This past week I had the honor of speaking to about 100 students over the span of four nights at a church camp. I’ve never been asked to keynote a whole camp before, so obviously I was thrilled to have the opportunity. Our topic was about identity, which is a theme this particular group of students has been studying over the last year. I believe identity is one of the most important topics anyone can engage in when it comes to socialization, personality, spirituality, relationships, really anything. This is especially true with teenagers.
Those who study adolescents say these precious young people are on a journey between childhood and adulthood – and the bridge across is called “adolescence”. All adolescents have a task – identity formation. And for the most part, their identity formation is driven by a single, but inaudible question, “Who am I?”
I love talking to teenagers about this. It’s like I’m sharing a secret with them that no other adults are willing to share. I had multiple teens come up to me after my talks and say, “I love that you told us about this! It helps things make so much more sense!”
It’s not only a shame that teenagers do not understand more about the journey they are on, but also that adults seem to be late to the party as well. When we interact with teenagers and decisions they make, we often forget what is driving many of those decisions to begin with – the big question. So when your student comes home with purple hair or has completely changed their belief system on a particular issue with no warning – maybe there is more going on than them just being rebellious.
You see the driving question of “Who am I?” isn’t something they audibly ask – it’s something they work out by trying on new skins or doing things differently than they used to. Sometimes they will be more childlike than adult-like and visa versa. But it’s all part of the process of figuring out who they are.
Why is this important? One word. Compassion.
Being a teenager is hard and confusing. There are so many messages out there, so many things competing for their attention that it can get overwhelming to figure out who they really are. So when they make feeble attempts through their decisions and interactions, they won’t always get it right. And if we can approach them with patience and compassion, connections and relationships form – all things that will outlast dumb decisions!
I encourage our readers to view the teenage years gently and with grace. As adults who help teenagers, we have the opportunity to lead with compassion, building connections along the way. This can only be done by understanding and accepting what teenagers are up to – developmentally. They are literally figuring out who they are. And, if we can be there – encouraging, asking questions, being slow to judge – our kids will have the support they need to complete this task.