Mother and son with laptop

Shepherding the Teenage Dream

How to help kids find their purpose and passion           

            Thanks to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, the idea of “identity crisis” created great buzz in the mid to late portion of the last century. While this term is no longer a standard household phrase, self discovery is still the work of adolescence. However, unlike the 1960s and 70s, the path for many teens today may be less influenced by personal choice and deliberate self-reflection.

            Electronics keep the mind in a constant state of distraction. Due to founded or unfounded safety concerns, children no longer wander unsupervised to enjoy nature or work things out with neighborhood kids. Helicopter parents plan and dictate most kids’ schedules these days, even carefully selecting hobbies, summer experiences and jobs to enhance college applications. And good grades are indispensable for college bound students. How does this reality impact the process of “finding one’s self” in adolescence? How can parents help?


Children need to make their own choices

            First, it is important for parents to recognize that identity formation is indeed a critical developmental task of adolescence, especially today when there are so many paths a child is free to consider, including important decisions such as career, gender identification and sexual orientation. Children should be the primary agent of their own choices in life; however, one first has to know one’s true self. Parents can have a role in this process, but not to dictate or decide. Responsiveness can help teens find their path to self discovery.

            Neuroscience has shown us that the process of thinking about one’s self, or introspection, helps to develop brain structures that promote identity formation. Allow your child to question, explore, ponder and try new things. Encourage unstructured time for your child to just be by limiting screen time. Provide a secure base that the child can return to. Listen and do not judge, guide but do not lead. Allow your child to be him or herself and recognize that your child’s goals may not be what you had in mind.            

            Encourage children to ask critical or “why” questions about politics, religion and other things, then discuss. Parents can ask open-ended questions to engage with their teens and get them talking. Avoid preaching at all costs. Teach by listening, reflecting and sharing – not by telling them what to do or think. This is responsiveness. Try to instill freedom of thought and expression.


It’s OK if kids make mistakes

            Help them identify talents and passions – encourage but don’t push. Downplay awards, A’s and winning. Help your child develop a sense of what is possible – what Stanford professor and psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “Growth Mindset.” This means allowing your child the freedom to make some mistakes and learn from them. It is better to be present when your child fails or falls in order to process the situation and help the child grow from it.

            The development of a sense of purpose is important in the process of identity formation. Becoming socially connected by volunteering or joining a group can help. Practicing mindfulness and spirituality are also valuable in this process. Help children explore new experiences by traveling, assuming a new role, or participating in new religious or cultural practices. Exploring new things helps your child find her path even if she does not like the experience very much.

            Above all, respect that your child is a unique person, and let him or her learn from good and bad experiences. Give her a safe platform to question, argue, rebel and figure things out. Erikson taught us that, “In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.” Parents matter when it comes to a child’s sense of self, but it is the child who must find his or her own way.


Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist in practice at Pelts Kirkhart & Associates. 504.581.3933.


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