I love working with teenagers; what a privilege and life-enhancing experience! The developmental task in adolescence is that of Identity Conceptualization versus Role Confusion. The earlier 4 psycho-social developmental stages – Trust versus Mistrust, Autonomy versus Shame & Doubt, Initiative versus Guilt, and Industry versus Inferiority – have led up to this opportunity to explore the many possibilities for a life worth living. This framework was established by Erik Erikson and is foundational to education in the helping and teaching professions. It provides common sense guidelines for parents to nurture these important developmental tasks in their children.
This exciting stage begins at about age 12 and extends to about age 19, preparing the adolescent to enter the Intimacy versus Isolation life stage in his or her 20s. Identity conceptualization is a deep well because we have complex brains and capabilities; these are also aptly called “crises” because navigating life is also difficult for everyone. It is a process of study, learning, reflection, articulating, wondering, asking, and having conversations with perspective taking. The teenager’s primary role, or job, in life is as a student because of the need to discover the many possibilities for engaging with the world. The teenager ideally does this within relationships of love and respect with peers and adults, preferably parents.
James Loder in The Logic of the Spirit conceptualizes this Identity shaping along the five axes of Body, Authority, Ideology, Love, and Work. How can my body move, create, help others, be healthy, and be appreciated for its potential? How have my parents “authored” my life story and how can I learn from this and prepare for authoring my own life? How have I been influenced and how can I influence others? What do I believe, value, esteem, admire, get angry or passionate about? What do I think is beautiful? What are admirable character qualities? Who do I know that have degrees of these? What do I believe about life, death, God, injustice, and suffering? What is the meaning of life? What do I desire to be my spiritual core, the transcendent Being that is in my heart, the seat of my affections, the unifier of my life? How can I create my philosophy of life? Yes, everyone has a “philosophy of life” either by default or by intention. How can I develop purpose and goals for my life? What can I learn from my past history of pain, hardship, alienation? What are my vulnerabilities and how can I nurture my strengths? What is love, commitment, and family? Who has loved me? What is the source of love and what are love’s characteristics? What are meaningful jobs and creative pursuits? What do people do all day?
I have found that teenagers like to be asked these questions; they like to have the opportunity to process their own thoughts, to be encouraged to consider them, and to have their reflections considered. None of us can bypass true Identity Conceptualization; its neglect leads to later anxiety, confusion, and depressive feelings.