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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.

Teens are starting to figure out who they are. They are thinking about how others see them and how they want to see themselves. Teens work out who they are by trying on new identities and experimenting with different appearances or new interests. 

Changing their appearance or pursuing new interests are ways for teens to “try on” different identities to see what works for them. Teens might look for opportunities to try something different in a safe space—this could be in person or online.

Teens may act differently according to the situation and who's with them. They are learning that depending on the situation others may react to them differently. For example, how will people react to me if I dye my hair blue, wear a different style of clothing, or start hanging out with a different peer group? Teens might ask themselves whether they are:

  • Reserved or outgoing.
  • Friendly or shy.
  • Someone who seeks out or avoids risks.

For instance, they might try being outgoing at a party to see how it feels and if it “fits” or feel right.

What parents can do

  • Don't be 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.

Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and professor in family social science

Reviewed in 2023

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