“Trying to fit in” is widely believed to be the teenage concern. Their most important relationships are their peers, thus belonging/fitting in is most important.
But it’s not.
For teens, fitting in is not the primary concern, it’s the byproduct of their wrestling with their primary issue of “Who am I?”
And it all starts with the teenage brain that has matured to the point where it can “think about thinking”. The teenage brain, like an adult’s, can think logically in an abstract way – such as a mathematic word problem. More to the point of identity, teens are able to think about what people and theirs peers think about them.
“Who am I?” is one of life’s big questions and it’s not a question that’s answered in isolation. Answering the question is as much about one’s personal thoughts as much as it is about what they think others think. This negotiation between what one thinks about themselves and how they think they are thought about is the struggle of identity.
Since teens can think about how others might think of them they can also think through how they want to be thought about. All of the sudden personal choices matter in a whole new way, which makes high school a crazy place with rigid cliques that have internal uniformity.
These hard and fast boundaries make it easy to understand who someone is or is not and their role. Hard and fast boundaries also mean that you can enter or exit a clique easily enough if you navigate the rules well enough (see: any number of teen movies). Fitting in with their peers is simply teens negotiating their own identity and role.
However, the identity struggle is much bigger than who’s friends with who, it’s also about figuring out who one will be for the rest of their lives. Asking “Who am I?” is the simultaneous work of determining who one is now and how they can remain loyal to that idea. This ought to give a new perspective of the significance of high school cliques and why questions of career, puppy love and universities are such big deals.
When something throws a wrench in one of these areas, even puppy love, it’s a pretty big deal because it’s a loss of identity or role confusion. What follows is the teen’s work of re-establishing who they think themselves to be, in a new way, with a new plan. Role confusion results in establishing a new or modified identity.
Experience tells adults us that different careers, puppy love interests and schools don’t necessarily determine who we are. There’s more fish in the sea and other schools will suffice, but adults also have their identity crises: struggling to become a parent, an empty-nester, a spouse, a neighbor, etc.
There’s a reason I call identity our everyday teenage crisis.
Also, role confusion is more than just external markers. The confusion can also be caused by someone no longer accepting their own identity or thinking that others don’t accept it. Think of the high school student who no longer wants to be the star or the businessman who wants to get out or the spouse who no longer wants to be a parent/partner.
What results is an identity crisis and the experimentation with other identities and roles. There is confusion and the resulting experimentation can lead to all sorts of beneficial or detrimental changes.
The conflict between identity and role confusion is foundational. It’s a chaotic and tumultuous mess. Sometimes it even seems incredibly superficial, but it is foundational nonetheless. Knowing how to be one’s self in the world or what to do with one’s life is one thing. It is another question entirely to wonder about who one is.
The answer to “Who am I?” informs how one will be and what one will do.
A strong foundation is our mission to identity formation. This means offering a solid understanding of who one is and is not, both individually and collectively. It also means offering up a solid understanding of what it means to walk the path of one’s identity amid failure and success.
Yet, this is not that easy.
For teens, regardless of how important their peers seem, their parents have a huge impact on them, which means that issues of “Who am I?” when it comes to God will continue on into adulthood. And adults going through identity crises will have baggage to work through. Plus, they aren’t nearly as free to experiment with their identities as teens, because more than likely they have responsibilities to families, finances and jobs.
However the work looks it must offer up a clear and solid understanding of who we are as humans and beloved children of God and why and a solid understanding of who we are not and why. The work ought to help make sense of joys and pains through the context of God and one’s life story.
It’s a holistic work that ministers to someone’s whole identity. If we’re ministering to teens, we’re ministering to their parents too. And since we’re ministering to their parents and other adults, we’re ministering to their social location and the baggage they carry from a life lived.
Bonus note: This is also a work that promotes a healthy sense of belonging, for it is much easier for one to be themselves in the world when they have a strong sense of self.