Parenting Teens 3: The Search for Self

Listen to this post NOW on Beyond Everything Radio!

The teenage years are known for young people “trying on” various identities. We all remember the cliques that comprised middle and high school: jocks, nerds, drama, stoners, brains, etc.… This is far more than a passing phase. It’s important parents understand the significance of this search for self in the lives of their teens…they are trying to find out who they are. This “phase” is when teens can make lasting determinations about themselves and the world. It’s easy to get this wrong and if they do, they will struggle into adulthood.

Picking a “group” is not required, but teen who lack a sense of self will quickly identify with groups who offer acceptance. Joining the herd is indicative of a teen who lacks a sense of self. When a teen over-identifies with a group, it means we parents were unsuccessful at revealing to our teens who they truly are. Life is not a buffet line where we get to “be whoever we want to be.” That is the world’s lie to keep us distracted and chasing the wind. In the void where the true self should exist, group think can easily superimpose an identity upon your child, this is what scripture warns about:

“Do not be conformed (form or mold) to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (Romans 12:2)

Pay close attention if your teen picks friends from groups of which you don’t approve. The tension parents perceive when that happens is a benevolent “check engine light” illuminating just how close parents are to losing our teen to an externally imposed pseudonym.

I write about this watershed subject in my upcoming book, Oblivious: 

“Instead of a world where we each know our true self as defined by our Maker, we have a world which rejects a “maker” and accepts a faith in time and chance which produces the mistaken conclusion that we are essentially the indexes and labels society doles out. The self is thus externally defined by our stuff and accomplishments. Then we go about life trying to find and add new labels, new identities, and new institutions which will define who we want ourselves to be. We literally spend our whole lives despairing in this fictional pursuit and self-delusion.”

My main point today is that a teen’s search for self is the parents primary job, so forgive me if this gets a bit blunt. A parent who doesn’t know themselves will not be able to lead their teen where they have not been. Pseudonyms beget pseudonyms. As parents, we have perhaps the best line of sight into knowing that true self of our teens, but it’s not always as we assume. It is however a great place to start. Here are five tips to cultivate authenticity.

  1. Constantly invite your teens to explore or ‘try on” that true part which you alone see in them.
  2. Resist the urge to define if for them, but instead, provide honest feedback of who you see.
  3. Do not criticize behaviors or bad choices, instead expose them for the falsehood they are and reflect back those aspects of the self that you want to reinforce. 
  4. Pull instead of push. Use influence, not authority. Discipline rather than punish. Serve rather than demand.
  5. Focus on pointing them inward toward authenticity and over time they will learn the path.

I always tell my son and daughter how much I respect them for their ability to make wise choices. I let them know it honors their mother and I and we let them know how much we’re thankful to have wise, honorable, and respectful teens. It shouldn’t surprise any parent that reinforcing this kind of “self” causes it to enlarge. I remind them constantly that they are not their friends, their hobbies, sports, or social status. I reinforce that we are each beloved children of God, that is our unchangeable identity, which has and will exist in God from and to all eternity. This unravels the mold of the world.

Solomon shares how wisdom trains the state of the self as it develops in a child:

“A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.” Prov 13:20

“A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish man despises his mother.” Prov 15:20

“A foolish son is a grief to his father and bitterness to her who bore him.” Prov 17:25

“The father of the righteous will greatly rejoice; he who fathers a wise son will be glad in him.” Prov 23:24

“Be no overly righteous and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.” (Ecclesiastes 7:15-18)

I’m convinced that every bit of strife we have ever encountered has been where one or both parties is projecting a false self. So, any parenting strategy that seeks to use power, authority, leverage or control to over-ride or win the war with a false self will be an exhausting exercise in futility and perhaps create an unrepairable rift in the relationship. Not wise. The false self is subverted, or replaced through wisdom and humility and I’ve found nothing which grows these more than scripture.

If you’ve come this far with me, I hope you’ll consider what I’m offering next. It may not sit well, so be prepared.

Our true identity is spiritually discerned, not externally derived by institutional power. Quite simply, our true name is “Beloved of God.” That is who we are. That is our unchangeable ontology. Thus, any identity beyond that is a pseudonym, likely given to us by some principality or powerful institution which we want to please. This is a shocking discovery for religious and non-religious people alike, but I invite you to think through this framework and pay close attention to what bubbles up out of your emotions, your certainty, your pain, your fear, your justifications, and your experience. The false self is a fighter. It’s our job as parents to be able to know the fake ID so well because we’ve spent a life deconstructing it and getting beyond it’s surface level manipulations and distortions of reality

If you are not ready for this yet, then you will prefer to let your teen “try on” whomever they will, or to accept the fake ID imposed by our institutions. Your teen will develop a sense of self, but it will not be who they truly are hidden in God. What you may call “great” is in this perspective actually tragic. Parents who miss this aspect of identity essentially constrain their sons and daughters to a life of despair and the refusal to be themselves. Kierkegaard frames this so well:

“Thus, when the ambitious man, whose slogan was “Either Caesar or nothing”, does not become Caesar, he is in despair over it. But this signifies something else, namely, that precisely because he did not become Caesar, he now cannot bear to be himself.” -A Sickness Unto Death

A parent has no bigger job than to help our teens know who they truly are in God, instead of letting the world mold them into its pseudo-self. This ontological center is not found in our history, it’s not our income or possessions, it’s not our zip code, our job title or career, and it’s not even our family. We have to get beyond these institutions which trap us and keep us stuck in a pseudonym. We must point our kids to that which is beyond everything. Once they see themselves transparently grounded in God, despair is removed, and they are liberated into authenticity and then unto a fulfilling life. 

I cannot say this any clearer. To paraphrase John Calvin, the discovery and formation of the true, authentic self is coextensive with the discovery of God. This ontological center is derived spiritually and it is the single greatest role a parent has in raising their child. Every deviation from this as the epicenter of loving our kids will meet a commensurate deviation into a teen who despairs of themself. A parent who rejects this truth is a soul who has either forgotten themselves or refuses to be a self.

Perhaps you’ve never heard this advice before. I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s severe because the consequences cannot be higher. If it sounds incredible, or unbelievable it’s because our dark fictional world is largely incapable and unwilling to see in the night. The reorientation of a parent toward this True North will have an immediate and lasting ripple effect with their teens. This is the first of many mid-course corrections which will usher in incremental healing and transformation. If the true self is missed, ignored, or passively presupposed, your teen will have no where to go but to conform to the falsehood of our world.

If I can help you in this process, please reach out.