Helping Teens Develop Identity in a Safe Environmnet


Thomas W. Roberts, Ph.D.


Janice, a single mom, reports the following about her teenage daughter.  “She’s just 14 years-old and somehow I feel I’ve lost her already.  Her friends are way too important in her life.  She’s not doing as well in school this year and she spends too much time over at her friend’s house.  I think she dresses provocatively, although she says that it’s the “cool” way to dress and if she doesn’t dress that way her friends will make fun of her.  She goes to the mall to see a movie, and then hangs out with her friends and I don’t really know where she is.  I try to be more involved with her, but I have to work on the weekends and there is no other adult around.  I think she’s growing up too fast, but I don’t know how to stop it.  I pray everyday that nothing bad will happen to her, but I feel helpless.”


It’s not usual to see groups of unsupervised teens hanging around at movie theaters, malls and arcades in the evenings and during the weekends.  Their need to join and be a part of a group is largely developmental and normal. They are attempting to discover who they are and solidify an identity.  For some teens this search for identity can open them up to risky and dangerous behavior.


Teens take risks because they feel that nothing bad is going to happen to them.  They do not understand that they have limited experience in decision making, which can cause them to make inappropriate decisions.


Teens want to look and act “cool” and be accepted by their peers as being cool.  They choose role models that they think are cool.  In many cases these role models are rebellious figures who prompt them to rebel against parents and teachers.  Recently, researchers have found that when teens choose a role model they are attempting to compensate for something missing in their lives. When teens have a bad relationship with parents, the role models can be horrifying to parents.


Research indicates that parents are important to teens.  Parents are the first and primary role model.  Research shows that children learn from their parents implicitly, that is, outside of conscious knowledge.  In other word, the adage that children learn from what parents do rather than what they say is confirmed by research findings.  Research also shows that when parents have not been a good role model, but make efforts to change, such as by giving up drugs or alcohol, they can make a positive impact on their teenage children.


For some teens the search for identity can lead to drug and alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, poor academic performance, and acts of violence.  Parents, teachers, and community leaders are confounded with how to help teens adjust better and reduce the risks for risky behavior and promote a safer environment for them to work through this most important developmental milestone.


There are no easy answers, but researchers in the field help provide some important guidelines.


  • Parents should be active in the lives of their children and this must begin early.  Parents should be loving and concerned, but not afraid to take charge of their children.  Children need discipline and respond well when it is done in an atmosphere of acceptance and positive regard.
  • Parents should know where their children are at all times. Pre-teens and early teens should not be left unsupervised in public places such as malls and movie theaters.  While participating in groups is very important for them, these groups should be supervised by adults.  Even fourteen and fifteen year-old teens need adult supervision in public places.
  • Sixteen year-old teens and older should have to check in with parents regularly when out and should have curfews.  Consequences for violating these agreements should be set and enforced.
  • Parents should assess the type of role model they are for their child. If it is not good, they should make efforts to change it.  Attitudes and values are transmitted to children outside of conscious attention.
  • Have regular family meetings where family issues are discussed.  Allow children to speak freely.  Make decisions as a family unit after everyone has been given the option of voicing their opinion.
  • Schools should give teens more opportunities to voice their opinions through open forums.  Researchers have demonstrated that schools lack enough qualified counselors to meet the needs of all students.  Consequently, some students who are high risk for risky behavior do not get the help they need.
  • Communities and schools can join together to have Town Hall Meetings that specifically address the needs of teens in the community.  Some communities have Town Hall Meetings to air issues related to teen behavior and researchers have found that when teens are actively engaged in the process, they are resourceful, cooperative, and creative in finding solutions.

About Dr. Roberts

Dr. Roberts has worked for the past 25 years in the field of Child and Family Development. He has a PhD in Child and Family Development with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. He also has an EdS degree in Counseling and the MDiv degree in Theology. He directed the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Appalachian State University, Chaired the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Long Beach State, and chaired the Department of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University. Dr. Roberts is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Georgia and had his own practice before starting his long career in higher education. Dr. Roberts also holds the title of Elder in the United Methodist Church.
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