Identity Experimentation in Early and Mid Adolescence

Between 9 and 15, young people can try on a variety of personas.

Posted Jul 11, 2016 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

I recently received the question: “How can our daughter start changing so much in middle school? She’s acting like a different person than the one we’ve always known. Why?”

The answer is in the question. Adolescence is a transformative experience and is meant to be. “Acting like a different person” is part of what she’s supposed to do.

As a healthy adolescent, not only is she pushing for more freedom to grow to ultimately achieve a responsible young adult independence; she is also experimenting with her individuality to ultimately create an authentically fitting sense of young adult identity. This process of differentiation means that parents will encounter more diversity in the adolescent than the child.

In both words and actions, the beginning adolescent seems to be saying: “I’m going to be different than how I was as a child,” “I’m going to be different from how you are as my parents,” and “Sometimes I’m going to be different than how you want me to be.” Adolescence is not simply about pushing for freedom; it is also about experimenting with diversity.

To this end, parents often encounter a lot of deliberate changes in the young person who begins testing a host of varied definitions. For example, there is experimenting with physical appearance, fashion, friendships, social group belonging, social behavior, cultural affiliation, romantic attractions, dietary choice, gender expression, sexual orientation, popular music, media icons, activity interests, personal ambitions, and political beliefs, to name a few.

Rather than get worried or take offense at these differences, it helps if parents can do several things.

First, they can understand that in most cases these are trial, not terminal differences, passing and not permanent, as the young person tries on and off a variety of expressions to see what they might offer, to see how they might individually fit. “I just thought it would be fun to try dressing dark for a while.”

Second, they can bridge the differences with interest and ask to be educated about what that expression, interest, activity, or association has to offer. Better to treat trial differences as bridges to understanding than (by ignoring or criticizing, for example) treating them as barriers to communication.

While the child bridged to parental interests to create commonality, in adolescence there comes a reversal. Now parents need to bridge to teenage interests to stay connected. So the mom who has no interest in playing computer games asks her son who is passionate about this pursuit to help educate and even initiate her into what he loves to do, and an important connection is created: “I think he enjoys being the teacher and having me as the student.”

A third reason to work with some experimental differences is that they can create complications, even risks that parents and teenagers need to be able to talk about. “If you are determined to switch to a vegetarian diet, and want to eat at home and school this way, then let’s talk about how to do so in a practical and nutritionally healthy way.”  

As the adolescent moves outside the family circle that largely contained the child, the teenager encounters an infinitely large and diverse world that she or he will have to enter and traverse. How to fit into this world will take a lot of personal exploration and discovery. Identity questions motivate this search: “What am I like?” “Who am I like?” “What do I like to do?” “How do I want to be known?”

What has been fascinating to observe over the years has been how many young people use the transition from middle school to high school to experimentally redefine themselves. Consider a few examples.

I’ve seen a number of “shy-to-social conversions” where a lonely and reticent 8th grader decides to act more socially outgoing in high school, and this experimental change creates a new and satisfying experience of community.

Or a popular 8th grader who has been in a clique of close friends since the beginning of elementary school decides to socially redefine by diversifying his friendships and enlarging his social world.

Or an 8th grader who has seriously practiced time-consuming dance or gymnastics since third grade decides to give that accomplishment up so she can play a team sport and develop those capacities. “I know I’d be sorry if I didn’t do some different athletics in high school.” And now parents, who have invested considerable energy, support, time, and hopes in the old interest may have some hard time letting go to do.

Experimenting with personal diversity, differentiating from how one was or for how one might want to be, is part of how most adolescents grow.

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Speed of Life.

Carl Pickhardt is the author of the book Surviving Your Child's Adolescence.