“I don’t know who I am anymore.” These are not the words of a man who is facing a mid-life crisis but of 15-year-old Derek who is in a panic. In the span of a few months, his body has undergone changes sooner than he can get used to. He is now taller than his parents, his voice has deepened and he’s grown a stubble. He eyes his childhood toys with sadness, moodily studies his reflection in mirrors or store windows, and spends an unconscionable amount of time sulking in his bedroom.
Like many teens, Derek is undergoing an identity crisis. Think back on your own teen years and chances are you’ll recall a time filled with fresh anxieties; a time of great highs and lows when you regularly wrestled with emotions that you couldn’t comprehend.
During the teen years surges in hormones and changes in brain chemistry repeatedly produce psychic tension, conflicting impulses, and labile moods. For example, teens often grow angry, impulsive or sad without understanding why. They may hastily rebel against restrictions or abruptly distance themselves from their parents—all the while longing for their love and approval.
What can parents do to help their teenager through this volatile period? How can your strengthen and enhance your teen’s new emerging identity?
Here are five guidelines that I have found to be most helpful to teenagers navigating choppy waters.
1. Encourage cardio workouts
Teenagers have more feelings than words, which causes them to store a great deal of emotional tension in their body. As internal pressure builds, it erupts in psychosomatic symptoms such as body aches, obsessive behaviour, sleep difficulties, or worse, drug or alcohol abuse. Exercise does more than discharge physical tension; studies have shown that a cardio workout for 30 minutes three times a week, can lower anxious and depressive symptoms up to 70 per cent. It reduces stress hormones, boosts endorphins [the feel good hormones], and strengthens the immune system, so teenagers can think clearer and relate better.
2. Hone their talents
Help your teenager develop his or her unique talents such as playing an instrument, making art, or excelling at sport. As teenagers develop such creative habits and abilities, they experience a surge in self-esteem and confidence. They see themselves as capable and original. Most importantly, they learn that practice and tenacity lead to personal victories.
3. Tell them about their roots
Studies show that when teenagers have knowledge of their family history, it strengthens their developing identity and self-worth. Understanding family history serves as a gateway to understanding themselves and their community. Family narratives also empower teenagers with a foundation for introspection which is why research indicates that teenagers that have a detailed knowledge of their family history and roots display higher levels of emotional wellbeing.
4. Seek mentors for them
Teens crave positive relationships with adults outside of their immediate family, such as teachers, coaches or other community leaders. Such influential adults support a teenager’s drive for independence and hunger for a maturity. Too often, young people feel adrift. Unsure of their future, they combat internal feelings of emptiness and indifference. Mentorship inspires them by strengthening their personal value and providing an opportunity to be in the company of inspiring and approving adults. As they internalise their mentors’ confidence in them, they develop self-assurance.
5. Provide academic support
If your kid is struggling academically, he may have an undiagnosed nonverbal learning disability [NVLD]. NVLDs are under-the-radar learning difficulties that affect the way teenagers process information, such as problems with attention or concentration, auditory difficulties, number sequencing etc. Such learning difficulties result in low or failing grades that devastate a teenager’s self-image and morale. NVLDs often appears around the time of high school when work becomes more demanding. An educational evaluation can identify these struggles and provide teenagers with academic support so they can succeed in school.
Every teenager wrestles with identity issues. The more positive support they receive from their parents and community, the better equipped they are to win the battle with themselves.