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July 16, 2020

How To Help a Teenager Find Themselves

In the heart of every person is a deep-rooted question: “Who am I, and how do I fit into the world around me?” In other words, what makes me “me”? Am I the roles that I play (friend, sibling, athlete)? Am I a set of characteristics (quiet, bubbly, confident)? Am I my thoughts, emotions, body, soul, actions…a summation of these things? 

The question of identity shows up in which brands teens choose to wear, how they manage their appearance with friends, in their desire to get good grades or try out for sports or musicals, and in what they think about themselves and others while scrolling through social media.

It can be difficult to navigate our teens’ search for identity with healthy language, perspective, and grace. The Christian story for the world has a stunning message about who we are; our challenge is to contextualize that story in the modern world, the world of popular culture. 

Where does Gen Z get their identity from?

Gen Z is known as the “always-on generation. It’s a fitting label. At any moment your teen could appear on someone’s Snap story or in the background of a friend’s TikTok video. In a way, they’re always on display, which can result in a pressure to curate and present and edit their best selves all the time. In much of today’s culture, the average person’s sense of identity is only as stable as the number of likes on their most recent post.

Traditional aspects of identity like occupation, education level, or location are less important to teens. They can find like-minded-community virtually, so they aren’t confined to the belief systems or values of the people around them.

There are probably many ways that your teen deviates from the average Gen Zer, but this is what researchers have observed about Gen Z’s behavior so far:

Identity is self-determined and individualistic: Gen Z sees situations and characteristics like experiences, hobbies, likes and dislikes, and social circle as most crucial to defining themselves.” Which is why they might add a fourth lie to Nouwen’s list: “I am who I decide to be.” They strongly believe in a world where self-expression, uniqueness, and difference is welcome.

  • “What I choose to enjoy and pursue (jobs, education, relationship) plays a lot more heavily on my life than where I’m from or my heritage.”20-year-old
  • “I converted to Islam when I was 14, which dramatically altered my lifestyle and social mileu.”23-year-old
  • “I’m bisexual and also from a conservative Christian family. Although I’m gay and liberal, I’m constantly surrounded by Republicans.”21-year-old

Identity is ongoing and fluid: There’s a never-ending quest to curate the best and most authentic self. In one survey, most Gen Zers strongly agreed that “identity is a work in progress—expressed by what you’re putting out into the world and how others are responding to it.” 

  • “Identity is something that can change, like politics. That’s a belief shared by a lot of my generation.” 17-year-old

Inclusivity is a must: Gen Z is the most racially diverse generation; 72% believe racial equality is the most important current issue. Inclusivity extends to gender as well. 27% of teens identified as non-binary in a survey done in California.

  • “We think in terms of we. When I go to the polls… I’m not just thinking about the people who live on my street. I’m thinking about the people who I’m connected to on social media from all around the world and thinking about how my vote and my life affect them. And I think that that ethos is a core tenet of our generation.” 19-year-old

Meaning-oriented: 95% of teens surveyed by the Pew Research Center said that having a fulfilling job is very important. 81% said that helping others is very important. By comparison, getting married (47%) and having children (39%) are much lower priorities to Gen Z.

  • “I’m going to school for a degree I know won’t get me a job but I would rather be in debt and producing important cultural work than financially stable and leading an uninteresting life.” 23-year-old

Justice-oriented: 80% of teens support Black Lives Matter, 74% support transgender rights, and 63% support feminism.

Stressed and sad: According to Pew Research Center, “The total number of teenagers who recently experienced depression increased 59% between 2007 and 2017.” Seven of ten American teens believe that depression and anxiety are noteworthy problems for themselves and their peers and cite academic and social pressures as the most common causes.

The online self: Teens average 3 hours per day on social media, a space that they believe gives them more confidence and freedom to be who they really are.

  • “I am the most confident I can be online and portray a very strong persona when in real life I’m not always 100% able to in my current environment.”23-year-old
  • “I have few friends {in real life}, but I have many close friends online that I talk to and text all of the time. I also have pen pal I crush on who’s from Japan!”19-year-old

Yet they would still say there’s a gap between their most authentic selves and their online representations of self.

Can these things give Gen Z a real sense of self? 

At first, remaking our identity, online or in person, sounds like freedom. Influencers create online profiles worth millions, and much of the appeal for Gen Z is their “authenticity.” Yet the thrill of seeing a post go viral is often followed by the pressure to repeat that success, and the fear that they will lose the influence they’ve worked so hard to gain. 

Creating or discovering ourselves can leave us feeling lost, unsure about what to place our identity in. Tim Keller lays out several reasons why a self-referential identity very quickly becomes unlivable.

  1. It’s unstable. Our deepest wants are often contradictory (I want to be in a committed relationship and I also want a demanding career. I want to enjoy lots of free time but I also want to be productive. I want to look fit and attractive but I also love french fries…having all of this at once is impossible). How do we know which feelings are “us” and which feelings to reject?
  2. It’s crushing. We not only have to know what we’re passionate about, we also have to achieve our dreams if we’re going to prove our status and worthiness. When identity is all about achievement, criticism is crushing.

Working for worthiness becomes just another thing that can enslave our teens. Because the moment they do poorly (in any area…school, social life, online attention) their whole identity is threatened. This drives Gen Z’s fear of being invalidated or “canceled.” When identity is performative and measurable, what are we to do with failure? What do we do with the aspects of ourselves that we’re ashamed of, but that we don’t know how to fix?

Note: See our full Parent’s Guide to Teen Identity for way more info on this topic, including a biblical look at identity and how to guide your teen.

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