“Who am I?” This seemingly simple question can be anything but simple. Ask any child or adolescent this, and you are likely to get a number of answers such as their name, where they live, who their friends are, the style of clothes they wear, the music they listen to, their faith, the sports they play, their sexual preference or even terms like nerd, jock, goth, etc. The process of finding identity and separating that identity from your parents and peers is one of the major tasks of adolescence and early adulthood. This road is often fraught with bumps, detours, fast lanes, slow lanes and dead ends. The topic comes up often in counseling and sometimes is the reason teens or their parents reach out for help.
The Browns* brought their son Michael* to Outreach asking for help with his defiant and rude behavior, and they began with family sessions. Michael’s perception was that his parents wanted him to be just like them. Their latest battle was over college; because he excels at math they are pushing him toward an engineering major. Although he has done well in many areas of school, Michael aspires to be a graphic designer. He said he and his parents argue often over what he wants to wear, music he listens to, and concerts he wants to attend. Michael admitted that he can become disrespectful but said he feels frustrated when he can’t express himself or pursue his interests. Together, the counselor and the family discussed Michael’s need to explore his identity in a healthy way. They decided that while the parents should set boundaries and behavioral expectations such as curfews and keeping up grades, they also needed to give Michael the freedom to choose his activities.
Jessica* was about to leave for college. She had been coming to Outreach during her senior year because of depression and bullying. Jessica recently came out to her family but had never told any of her peers that she was gay. She was excited by the prospect of starting a new chapter at college with her sexual identity out in the open. However, because she had lived so long pretending to be someone else, she had to work through feelings of being unknown and not having genuine relationships. During counseling, Jessica discussed fears of rejection and discrimination but she also began to express her excitement about becoming involved in the LGBTQ community.
April* had a rough eighth grade year. She came to Outreach for help with peer issues. She and her counselor often discussed lunch tables, as this seemed to be the way the middle school social strata was organized. April began the year at the “popular” table but often felt on the fringes and eventually had to leave that group because of a fight with a prominent member. She spent the rest of the year floating between the band table and soccer table. April was tired of being classified. Luckily, as her counselor explained, high school students seem to mingle more and value uniqueness as opposed to a group identity. Although April may find common interests with peers through band or sports, she began expanding who she hangs out with and discussed taking risks and being open and vulnerable enough to show her true identity.
*The Browns, Michael, Jessica, and April represent typical Outreach clients. Details do not correspond with any specific case in order to protect client anonymity. Learn more about this nonprofit agency’s confidential counseling services and educational programs at www.outreachteen.org.