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The Masks We Wear

5 strategies to foster connection and understand your teen's shifting identity.

Allef Vinicius/Unsplash
Source: Allef Vinicius/Unsplash

Let me begin by saying that I love Halloween. I buy in to all of the cheesy nonsense. I proudly order my pumpkin spice-lattes the moment they arrive on the menu. My family eats frozen pizza multiple times a week before October 1st, but suddenly the onset of fall turns me into a 1950's housewife with an autumn-themed meal plan, a crock pot of mulled cider, and countless batches of muffins. In the weeks before Halloween, I hand out candy to my adult students like I’m Oprah. One would think I’d have my costume figured out, but here I am on the 28th and I have yet to find one. This is not the first time in my life when I have been faced with this dilemma.

The teens I work with are always wondering what to wear, and I don’t mean this just in terms of clothing. This time of the year always reminds me of the masks we wear every day. We all do it. Our behavior changes, sometimes drastically, depending on the expectations of any given role. Adolescence is an especially busy phase of exploring new identities to determine “what fits”.

How can we best support our teens as they try on these new identities? As I reflect on my work with clients and even think back to my own teenage years of hair-dye and band t-shirts, these five pointers stand out the most.

Foster self-love

We can be our own harshest critic, and it’s natural to be competitive and self-conscious. We tend to compare ourselves to others no matter how hard we try not to. We do care about what others think, and it would be a shame to ignore this human quality that most of us share. Instead, we can pay attention to the language we use when it comes to ourselves. How do you talk about your weight and appearance? In what ways do you model your own comfort with who you are? Do you ever stop to talk about your strengths or the goals you are proud for achieving? Modeling self-love in our own lives can greatly benefit our children as we teach them to be kind and compassionate toward themselves.

Avoid minimizing language

I remember sitting on my bed crying softly when the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer came to an end. My mother came into my room, and I worried that I looked like a complete lunatic for being so attached to a show. It had meant so much to me for a variety of obvious girl-power reasons, and I was deeply sad to see it ending. My mother sat next to me, put her arms around me, and held me as I cried. If she thought my reaction was over the top, dramatic, and unnecessary, I certainly didn’t feel it in that moment.

As teens try to carve out their own interests, there can be a sensitivity to language that conveys contempt, judgment, or criticism. Do you roll your eyes when he wants tickets to see his favorite musician? Do you find yourself belittling her fandom interests because they don’t really make sense to you? Remember that pop culture is a reflection of the emotions and stories that are meaningful to your teen at this point in his or her life. The seemingly fleeting phases and rapidly shifting interests are worth following and honoring.

Ask exploratory questions out of curiosity, not investigation

“Is this really that big of a deal?” “Why are you so focused on your phone and friends! Your family wants to see you too!” These questions come up in my work constantly, and it makes sense why a disconnect in understanding can lead to strained communication. If we take the pressure off the explanations and try to understand what’s important to our teens, we often gather much richer data. “What does your friendship with Katie mean to you?” vs. “Why are you always spending so much time with Katie?” conveys genuine interest instead of harshness.

Encourage creative expression

Growing up, I had always worn “safe” department-store clothing in mostly straight lines and solid colors. One summer, though, I decided that I wanted to dye my hair blue. I excitedly bleached my black hair in large, destructive chunks. I don’t think I bleached it for long enough, because my hair came out orange and the blue dye changed it into a dark, puke-colored green. I didn’t care, though. I had just done something wild, and I proudly wore my new ‘do for the world to see. The whole experience was exhilarating and fun.

Teenage years are marked by deep scrutiny from classmates, peers, and friends. Keeping this in mind, let’s praise our children for being bold enough to explore something new at a time when it feels like everyone is watching. Describing your teen as brave and artistic instead of ridiculous or attention-seeking helps put a positive reframe on their shifting interests and identities.

These are small opportunities for connection, growth, and dialogue. Why not use this holiday as an opportunity to explore the masks you and your teen wear? If you think back to your own adolescent years, you may have more in common than you think.

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