“This should cheer you up for sure. See I’ve got you’re old ID, and you’re all dressed up like The Cure.” – Ben Folds Five
This week we’re continuing the discussion of why the teenage years are valuable, interesting, and not as scary as they may initially appear. Today’s theme: Giving teenagers room to express their (many) identit(ies).
“Moratorium” is a term that describes the identity status of ever-changing: trying on a million different hats until one is found that fits. In essence, this period of human development in the adolescent years is the one in which styles, tastes, beliefs, and allegiances are unpredictable and mercurial, shifting on any given day, often without warning. This can be mind-boggling to some adults (though I dare those adults to look at your high school yearbook and check out your own version of this time of life), and, as a result, adolescents are sometimes easily dismissed as flighty and unreliable, and their many hats are laughed off or, worse, forbidden.
I want to clearly assure you that trying to squish teenagers into a singluar identity box during their moratorium phase is a very bad idea, for many reasons. Here’s three of them:
It creates shame and self-doubt.
When teenagers courageously try something new to see if it suits them, it’s an act of self-assertion and an investment in themselves – they are saying that they are important enough to deserve the right to their own opinions and selves, even if they are different from their family or friends. This can be especially important to teenagers exploring elements of themselves that may be unusual in their family system (for instance, a young gay teen exploring his sexual identity in a family system in which everyone identifies as straight). If they are made to surpress this exploration (“You can’t have long hair!” “You can’t be with that group of weirdos!”) they are given the message that they do not deserve that right, and that they must be a certain way in order to remain in the good graces of their given systems. The long-term ramifications of this may include guilt, shame, low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.
It hinders important self-exploration.
This developmental period exists for good reason. An adolescent allowed to roam freely during moratorium is actively exploring and evaluating the values, principles, and beliefs that will guide her life moving forward. While there is always room for our value systems to evolve throughout the life span, putting a stop to self-exploration when it is supposed to be taking place is a very good way to insure that your teenager will struggle with identity and commitment well into their adult years. Robbed of the chance to try on different identities in their youth, they will no doubt do it later on. Trying on different identities is a good signal that your teen is right on track developmentally; why slow them down or get in their way?
It’s not going to work, anyway.
Teenagers will find a way around your rules regarding how they look, what they are exposed to, and what they think or believe at any given time, this I promise you. Think back on your own small acts of rebellion as teenagers – we all had them, and all teenagers will, because they are wired that way. Attempting to hinder self-exploration or to dismiss your teenager’s “phases” are good ways to foster resentment and lack of trust in your relationship with them. Giving them room to explore, with safe and flexible limits and without shaming, allows you to be an ally in their development and a trusted adult (as much as adults are trustworthy, anyway). The bottom line is: They will find a way to do what they want to do and the more that you fight them, the more extreme they will be in their efforts.
Adolescence is an extraordinary time that affords the opportunity for one person to be many different people as they try on diffferent identities. As long as their safety isn’t compromised, I encourage us all to give them a long rope and plenty of encouragement to explore, to change, to choose, and to grow.