now have the freedom to reinvent, and others choose to go back to work after a 10 or 15 year hiatus. If work is not the question, finding meaning in life might be. Sheehy calls this a "meaning crisis". As adults in mid-life we are searching for who we will be in this next half of our life. The good news, is that we come to this journey with half a life already lived, with experience, and with some confidence and competence in what we have already accomplished. Teens starting this journey have none of this experience, and not a lot of confidence or competence in their ability to make decisions, which is what the personal identity journey is all about, decision making.
Some teens relish the buffet table of life, trying out new dishes, saying ick to some, and yum to others, and are able to move on with the big decisions in life, Identity Integration. Some teens are subtly pushed in a direction, never having to make the decisions themselves; Identity Foreclosure. Then there are those teens who can't make any decisions at all. These are teens who are in Identity Crisis. Teens who experience Identity confusion are overwhelmed with all the choices and decisions they must make. So rather than make any of their own choices or decisions, they avoid making any decisions at all. These are teens who move from friend to friend, college to college, job to job, and perhaps become users and abusers of drugs and alcohol in order to avoid having to take responsibility for their life. They are your classic followers. If a person shows them interest or attention, then that person becomes a friend, not because they like that person, or feel that have commonalities or feel a sense of camaraderie, just that they are available. They are overwhelmed by that buffet table, and either take too much, not taking the time to decide which things they like, or they avoid taking anything but the familiar because it is just to overwhelming.
Teens heading in this direction need practice in making and taking responsibility for their decisions. If a teen grows up with either an authoritarian or permissive parenting style (see blog entry: What kind of parent am I?) they are not given the opportunities and direction needed to experience decision-making and learn from their successes and more importantly from their mistakes. Too little freedom or too much freedom, too much direction, or too little direction have almost the same outcome. Discovering who you are and who you want to become require the ability to sift through and pick out what interests you, what excites you,what comforts you, what moves you, and what grounds you. This is overwhelming for even the most competent. If you give your kids too many gifts on their birthday, they run from gift to gift never really enjoying any one thing, if you give them only one they never learn to choose what excites them. Helping your teen to develop their own sense of themselves is a balancing act. Give to much input, your teen never learns what is you and what is him/her, give to little, they don't even know where to start. So when your teen struggles with making a decision, no matter how small, and asks for your help, rather than jumping in with all your parental wisdom and making the decision for him/her, start with a "Well what do you think". Your job is to let them know that you have confidence in their ability to think for themselves. They just need to practice.