Helping your teen find their sense of self

Parents of adolescents often worry about their children’s health, safety and happiness, but how can we support our child’s need for independence while making sure they don’t fall through the cracks or become depressed or anxious?

In that transition from childhood to adolescence, both parents and peers are very important. From ages nine to 14, children become more interested in being admired and respected. Anthropologists who study children across cultures highlight reputation effects as important in adolescence.

Adolescents highly value peers and peer groups; but they care and value being admired by adults, too: teachers, coaches, and parents.

There’s greater value given to peers, but it’s not one or the other, and there are individual differences. For some children at higher risk of anxiety or depression, it seems as if the parental role may be more important for longer.

Commonly, parents ask, “How does one get teens to listen to us?”

According to neuroscientist Ron Dahl, the principle is simple; applying it is hard. One of the techniques he uses is motivational interviewing, or enhancement. You start with asking your adolescents a series of questions or get them to reflect with you, helping them identify something they want to do and then giving them some ideas or ways to think about their situation.

Trying to come in later as a parent to fix things when they have unraveled is much harder.

Staying involved and monitoring and building on your relationship can help promote autonomy in a way that actually brings you close.

There is no experience we have not rooted in biology. For example, social evaluative threat is the fear one feels that someone’s going to evaluate you negatively. More than for physical danger, social evaluative threat creates a powerful physiological response, because for much of human history, being accepted within the tribe was vital for our survival.

In modern society, we give little thought to the perils of hurtling down a highway at 120km/* , but stand up in front of people and say something about yourself and your arousal level jumps significantly.

For adolescents, the emotional intensity of being evaluated is even higher. Neural systems evolved to make those assessments extra vigilant in adolescence: Am I valued here? Do I fit in here? Do I belong?

Depressed and anxious young people replay these questions over and over, activating fearful responses.

So what can parents do to help their teens in this way? The feeling of being valued and competent, feeling good about ourselves, is shaped a little by what people tell us; but it’s shaped a lot by our experience of actually being competent.

Sensitive parents have the right idea: they want to say the right thing and give their children a message that they are good at something, but that may ring empty if you’re telling your son he’s a good student and he gets a bad mark repeatedly, or if you’re telling your daughter she’s a great athlete, but she doesn’t make the team.

What’s needed instead is a “mastery curve experience”, where your children work at something, they struggle, but they get better and better at it. A mastery curve creates one of the most solid supports for adolescents, and it’s rewarding, too. It’s part of the reason why children who won’t spend three hours a day doing anything else will spend 14 hours a day playing computer games.

Helping children with anxiety is not only about giving them information about how something’s not dangerous, they also need to learn through their own gradual experiences, where they face something a little difficult, see they can handle it, then try something a harder still.

The art of removing the support scaffolding in your relationship with your child is where the growth is. Anything that feels like a parent trying to direct a child towards what they (the parents) think the adolescent should do is likely to fail.

Even if 90 percent of what you say as a parent is useful information, what youth hear is the 10 percent that makes them feel incapable. The fact that they aren’t fully capable of making decisions themselves is besides the point (to them).

I love the quote by Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” I think that’s particularly true of adolescents. To feel expanded is very important. As soon as you catch them taking a positive step in the right direction, you’ve got to recognise it and admire it, and not criticise and tell them, “You’re wrong/stupid.” As soon as you do that, you lose them.

At a practical level, create a context that gives them a range of options, and let them find something relatively pro-social and healthy to explore. Well-resourced parents with insight may do this intuitively. But with children from disadvantaged backgrounds if they don’t happen to be good at the few things available to them at their school – the few sports, or whatever – they may struggle to find a positive mastery curve experience.

An expanded sense of self includes being able to contribute to something larger than ourselves. Ron Dahl uses the term “igniting passions” as part of what’s happening biologically during puberty, and these ignited passions can be attached to various things, for example, a particular activity or person, falling in love for the first time, etc. But it can also attach to a sense of purpose and meaning, and that’s a wonderfully positive framework for thinking about what’s happening in the teenager’s inner world.

It’s important for parents to model calm behaviour in stressful situations. We tend to think that the content of our words is what’s most important, and we forget that the tone of voice and the feeling conveyed are really powerful signals.

For children, the most important cue about whether the environment is safe is the parent’s emotions. It’s best to activate the positive. It’s not just about being calm. That’s hard to do – you can’t fake it. Children have good phoney detectors. But finding something you like about your child and what they did and connecting to that and feeling good about that, or finding a source of gratitude to share, become important in preventing negative spirals.

* This column will appear every two weeks. Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist in private practice. While she cannot enter into correspondence with individual readers, she will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column or refer you to organisations that can assist. Write to her at or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774. Provide sufficient information about your difficulty.