Teen Identity Development

It is always important for therapists (and anyone else for that matter) to keep in
mind that there are usually many important differences between members of
almost any group and this is especially so in the case of teenagers.  As teens
move towards increasing their independence they can frequently be sensitive to
being judged from perspectives they think are unfit and which they believe
unfairly and disproportionately take into account the needs and desires of
others.  As a partial result of their situation, teenagers are often described as
being moody or unappreciative by their parents and others.  And yet, at important
moments teenagers still look for and require recognition and guidance from

While it is not always easily recognized or appreciated, even by teenagers
themselves, most teens are busy at work establishing their personal identity.  
Through trail and error, they attempt to make important decisions about who
they are or who they would like to become.  During adolescence teenagers are
trying to determine what they might be good at, what kinds of activities might be
rewarding and generally how they might fit into the grander scheme of things.  
Related to these processes, relationships outside of the family also take on
greater importance and can be experienced as both enjoyable and
complicated.  In time, with adequate understanding, tolerance and support from
others, most teens work their way through the difficult transition from childhood
to adulthood.  They establish a strong, yet flexible identity and learn to cope
effectively with less than ideal circumstances in their relationships and their
work.  They blossom.  Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced, quickly changing,
highly competitive world, where family structure, work and gender roles are in
flux, many teens experience extreme pressure and less understanding and
tolerance of their needs than is ideal.

Even well intending parents, educators and others interested in helping young
people are affected by stressors in the environment.  Adults sometimes “drop
into survival mode” and exhibit little joy in life.  What energy parents have at the
end of a day may be dedicated to family members that are younger and viewed
as needing more help.  As we condense more and more work and other
activities into our days, teens can frequently be “the odd person out of luck” in
the moments when they require assistance and guidance from their parents.  
Under these circumstances adolescents can sometimes experience
themselves as being hurried into independence and adulthood.  These factors
alone can create significant problems for teenagers.  Some teens adapt by
conforming almost entirely to the wishes and demands of authority figures.  
While such a situation may initially please parents and even teenagers
themselves, extreme compliance often occurs at the expense of the
development of a teen’s own senses of personal identity and accomplishment.  
It may also have long lasting detrimental effects on relationships between teens
and their parents and affect the ways teens themselves will parent their own
children (this is known as a cross generational effect).  In other situations,
sometimes more troubling for parents, teenagers may delay for an extended
period of time discovering and developing their vital interests.  They may
withdraw from their family (and sometimes their friends) and activities designed
by others to help them discover and develop their interests and identity.  

Discussion of family, societal and adolescent developmental factors are
important to include in discussion of teen difficulties, not because they provide
an excuse for “problem behavior”, but because I know that as more is known
about these influences and the sad outcomes that can occur, fewer people
continue in highly undesirable directions.  Instead of assigning blame to
individuals or families alone, clients often experience a sense of relief,
understanding and control that can lead to important and lasting improvements
in living.  

There are, of course, many other factors that can create or contribute to
difficulties for teenagers and their families.  Some situations may have strong
biological components or are related to particular events and become apparent
through specific behaviors or emotional experiences.

My Experience Working with Teens  

I have worked with teens for a wide range of purposes including: motivational
and academic difficulties, development of meaning and purpose, shyness, self
esteem issues, confidence, life balance, goal development, time management,
peer pressure, relationship issues, substance abuse, adjustment difficulties,
depression, behavioral problems, post-traumatic stress, sexual abuse issues,
grieving, adoption issues and divorce related concerns.  During graduate
training, I enjoyed working with teenagers and their families in several different
settings including at a high school, a juvenile detention facility and at a
community based residential treatment center.  I work with teenagers alone or
occasionally with their parents or entire families, depending upon the
teenager's and family’s needs.  I also provide brief consultation to parents
regarding adjusting to becoming a parent, parenting techniques, parenting
disagreements, family and work-life balance issues and concerns.  
Peter J. Young, Psy.D.               550 Hamilton Avenue, Suite 228
Clinical Psychologist                        Palo Alto, California  94301
License PSY 19563                                                 (650) 248-9958
A Word or Two about Adolescents