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Teen identity: Figuring out who you are

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: A survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

The development of identity, or one's sense of self, occurs throughout a lifetime. For teens, thinking about their identity is a first-time event. They are starting to wonder who they are and why. They're curious about the factors (reasons) they are who they are. Teens are also developing a perception of themselves and wondering how others perceive them.

How teens figure things out


Teens will find themselves acting differently according to the situation and who's with them. This often leads to confusion and questions about who they really are. For example, teens might ask themselves whether they are predominantly:

  • Reserved or outgoing.

  • Friendly or distant.

  • Responsible or carefree.

Teens work out who they are by trying on new identities and experimenting with different appearances or new interests. Fluctuations in choices can startle parents but are normal.

Changing their appearance or pursuing new interests are ways for teens to "try on" different identities to see what works for them. This could be why "dress up" or theme days for school events are so popular. They give teens a chance to try something different or unusual in an approved, safe setting.

What parents can do

Here are tips for you, as a parent, to deal with your teen as she develops an identity:

  • Don't get alarmed over changes in appearance. Unusual hair colors will grow out and clothing fads change. Pick your battles and keep these issues in perspective.

  • Encourage your teen to pursue his interests through activities such as sports, music, or hobbies.

  • Help your teen identify her strengths and choose activities that let her use those strengths and "shine." For example, if your teen is good at arguing, she may thrive in debate club. Or a teen who doodles a lot may benefit from an art class or activity where he can indulge his love of drawing.

Related resources

The Teen Years ExplainedClea McNeely, PhD and Jayne Blanchard — This e-book can help both teens and adults to understand developmental changes and tips for how to apply this knowledge to your everyday life.

Colleen Gengler, Extension educator emerita in family relations

Reviewed by Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in family social science

Reviewed in 2011

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