Identity in Youth — Answers from a Therapist

What goes into a young person’s sense of identity?
[1] Far and away the most pivotal influence on a young person’s identity is their family. As kids mature they are influenced by how their parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, cousins define them. Kids are like sponges. They soak up how we describe them and live in to that description. For instance if a child is told they are intelligent, they will act in accordance to that definition. I am intelligent, and intelligent people do…i.e., Study a lot, feel confident in their answers, give advice, etc. Unfortunately that also is the case with any negative definitions of self they are given. If a child is told he is Lazy, for instance, he/she will start acting in accordance with that. In our house we regularly refer to our children as “Child of God”, because this increases the possibility that this is what they will adapt as their definition of self.

How does a young person prioritize his/her identities?
[2] I think the prioritization happens in accordance to the amount of particular messages they receive. For instance, they may hear they are a “smart” from time to time. But if what they hear is more frequently that they are lazy, they are going to be “living into” or becoming, the “lazy” more. Sort of like ingredients in a recipe; just a dash of salt, which influences the recipe, but not as significantly as the yeast or flour.

What would you say are the most influential sources of identity for youth these days?
[3] As children age they become more influenced by their peers and surroundings. The more vacancies there are in their understandings or conceptualizations of self and the world around them, the more easily they are influenced. If kids have gaps in their understanding of self or the world, they will look outside of themselves to fill in those gaps. A great example of this is sexuality. If an adolescent isn’t given sufficient information about sexuality, as they get older they will start to look for information that fills in the gaps for them. They can pull this information from media, peers, pop culture, etc. Another great example of this is spirituality.

What makes these sources of influence so powerful?
[4] Because our culture is so busy and stressed to the max, we take less time filling these things in for our children, leaving bigger gaps in their understanding of self and the world around them. Because there are more influential voices (media, pop culture, peers, etc) than ever before, there is a lot more potential that kids will be impacted by the voices they hear.

How is raising children in a consumer culture different and more challenging than it was 30-40 years ago? What are parents of youth having the hardest time understanding?
[5] It almost feels like this is a Second Generation of Consumer Culture. The previous generation, now parents, bought into the system that told them “More is better. Newer is better. These things will make you happy.” Now this generation of kids is displaying a more entitled point of reference. Parents grew up desiring or wanting more stuff. Kids feel like getting the stuff they want is their right. The challenge, then, is that because such a huge part of our culture is consumer driven, how do you get them to reinvest in the ethics involving hard work, earning what you get, self control and moderation.

When is the church an effective source of influence in youth formation?
[6] The church has the greatest opportunity for influence in youth when they are the community family for them. As those extended family members we can be an influential factor in their definition of self. Significant relationships that help to guide, lead and fill in the gaps for kids.

What is the church doing well, and not so well these days, and how can it improve its formation of youth?
[7] When we communicate Love, Acceptance, and Investment to our kids, we can have a great impact on who they understand themselves to be. We communicate Love to them when we are excited to see them in our churches. When we are interested in what is interesting to them. When we enter into their world with intrigue and awe, instead of making them fit into ours. We communicate Acceptance to kids when we expect them to do kid kinds of things, (i.e., spill their drink in the sanctuary, be overly emotional, squirrely and loud) and offer them forgiveness when they make mistakes. We Invest when we as communities make them important, not something we tolerate. When we understand that we are all in the business of raising all the kids of our community. When we take it on as a privilege to help guide and mentor the kids of our congregations. Because the more positive adult influences a kid has in their life, the less likely they are to head down the wrong path.

What are the best resources the church has at its disposal to accomplish this task?
[8] I am very partial to the work of Vibrant Faith Ministries. They have been talking about these things for decades. They first emphasize how important family life is and then encouragement for congregations to be family too. Search Institute has done far-reaching work in this area. As congregations, if we took their 40 Developmental Assets, and committed to being a community that provided as many Assets as possible to its youth, I think we would be amazed at the influence we could have on our kids.

What do families do that contributes to wise choices when kids are in a group, and wise choices about which group to join?
[9] The foundation is set when we instill and actively communicate our values to our children. As they mature they will start exploring their own identity and they may include getting involved with a group that is out of line with your value system. If they do, it’s likely to be a temporary divergence for them. What they know to be important at their core usually weighs in and wins down the road. If you find this happening with your own child, continue to maintain the same system of expectations and consequences for their behavior. It is not a good idea to restrict your kids based on their friend’s behavior (ie. not allowing them to see a friend because you don’t like the things their friends have done). It’s ineffective and damaging to your relationship with your child. During the times when kids are self-defining it’s important to keep the relationship as open as possible. You will therefore have access and the opportunity to continue to share your values as they navigate this time of self-discovery.

Kari Lyn S. Wampler

Kari Lyn S. Wampler, M.A., LMFT. is a Youth and Family Therapist.